In the years following my service in the US Marine Corps, several of my closest veteran friends committed suicide. I have had to wrestle with a persistent sense of guilt that I could not do anything to help them. A restauranteur by profession for 20 years, when my father, a Vietnam veteran who I was always very close to, died in 20??, I entered a period of profound reflection and began seeking a path and career where I could help people like my dad and my old friends from the Marine Corps who blew their brains out, all plagued by alcoholism and PTSD. My father’s life after returning from Vietnam was short and brutal, struck down by cancer resulting from Agent Orange. I was angered by the abysmal level of attention that my father received within the VA system – as an American, a Marine, and a son - and it bothers me to this day. Soon, I became highly motivated to advocate for other veterans needing our support and care.
By 20?? I was a volunteer, helping veterans to navigate the paperwork for filing for VA disability and educating them on their rights as veterans. Helping veterans became the purpose and vocation that I had longed for, my cause. After visiting my local VA and talking with social workers there, it became clear that Social Work was the path I was meant to take. I sold my restaurant and enrolled in a bachelor's level social work program. This was a gamble with lots of obstacles to overcome. I knew from the beginning, however, that I could achieve my goals in Social Work because of my intense passion for helping veterans.
After earning my BSW (20??) and MSW (20??) and becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I entered the workforce in the mental health field, serving as a substance abuse therapist for active-duty military personnel. At the same time, I was working part-time at night as a mobile crisis clinician with the county, doing risk-of-harm assessments, and my manager was working on her DSW. She taught me the difference between a Ph.D. and DSW in Social Work. It soon became clear that my desire to help veterans called for the DSW Degree.
I want very much to study towards and earn the DSW Degree because I feel that I need further preparation to realize my most ambitious goals, such as managing a veteran’s organization, s managing a veteran’s organization, nor do I yet feel optimally prepared for a lifetime career focus on the mental health issues that tend to afflict veterans, in particular, so that I will be able to provide the level of mental health care that I believe that veterans deserve. Ideally, I would like to become a manager within the VA system, and for this, the DSW would be especially helpful.
As I gradually acquired experience as a substance abuse social worker doing risk-of-harm assessments, I began to see a pattern of self-destructive behavior that was especially notable in the veteran community, which needed to be addressed through therapy. At the same time, reading widely about self-harm in the literature, I became increasingly enthused about the potential for both group and individual therapy to bring about healing and some level of closure that would allow veterans to live healthy and productive lives.
When I started on this quest to become a social worker, it was solely to help veterans like me to get through hardships that they’re facing. At the time, I was uncertain about how this would occur exactly, but I have long been convinced of the nobility of fighting for veterans’ rights, especially for the disabled. I focused on education as the key to implementing programs, addressing issues in the veteran community, and providing mental health and substance abuse treatment. I am now employed at my local North Texas VA. I was allowed to work with homeless veterans in the HUD/VASH program, helping them with shelter, mental health, addictions, and vocational rehabilitation. I find case management thrilling and intimately tied to becoming as successful as possible as a therapist. As suggested by the neurologist Daniel Levitin, however, ¨ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything¨ (Levitin, Daniel, p. 40). This translates to ten years of dedication and study to arrive at my prime in the mental health field. I owe it to those I am serving to do everything I can to provide my clients with the best care possible. Only through constant reflection and vigorous study will I be able to have the positive impact that I hope to have on the lives of my clients, who deserve the best that America can provide.
I am still debating between the military behavior health and the clinical social work tracks of the program. The truth is that I would like to do both, since these areas run perpendicular to each other within the VA, and both would help a great deal to foster my career advancement in serving this specific population. The VA offers many training programs and seminars addressing these two topics to help make us better clinicians. Coming from a military background and being raised in a military-driven household, I will follow the military behavioral health track, which would be most apt for addressing the needs of the veterans under my care.
I have sought employment positions working with the most chronically challenging populations at behavioral health hospitals, jails, emergency rooms, and local law enforcement. My current job with the VA has me working with the chronically homeless, many of whom are exiting the correctional system and have dual diagnoses. I try to teach my children that falling forward is better than falling back in life. I’ve learned that one must strive for balance to operate at one’s optimal level. This entails four foundational pillars spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional. Incorporating this into my daily regimen gives me the discipline to push myself to success every day while keeping burnout at bay. An aspect of social work that I incorporate and preach to my patients is to have small measurable goals and not to focus on the result so as not to become overwhelmed. This same thought process is the approach I look forward to continuing to pursue in the DSW program.
It can alienate one from other command members and harm one’s career. Often a loss of trust or dependability is reported and permanently stamped on one’s records. Hence, it is no surprise that most service members wait until they’re out of the military to seek help, often only to find VA mental health facilities seriously overburdened. A large-scale survey of ex-service personnel in the UK found that only approximately half of those with mental health problems had sought help; stigma and embarrassment were frequently cited barriers (Iversen). Many people who leave the military because of severe mental illness do not receive aftercare from the VA. The reasons for such low rates of contact are not clear. Identifying patients who need aftercare but do not receive it and ensuring they have access to needed services remains a significant challenge for the DoD and the VA (Mojtaba R, Rosenheck RA, Wyatt RJ, Susser ES.).
The prevalence among active-duty military service members of 30-day DSM-IV psychiatric disorders, including posttraumatic stress disorders and major depressive disorder, is more significant than among socio-demographically matched civilians (Lazar SG). Many programs are trying to address this issue while the soldier is still on active duty. I want to create a type of boot camp before an active-duty service member is separated from the military, regardless of the discharge type. Most active-duty members face long deployments away from family, multiple combat rotations, a loss of personal freedom, fear of the unknown and inability to establish a stable living environment, chronic stress related to unrelenting standards, and professional consequences for falling short of one’s duties. Preexisting mental health issues often compound these stressors before the individual joins the military.
As I see it, if the military grooms one for boot camp to fit their mold, they should be held responsible for deprogramming a soldier before separating back into civilian life. A six-week program could be established for soon-go-be-separated soldiers entailing psychoeducation, process groups, trauma therapy, addiction therapy, family therapy, yoga, meditation, nutrition, vocational training, and physical exercise to prepare them for reinsertion into civil society optimally. This would also give clinicians an excellent opportunity to assess service members so that they can be provided with the care they need, at that time and in the future. There is a significant gap between when the typical veteran leaves active duty and when they enter VA care. The VA often has no records, not even of the patient’s military experience. The VA and the military need to better coordinate their records, especially as concerns veterans with longtime mental health and other medical issues.
Thank you for considering my application to the DSW Program at the University of XXXX.
DSW, US Marine, Veterans' Issues, VA, Military
1. Iversen, A, Dyson, C, Smith, N. ‘Goodbye and good luck’: the mental health needs and treatment experiences of British ex-service personnel. Br J Psychiatry 2005;186:480–6
2. Mojtabai R, Rosenheck RA, Wyatt RJ, Susser ES. Use of VA aftercare following military discharge among patients with serious mental disorders. Psychiatr Serv. 2003 Mar;54(3):383-8. doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.54.3.383. PMID: 12610248.
3. Lazar SG. The mental health needs of military service members and veterans. Psychodyn Psychiatry. 2014 Sep;42(3):459-78. doi: 10.1521/pdps.2014.42.3.459. PMID: 25211433.