Leigh Billeaud is the happiest she has been in years.
The Acadiana native was in college when the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks happened, prompting her decision to eventually join the military. She enlisted and served in the U.S. Navy, where her duties included working as an Arabic linguist. Later on, she worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. But after about 12 years, Billeaud started thinking about home.
“I was living in Washington, D.C., and I realized that it was not a healthy job or a healthy place for me anymore,” she said. “I was tired of the travel and I wanted to start my own family. For me, it was all about finding myself and reconnecting with what I wanted to do with my life.”
Billeaud moved back to south Louisiana, where she realized she was going through a grieving process after doing the same type of unique work for so many years. She also knew she wasn’t alone.
“I think a lot of veterans feel kind of conflicted about their service,” she said. “It can be a struggle to find meaning in the war they served in and the loss of life they saw. I started to realize that I wanted to work with veterans and focus on mental health, because I had gone through that process and I wanted to help them get a hold of their new identity.”
Billeaud is now a counselor intern at the New Beginnings Recovery Center HERO Program in Opelousas, which focuses on helping military veterans who struggle with substance abuse. She is also in graduate school at LSU to earn a master’s degree and become a licensed professional counselor.
Because she is a fellow veteran, Billeaud said she is able to relate well to those she works with in the HERO Program.
“I saw a lot of functional alcoholism in the military,” she said. “I think it’s because there’s a lot of instability. It’s a lot of travel and a lack of support. When your life isn’t stable and you’re not able to put down roots, you look for coping mechanisms.”
In her work now, Billeaud counsels veterans to help them identify their personal values, determine what kind of career and hobbies they want to pursue, find balance and be present every day. Once she earns her master’s degree, she wants to continue working with veterans, especially those recently transitioning back into civilian life.
Billeaud has also found peace in her personal life. She has gotten married and has a 7-month-old son. The family lives on about 25 acres near Sunset.
“I feel like I found a home. I’ve never been happier,” she said. “I feel incredibly lucky to be here.”
New Beginnings Recovery Center is located at 1649 Linwood Loop in Opelousas. For more information on the HERO Program, visit their website at heroprogramnb.com or call 888-706-1870.