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  • Autumn Payne Marine Corps veteran Dirk Ellena decorates a Christmas tree with his wife, Courtney, above, and they are pictured on an ornament, below. With help from the Soldiers Project, he is rebuilding his life after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • Autumn Payne Dirk Ellena gets best wishes from Becca Bettis, program manager at the Soldiers Project/Sacramento, as his wife, Courtney, gets the same from volunteer Becci Angell, left.

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Book of Dreams: Soldier Project helps Iraq veteran feel whole again

Published: Monday, Dec. 10, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013 - 7:10 pm

It can be a dark and confusing road, the one a veteran walks after his or her war duty is done.

Dirk Ellena knows it well. It almost swallowed him whole. But thanks to the Soldiers Project/Sacramento, he found the professional help he needed to march forward in his life.

"I was lost and I didn't know I was lost," Ellena, 30, said recently, while sitting in the program's Roseville office. "I could not be living my life without the help I found here."

The Soldiers Project/Sacramento is a satellite of the Los Angeles-based parent organization of the same name.

It provides confidential mental health treatment for active-duty military personnel and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The treatment is free to anyone who was or may be deployed, as well as loved ones, said Becca Bettis, program manager.

In the Sacramento area, there are 45 licensed therapists volunteering in the program. The volunteers have training in military culture and post-traumatic stress, an anxiety disorder that can follow exposure to dangerous events.

Ellena was deployed to Iraq with his Marine Corps platoon in 2007. Trained as an corpsman, he took part in infantry operations while also providing medical services to his platoon.

During a patrol one night, he broke his leg crossing a sewage ditch and had to return to California. He went from active duty to a reserve unit. It took two years to be able to run again.

In 2010, he finished his duty and was honorably discharged.

Inside, Ellena was broken.

He had lost friends to the war. He felt guilt about his injury, and that he had abandoned fellow Marines, most of whom were younger and had viewed him as a protector.

He had no place to live, turned to alcohol, went through job changes and married a woman three weeks after meeting her. They had a son and divorced, and he lost custody of the child.

One day, sitting in his car, he felt strange and completely immobilized.

His breakdown led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite inpatient and outpatient care, he remained unable to function because of flashbacks and an inability to escape the state of hyper-vigilance required of him in war.

During a court custody meeting, Ellena was referred to the Soldiers Project/Sacramento, which provides licensed therapeutic care that goes beyond that offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system.

For 1 1/2 years, Ellena met with Carolyn Fink, a licensed clinical social worker and volunteer, who helped him regain his ability to go out in public despite his fears, to hold a job and to have relationships.

"She was my rock, for sure. It sounds sappy, but I could not be here without her," he said.

A year ago, Ellena married Courtney Sargent. He has supervised visits with his son, age 3, and is studying to become a registered nurse at American River College.

He still struggles. A simple test in college can make him feel as if he can't breathe. When he talks about what happened in Iraq and after, his hands shake and his words come haltingly.

Yet, he is grateful for how far he has come with the program's help.

The Soldiers Project/Sacramento exists solely on donations, grants and fundraisers.

The nonprofit is asking Book of Dreams readers to help its marketing efforts with a new commercial- grade copy machine.

The hope is to produce color brochures and materials that can inform more people like Ellena and their families about the services aimed at healing the invisible wounds of war.

NEEDED: Funds to help purchase a commercial-grade copy machine for the Soldiers Project/Sacramento.

TOTAL: $5,000


Here's a list of wishes published so far in the series.

Dream: Cole Odenweller's family seeks a special bicycle for the 15-year-old, who is afflicted with an undiagnosed neurodegenerative disorder.

Needed: Special adult-sized bicycle.

Total: $5,500

Dream: Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services asks for education materials and supplies to bolster its 13-week "Fathers I.N.C." series.

Needed: Funds for curriculum and supplies for "Daddy's tool bag," including toiletries and baby supplies.

Total: $5,000

Dream: A Christmas party for Clean & Sober program members, families, friends.

Needed: Funds for the party. Total: $2,000

Dream: A caregiver asks for a special bicycle for Abby Franklin, 18, a cerebral palsy quadriplegic.

Needed: Special-needs bicycle.

Total: $4,000

Dream: Uniforms for workers at Plates Café and Catering, a program of the St. John's Shelter Program for Women and Children.

Needed: Funds for uniforms. Total: $4,000

Dream: The Coad family and the Greater Sacramento Valley office of the Arthritis Foundation seek to provide backpacks to families dealing with juvenile arthritis.

Needed: Backpacks, including a helpful book for parents and a soft "thermacare" bear to ease a child's pain. Total: $5,000

Dream: Supporters of the nonprofit Runnin' for Rhett Foundation seek funds to help children and teenagers afford costs to enter area races.

Needed: Funds for T-shirts, wristbands, registration fees.

Total: $5,000

Dream: New computer for single mother Catherine Odurokwarten, 20, who was aided by Sutter Teen Program, to complete her pharmacy technology classes.

Needed: Funds for laptop, software.

Total: $1,000

Dream: Funds to purchase supplies for Spirit in the Arts, a North Sacramento-based program providing studio space for area residents.

Needed: Art supplies, tables, chairs and lighting.

Total: $5,000

Dream: An automatic door opener is sought at the Stanford Settlement Senior Center, which provides meals, activities, counseling and conversation.

Needed: Funds for the door opener.

Total: $2,300

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Read more articles by Deb Kollars

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