PRIDE shines, heals veterans
Jewel Forest and Gabrielle Metz (both in middle of photo) are among those participating in the Birmingham, Ala., Pride Month Parade earlier this month. (Photo provided)

PRIDE shines, heals veterans

It began simply enough with a question from a veteran in Tuscaloosa, Ala., seven years ago: “What services are available for LGBTQ veterans?” 

“There were not a lot of visible services, you had to look around and know people,” said Michele Hilgeman, a clinician psychologist investigator who works in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Tuscaloosa. “Many providers were unaware of how to serve LGBTQ veterans. Many veterans were unaware services existed.” 

That’s when VA began to ramp up, expand and promote what was available for the LGBTQ community. Hilgeman networked with another psychologist in Virginia to develop the pilot program in Tuscaloosa. The two-year project kicked off in 2018 and evolved into VA’s PRIDE in All Who Served. 

“We got to see how people were dealing with stress, see their sense of being affirmed in their identity, their resilience, social connectedness — the things we were hoping to impact,” she recalled. “We started spreading the word and it spread to 10 sites in the next year.” 

Now, PRIDE is in more than 30 states, with more expansions planned. 

Gabrielle Metz, a licensed clinical social worker in the mental health department at the Birmingham VA, draws a comparison to the challenges of the LGBTQ community with the civil rights struggle in the south. 

“There is resilience, there is coming together, there is a story of overcoming,” she said. “Obviously the work isn’t finished. There is a societal nucleus that wants to see societal change. They want to see equality. At the end of the day, every veteran deserves the best health care we can give them.”  

Metz, who works in the PTSD therapy program, is about to start her fourth group sessions with LGBTQ members.

“It’s been really successful and amazing to see the transformation and connection between the veterans,” she said. “It’s an honor to facilitate a group like this where honesty, transparency and acceptance rule.” 

Jaime Jennings (she/her pronouns), a pansexual transfem nonbinary veteran who lives in Birmingham, is among those who have attended sessions conducted by Metz. 

Jennings, who left the Army in 2021, came out in her 30s to her wife of 10 years. “She’s been my biggest supporter, thanks to a lot of honest and open communication. She helps me out at every turn.” 

A Birmingham resident, Jennings’ next stop was for counseling at the local VA. It was a critical time since Jennings was suicidal and had a plan. “I just did not want to be around anymore.” 

Taking the prescription drugs didn’t work. That is until the talking began. 

“I had a gay man as my counselor and felt comfortable talking to him,” she said. “Honestly after our first conversation, it was about being transgender. It was no problem. I have not had a single problem with VA in getting to where I want to be. I have been treated so well. I’m no longer in that state where I don’t want to be around anymore. I’m just overall happier.” 

Jennings describes a photo of she and her wife that illustrates the change. Jennings had a mustache, high fade and smile. 

“But the way I was conducting myself, you look at our eyes in that photo, they’re just dead,” she said. “Now, just looking at myself, I see so many changes, just being more open and honest to just being happier. Overall, I’ve just changed so much for the better. Now, I like me.” 

Jewel Forest retired after 20 years in the Army, including time during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. 

“My experience in the military was wonderful, but being LGBTQ in the military was not,” she said. “It was very difficult in the beginning. You have to live a double life. I just had to learn how to live my life by serving my country and being me.”

Forest, a member of American Legion Post 171 in Birmingham, started as a patient with Metz a year ago. 

“It’s been wonderful for my healing journey,” she said. “I’m very appreciative of Gabrielle. It has uplifted me so much.” 

Hilgeman credits The American Legion for being engaged in the effort to improve care for LGBTQ veterans. 

“It’s about having conversations, talking about women veterans and talking about LGBTQ veterans,” she said. “A lot of it is having conversations, relationship building and awareness building. When they were here (for a System Worth Saving visit), they were interested in LGBTQ veterans and what we’re doing in terms of suicide prevention. And that really matters.”

So whatever happened to the veteran in Tuscaloosa who posed the initial question? Marine Corps veteran Cassandra Williamson is still an active collaborator with the PRIDE in All Who Served program.