The White River Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center has a new tool for therapy and veteran job training: 3-D printers.
When you walk into the recreational therapy room on the VA campus in White River it smells faintly like melting plastic; About 10 people chatter around the room, hovering over computers.
Mike Horn is one of them. He drove the hour and a half to White River Junction from his home in Greensboro to join this week long 3-D printing workshop.
He was in the Navy for 14 years and sustained a traumatic brain injury; so today he is making a fidget spinner – a popular toy that keeps hands and minds occupied.
“My hands shake a lot,” Horn said, sitting in front of a computer, “so not knowing a whole lot about 3-D printers and finding out all the different things we can build and make. I thought it would be a great tool to learn 3-D printers and incorporate what I need at the same time.”
Earlier this week the veterans assembled the 3-D printers together from kits.
“The 3-D printers that are on everybody's desks they were in cardboard boxes when they got here, we had to learn how to build these printers,” Horn points to a whirring 3-D printer nearby.
“We had to learn how to put them all together, wire them. So it's been a process,” he laughed.
Horn says one of his goals in this training is to be able to take the skill and teach it to other veterans.
And that’s part of the idea behind the program, according to Andrea Ippolito the VA Innovators Network Lead at the VA Center for Innovation, a nationwide outreach program connecting veterans to entrepreneurial ideas.
“[We are] providing new opportunities, new options, for veterans that are pursuing recreational therapy – a 21st century tool that they can use for everyday life or perhaps get a job,” she explains.
Last August, the VA Innovators Network hosted a six-week, 3-D printing boot camp in San Antonio, Texas.
“Over 70-percent of the veterans that participated found employment in 3-D printing careers that had never had experience in 3-D printing before,” Ippolito said.
For Mitzi Frazzetta, a veteran who served in Kosovo and Iraq, this work is therapy more than it is job training.
“Without art I don't survive,” Frazzetta said, taking time away from her 3-D print project model. “Arts is what keeps me going and it also shows me how much I've grown. It makes me move forward.”
Today, Frazetta is chatty and friendly. She wears a pink shirt that says "believe" in block letters across her chest. But a couple years ago, she was struggling.
“I had trouble after the war with my feelings and emotions and I isolated,” she remembers.
Frazetta became agoraphobic, which she says lead to drug problems and an arrest.
“[The White River Junction VA] is the one that got me out of my shell,” she said.
Frazetta left her home in Nashua, New Hampshire to move closer to the White River Junction VA about a year and a half ago.
She credits programs like this one for making her feel whole again.
“Now, the 3-D came, which is amazing because I feel useful, I feel like I can create something and build something. It just gives you that sense of pride and part of society,” she said.
Ultimately, the camaraderie is what makes a difference for her.
“I love working with other veterans because we have a bond that nobody else has,” she said.
“A lot of us always have Post Traumatic Stress together, and even though we may not talk about it or deal with it, we can relate and that's all that it takes,” she said going back to confer with her group about design decisions.
The 3-D printers will stay at the White River Junction VA Medical Center in perpetuity for other veterans to come learn the new skill.