When Rudy Ragnauth walks into a common room for a weekly meeting with the veterans in Room In The Inn’s transitional program, he tosses his jacket on the pool table and jumps right in.
“Alright, it’s been a few weeks,” he says. “What’s going on?”
He asks them about their Christmases, how the holiday meals at Room In The Inn were. He celebrates that one veteran spent his first Christmas in four years “out from behind a fence.” He questions another about an appointment he was supposed to make, then sternly asks, “Why not?” when the veteran says he hasn’t gone.
Rudy’s tone is firm, but familiar—even funny. The veterans laugh along with him and then cut their eyes when they’re trying to dodge a line of questioning. But Rudy isn’t here to berate them for not doing enough. Rudy is a peer support specialist with the Homeless Veterans Program of the Veterans Administration—he’s here to encourage them to do better.
What is a peer support specialist?
A peer support specialist is someone who provides recovery support to others with similar backgrounds or experiences in mental health or addiction. Rudy served in the U.S. Army for 21 years, completing three deployments to Iraq. During his service, he witnessed many atrocities that left him traumatized and suffering from PTSD.
“I felt myself going into what I call the black hole,” Rudy said. “Once you get there, it’s hard to get out. But it’s easy to go there.”
But Rudy did get out. He found a good VA counselor who helped him cope with his trauma. Rudy started working for the VA and wanted to do the same for others. His experience made him high qualified to become a peer support specialist, and he has been coming to Room In The Inn regularly for six years.
“The goal is to prolong your life and make it a better life,” Rudy said.
He said his sessions are focused on life skills—talking about how to deal with stress, how to communicate, or using your story to encourage another veteran—and that he enjoys making a connection with the veterans.
“A lot of these guys have had success at least one time in their life—making it through basic training, making it to a contract, serving in the military. And for a lot of them, that’s their proudest moments.”
Still, he said experiencing trauma can cause extreme physical, mental, and emotional problems. Many may turn to addictions to cope with their trauma, leading to criminal drug and alcohol offenses and health risks like diabetes. He said baby steps like pointing them toward alcohol treatment or helping them reconnect with family can get them back on the road to recovery.
“These are actually good people,” he said. “Things have happened. It could happen to any one of us at any given time. We’re all one step away from being in trouble.”
Rudy said being a peer support specialist takes time before veterans will trust you with their stories. Even then, he said he’s walking alongside veterans in their recovery, not pushing them from behind.
“I could show you the way, but you’ve got to become your own advocate,” he said. “You’ve got to want it as much as everybody else wants it for you.”
One of his biggest lessons: learning how to relinquish control.
“I can’t control every situation,” he said. “I can only control what I got—what's right here, right now.”
Rudy said even though he’s dealing with his own recovery, his worst experiences are helping him help someone else.
“All of us have a story to tell, and you don’t know who you’re going to impact.”
*Room In The Inn has many roads for participants seeking recovery. Our Guest House provides an alternative to jail for public intoxication. In addition, we coordinate with hospitals and other care providers to provide recuperative care, which includes respite for medically fragile homeless individuals recovering from recent hospitalization, illness, or injury. Alcohol and drug addiction classes and services are also provided.