As Afghan horror unfolds, veterans turn to ‘street therapy’

As Afghan horror unfolds, veterans turn to ‘street therapy’

Afghanistan War veteran James Pobanz stopped by the Wurzbach Manor apartment complex Saturday morning with a mattress in the bed of his pickup.

The battle plan: deliver it to an Afghan family that had recently resettled in San Antonio.

But on this day, there were more mattresses and box springs and several stops to make at the complex, one at the home of an Iraqi woman, Buzdan Farhan, who came to the U.S. four years ago, fleeing a land where everyone in her family except one son had died. A group of men hugged the mattress, slowly and carefully walking it up a stairwell. A few moments later, they gently placed it in a bedroom.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I like my bed. Shukran.”

Shukran is Arabic for thank you, and in this case, said the Razakaar Foundation’s Farhana Khan, who works with refugees and VetStrong, thanks a million. Farhan kissed a man’s shoulder and handed out flatbread she made that morning for volunteers from VetStrong, a group founded by Pobanz, who holds a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Standing near a stack of the thick, warm bread carefully covered in cloth, she cried and wiped her eyes.

VetStrong volunteers help deliver a bed to Buzdan Farhan. One veteran, Tracy Huff, 57, of Boerne explains why he and his wife help. Video: San Antonio Express-News

But the tears still fell.

To volunteer, donate furniture or make financial contributions to VetStrong, see its home page,, log on Facebook at or call (210) 239-8399.

Pobanz and his team, using an old white box truck that had belonged to the Air Force before VetStrong bought it for $3,500 — and then spent an additional $3,500 to fix it up — took a load of furniture from a warehouse to the apartment complex. From there, they had to get more furniture for a homeless veteran and deliver it, too. There might be yet one more delivery after that and another to come Sunday.

That’s a typical weekend, and it drew a small band of supporters wearing blue VetStrong T-shirts, one of them William Scott, an addiction therapist and Vietnam War veteran who joined the group after moving to San Antonio four years ago. In those days, VetStrong mostly helped homeless veterans stay in their apartments. More than a few had abandoned their housing.

“I joined for several reasons. I got clean and sober in 2002, 19 years ago,” Scott said. “Prior to getting clean and sober, I was in and out of jail. I was homeless for two years on the streets of Nashville, so I know what it’s like to be homeless. Also, when you’re in recovery, you’re supposed to give back.”

Dustin Schlosser is a San Antonio aerospace engineer who joined the group when it started. While he doesn’t have a military background or a master’s in social work like Pobanz, the experience of encountering homeless veterans has left him talking and, perhaps, thinking like a social worker.

“Obviously, I’m not in the military, but seeing what our veterans have gone through and the living situations that they’re in, I do this, too, because I know it’s helping them out,” he said. “When you walk into the apartments, they have nothing. The apartments are usually empty. They don’t even have a couch to sit on or a bed to sleep on, which is why we’re doing what we’re doing here.”

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As the weekend dawned at the warehouse near San Antonio International Airport, the atmosphere was a little like a morning at a forward operating base in a war zone. Drinking coffee, Pobanz and other veterans talked about the day’s mission — and that is exactly how they see it. It had the feel of a MEDCAP, a medical assistance mission to a village in Iraq or Afghanistan, except no one was armed with M4 rifles or driving Humvees — and no one worried about roadside bombs and insurgent ambushes.

Their primary mission involved delivering furniture at the apartment complex in the area of the South Texas Medical Center. It’s home to a large number of Afghans who’ve resettled here over the past six years or so, and the arrival of VetStrong volunteers in the box truck and pickups drew a crowd familiar to any GI who did duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. A girl in a dress and curious Afghan boys in T-shirts and jeans and one wearing military-style camouflage pants gathered around the truck, once used as an Air Force maintenance vehicle.

More Afghans are expected to soon come to this complex a short walk from the Center for Refugee Services, which has been distributing forms to immigrants who are trying to flee their native land in the wake of the Taliban’s victory. That was a topic on the agenda this day for Pobanz. He was there to deliver furniture but also to have tea with an Afghan family and talk about how VetStrong could help the newly arrived refugees.

Up to 100 of them are thought to be headed this way, and groups around town are preparing to get them settled into San Antonio. No one knows just when they’ll arrive, but the Center for Refugee Services will set up a distribution site Monday at Resurgent Church, 8134 Fredericksburg Road, just in case some already have arrived. They’ll need a bit of everything, from toiletries to staples for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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Yet for all that is being done for the Afghans, they may not be the only beneficiaries of VetStrong’s work. Pobanz is leveraging his experience as a social worker to find a way for Afghans and American veterans of the long wars to constructively channel the anger and grief they feel in the wake of a sudden Taliban victory that has stunned the world.

“It’s a shared experience, and it’s just as important for us,” he said. “I think the work that we’re able to do is just as important as delivering. There’s a mutual shared effort there, and … a mutual benefit — almost (as much) a reward for us as it is for the families getting the items they need.

“That’s the natural end state, of course, which we’re trying to do, but I think that the other side of that is the effect that it has on mental health and emotions for some of these veterans that are able to make that positive change, and they’re able to see it.”

Now 46, Pobanz spent 17 years in the Army, rising to staff sergeant. He finished a bachelor’s degree in general studies before entering UTSA’s master’s in social work program. His work style is a hybrid of social work’s mantra, all people matter, and the discipline of setting goals and executing them that is common to troops in the armed services.

But his evolution from soldier to social worker might not have happened at all.

“As I was exiting my career with the Army, I was always trying to help other soldiers that had issues and trying to point them in the right direction, trying to advocate for them, and somebody had mentioned to me at that time, ‘Yeah, you’d be a great social worker,’” Pobanz recalled. “I didn’t know what social work was, and I still remember my response: ‘I don’t want to work at the Social Security office.’”

In UTSA’s social work program, he volunteered with other nonprofits and interacted with homeless veterans while an intern with the American GI Forum. Homeless veterans who had been placed in apartments would occasionally abandon them, prompting some to wonder why it happened.

Then he learned the veterans had nothing in the apartment, not even a pillow. They often folded up towels to rest their heads on.

“I think what came about was just seeing, talking to folks, and that’s where we’re assisting on the housing side, and looking at the rates of desertion — they were pretty high — and started asking questions to some of these folks that we would run into,” Pobanz said.

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