by Don McCasland, LMSW
This year, as in other Memorial Days past, I went to nearby Fort Campbell, KY, and paid my respects to friends and buddies no longer with us. I went to each of my former unit’s areas where their memorials are located, as well as at the 101st Airborne Division Monument, and left an offering at each place. As I do so at each stop, I reflect on the memories and the loss we feel as fellow Soldiers on the battlefield, as well as the loss that family and friends in their hometowns felt and continue to feel every day for the rest of their lives.
Inevitably, as the day goes on, I'll think of my own journey, and the pain I carried for YEARS--and the pain my family endured because of the wound in my soul I brought home, and carried like so many jagged rocks in my "emotional rucksack." I did that for almost seven years before I got help and began the long, slow journey toward healing. No matter how well I'm doing, I'm still on that journey and always WILL be on it. That's why I'm on the path that I walk as a person, as a Warrior, and that I walk with others as a social worker. It's part of my healing to try to show Brothers and Sisters who continue to struggle that there's light at the end of that seemingly never-ending tunnel.
We lose people every day to bombs and bullets in war zones. And people come back to the "safety" of home and continue to fight life and death battles in their minds every day. We lose almost one veteran every hour to those battles--the battles for inner peace, for their souls, for the desperate need to feel whole again. These battles are fought because of combat trauma, as the result of sexual assault, and in some cases because of both while serving our country. They fight because, even after returning, they still haven't "come home." Some win and live to fight another day. However, for far too many, it's a battle they lose. It’s one that we barely hear about, and too often we don't feel the effects of... even though our communities ARE the war zone and "combatants" are everywhere we go in our daily lives.
Until recently, there was a secret I've told very few family members about, and almost no friends--that I was one of those lucky few to live and fight another day. At my very lowest point, I thought it would be better if I was dead, and I remember that exact moment like it was yesterday. It was during my mid-tour leave on my third trip to Iraq in 2008, and I was on the riding mower in the back yard. Suddenly, I thought, "If I was dead, this would all just stop." For many people in the place I was, it can be that simple, that quick, that matter-of-fact. A sudden realization that you feel as though you have no other choice, nowhere to go. All you can think of in that most painful of moments is you want the hurt to stop. I kept that secret for almost five years, even after I retired. After all, I was a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer, responsible for the lives of 45 people in combat. I couldn’t allow anyone to know I had these thoughts. How can someone like that be counted on to stay focused when they’re barely keeping it together themselves?
As professional caregivers, I urge everyone to think about those fighting their own battles amongst us. Remember that just because many of us are physically "home from the war," it doesn't mean we are emotionally and spiritually "home." Too many of us are joining the ranks of our fallen buddies from the so-called "safety" of our communities and our stateside duty stations. We WANT to come home, but it's hard to know how sometimes. It can also be hard to know just how to facilitate that start toward a “new normal.”
For social workers who interact with clients as individuals or through our respective agencies, it can be something as simple as bearing witness to our truth and allowing us to be heard. It's ugly, it hurts, and it's dirty, but try it. Even if you have no personal experience with the military community, one of the biggest things that can break down barriers and allow you to help the veteran begin the journey down the path toward healing is to hear and listen. Often, veterans are asked questions such as, “What was it like?” but because of the subject matter, once a veteran begins to share the painful and unvarnished truth, often a person’s reaction is to quickly change the subject, leaving the veteran feeling as though no one cares. This can sometimes be the case with well meaning social workers. That desire to get right to an assessment, goals setting, and a plan for treatment in the name of helping… and suddenly the listening and hearing takes a back seat. Many times, this can cause the veteran to shut down and possibly never come back.
Another challenge can be the veteran dealing with hyper-vigilance in crowds, among new persons, or with unfamiliar surroundings. In combat environments, or sometimes with veterans who are victims of sexual assault, the environment can be perceived as the threat. That sense or feeling that has been ingrained in our thought process: “What’s in that room with the closed door?” “Why is that briefcase there, and what’s in it?” “Where are the exits, and can I get to them in a hurry?” This can lead to increased tension, irritability, or anxiety--all emotions that can be major stumbling blocks to developing rapport and beginning the therapeutic relationship. A simple way to help avoid this is to lead the client into the room, rather than opening the door and letting them walk in first. In a high-threat situation, you can’t control the actions of people who want to do you harm, but you CAN control your environment to an extent. Help clients feel “in control of the environment” by leading them into the office, reassuring them it’s okay to relax. If possible, allow them to sit where they feel comfortable. Ask, “May I shut the door?” These are all things that can help the client feel more at ease and safe.
Another item to consider is the fact that they are in your office seeking help in the first place. Culturally, military and veterans are taught over and over again that to need or ask for help somehow shows weakness. Weakness equals unreliability, and to be seen as unreliable or a “weak link” means people can’t count on you in life and death situations. This is a horrible label in a culture that values teamwork and watching each others’ back. One way to reassure a veteran or active duty member is to show that needing help is okay and is not a reflection on their character. You can even frame it as a teamwork situation, and one that you look forward to, for example: “I’m sure this seems overwhelming/difficult to deal with, but WE can get through this with some teamwork, and I’m going to help you.” This can help reframe the situation as the client being part of a team that will work toward reaching a goal or objective. They’ll feel like a stakeholder in the outcome, and it can help them feel as if they are part of something, that they aren’t weak and can contribute to something important.
As with any client, being culturally sensitive and aware of veterans' values is important on many levels. However, because of the ongoing and constantly-changing issues involving this particular demographic, the need to be flexible and the ability to “think outside the box” is even more important, which makes social workers a huge asset in this ongoing fight. We have the ability to do things and connect with people and resources like no other profession. Use those skills and abilities and you can literally save a life.
Don McCasland, LMSW, retired from the U.S. Army after 21+ years of service, including service in Desert Storm and three tours in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division. He earned his BSW and MSW from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN, and in June of 2010 he helped found The Lazarus Project, a nonprofit that provided free counseling services to active duty, veterans, and their families. In January 2012, they merged with SAFE (Soldiers and Families Embraced) in Clarksville, TN. SAFE offers free individual, family, and group counseling, as well as client advocacy and other “wrap-around” services. SAFE also facilitates professional mental health training specific to military psychology and workshops for civic organizations and the community at large. Don is currently the Program Director at SAFE and has been married for 16 years to wife Joanne- also a social worker. They have a daughter who is a social work student and a son.