For many veterans, emotional and physical healing become a lifelong pursuit. One such veteran, Aaron Banas, CCAS ’19, and former Navy corpsman, has found that his path to wholeness is predicated on helping other veterans. A 2016 recipient of a VALOR Learning Supplement, Aaron has chosen to pursue a doctorate in psychology to better aid men and women who are dealing with the trauma of their own military experiences.
“Every time I see a veteran struggling to adjust to civilian life, I am reminded of myself about eight years ago, right after completing my enlistment as a Navy corpsman,” says Aaron. “I went through some rough times, but I found my way by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I came out with a clear head and an open mind, knowing that I wanted to help other veterans, and that life doesn’t have to be a constant battle.”
Aaron’s penchant for helping others began as a corpsman in hospitals, but since leaving the military, he has facilitated outdoor retreats for combat veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project. He also participates in The Mission Continues, an organization that helps returning veterans find purpose through community impact, and in partnership with Arlington County, Virginia, he created a coalition to address veteran-related issues in the community.
“As a civilian, I wanted to [help] on an even greater level because I found the light at the end of my own tunnel and wanted to help others do the same,” says Aaron. His passion for supporting veterans follows him wherever he goes; within weeks of matriculating at GW, he signed on with the Operation Educate the Educator initiative and volunteered to be the GW representative for Division 19: The Society for Military Psychology.
“I chose GW to pursue my degree for a number of reasons,” he says. “I was first drawn by the program and was later sold when I attended an open house and met the faculty—they were very warm and inviting. It just felt right. I was also impressed by the support for veterans GW offers. Many schools offer programs, but GW VALOR is the best program I am aware of.”
Aaron also expresses gratitude for receiving the VALOR Learning Supplement. “I used up the GI Bill for my undergraduate degree, so this award was extremely helpful,” he says. “As a recipient, I wish to continue to give back to the GW community through service, initiatives, and engaging whenever I can.”
He is particularly enthusiastic about the newly minted Military Resource Center, which began offering a partial menu of services this fall. “I have not yet done any work with the Military Resource Center, but I’m very excited about it,” he says. “I peer-facilitate wellness groups for veterans at the DC VA Medical Center, and I think [the Military Resource Center] would be a great space to hold similar groups.”
Clearly, Aaron’s passion is fueled by helping others, but he cites the changes he sees in the people he is working with as the true honor. For example, at one of his retreats, a recalcitrant veteran arrived wearing a baseball cap, dark sunglasses, and a full beard. He sat with his arms crossed, leaning back in his chair, not speaking to anyone. By the end of the retreat, the dark glasses were gone and the man had shaved off his beard.
“He was laughing with the others—you wouldn’t have known it was the same person,” says Aaron. “At the end of the retreats there is rarely a dry eye, as the retreats prove to be a profoundly cathartic experience. I design them as spaces for growth, communication, and healing, and I get to witness the impact on the veterans who attend. I am extremely honored to have the opportunity to lead them.” —Mary Follin