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“Serving Those Who Have Served Us”: USC School of Social Work Reaching Military Vets

“Serving Those Who Have Served Us”: USC School of Social Work Reaching Military Vets and Families
By Sylvia Mendoza

Vietnam Vet Ernie D’Leon believes concerted efforts of USC’s School of Social Work, nonprofit organizations and U.S. military services, can help vets deal with their demons and help themselves.

When Army Sergeant Ernie D’Leon arrived home from Vietnam, complete with a Purple Star for his heroic efforts, he had hoped to ease into civilian life and bury his combat experience. The first question his girlfriend asked, however, was, “Did you kill anyone?”

Thinking he would have had time to transition, to feel solid American ground, to have time to adjust, the question instead jolted him into a reality he was not prepared for. “I realized I might not be treated as a regular person, that I maybe I might even be looked at as a barbarian,” he said.

 D’Leon was only 20 when he and 70 men were sent on a fire fight. The two men on either side of him were instantly killed in an ambush. He earned the Purple Heart and was sent to Fort Ord in California for four months before rotating out of the service.

By day, he was “normal,” masking his pain and trauma. By night, nightmares plagued his sleep, the flashbacks vivid.  “In Vietnam, you ceased compassion for life—for your own and for your enemies. That haunts you.”

D’Leon disappeared to Tahoe for two years, to try to get his head straight. “There wasn’t a name for post-traumatic stress back then,” he says. “The government trains me to kill a guy but it doesn’t help me figure out how to live my life after I do that.”

The transition was as difficult for him as it had been for his father. A WW2 vet, the senior D’Leon had been in thirty-six bombing missions and suffered from debilitating nightmares, said D’Leon. It was painful for him to watch.

D’Leon did eventually come back to San Diego, earned his degree from San Diego State University, became an assistant vice-president of a software engineering company, married and had kids. The façade worked for a while. Then, 20 years after returning from Vietnam, he self-medicated, had self-destructive tendencies, then spiraled and crashed, the long suppressed stress and nightmares of the war finally bringing him to his knees. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”

He finally talked to a therapist. The timing must have been right because he cried and admitted to survivor’s guilt. Since then he has pulled himself up and tried to help himself with positive activities such as surfing, yoga, therapy, and community service. Education was his salvation.

It seems almost all military vets, especially those who see combat, can suffer from PTSD or any of a number of ailments that affect overall health and well-being as they try to transition to a civilian life, a “normal” life. Home and relationships are not what they were before they enlisted.  Even though there are countless organizations, nonprofits and government programs that offer assistance to vets and their families, they are mostly run by volunteers.

D’Leon himself is on the board of directors of American Combat Veterans of War (ACVOW), based in San Diego’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital (though not funded by VA). He works as an outreach group facilitator and when he can get groups of vets—from all wars—to gather and talk about their experiences, he knows they are on the right track of healing—or at least facing their demons.

He also knows he is not trained as a social worker or therapist.

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San Diego, a true military town, has more than 175,000 military personnel and families and approximately 57,000 retired military personnel. Now San Diego is home base for the USC School of Social Work Academic Center, which offers a specialization in Military Social Work. Graduate students are trained to become “mental health professionals with the unique mental health, physical and transitional concerns of active duty service members, veterans and their families.”

The University of Southern California (USC) started the first of its kind program in the nation with its School of Social Work—a specialization on military vets and their families. Its slogan on the Military Social Work’s program’s brochure states, “Serving Those Who Have Served Us” and “No one comes home from war unchanged.”

Dr. Jose Coll, former Marine and founder of USC School of Social Work Academic Center in San Diego, one of the first universities to offer a specialization in military social work.

Dr. Jose Coll, former Marine and founder of USC School of Social Work Academic Center in San Diego, one of the first universities to offer a specialization in military social work.

Based at the USC School of Social Work Academic Center in San Diego, this emphasis includes special training of graduate students in specific courses such as “The Military as a Workplace Culture,” Managing Trauma and Post-traumatic Stress and Preventive Care and Health Management in Military and Veteran Settings. Offered electives delve further into issues that may affect a vet and his/her family, including: Disabilities and Family Caregiving; domestic violence; loss, grief and bereavement; Diversity; Mental Health Practice with Severe and Persistently Mentally Ill; Substance Abuse and Other Addictive Disorders; the Societal Response to War: Advocacy, Politics and Policy; even Spirituality is covered. Students are also placed in internships where they will work directly with vets and their families in everyday transition, such as at schools, rehabilitation centers, correction facilities, veterans affairs hospitals, university counseling centers, mental health centers. Dr. Jose Coll, a Cuban immigrant and Marine vet who served from 1996-2000, is one of the founders of the military social work program and former director of the USC San Diego Academic Center. “This is a culture unto itself,” he explained. “Active duty and vets’ needs—and their families’—are unique. We have to help prepare students to become trained mental health professionals familiar with their unique mental health, physical health and transitional concerns.”

At Coll’s urging the center was placed in San Diego, a military town. There are approximately 95,000 active duty personnel in the county, and with families, that number increases to 175,000. There are about 57,000 retired military personnel. In addition, Coll believes subcultures like Latino, African American, and women vets have specific needs to be addressed. By tradition—whether family, societal or cultural—these subcultures have more expectations and doubts when transitioning to civilian life. In addition, it takes time for active duty, vets and their families to learn to trust professionals.

An injury made Coll retire early and that was difficult because he was not ready to retire at 23. As he learned more about social work and went on to earn his PhD in the subject, he knew he wanted to address military needs. Coll’s book, A Civilian Counselor’s Primer for Counseling Veterans, focuses on the family system, sub-cultures, brain injuries, new interventions, exposure therapy, substance abuse and homelessness, among others. “The school’s mission is an enormous undertaking, but a necessary one.” Another book is in the works.

If vets, active duty and their families don’t get the attention they need by trained professionals, they can spiral out of control, said Coll. According to the Center for a New American Security, suicide rates of military vets and active duty personnel from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has increased rapidly. And according to the Veteran’s Administration, there can be as many as one suicide every 80 minutes. “Over 50 percent of individuals who committed suicide did not see combat,” said Coll. “There could have been counter-transference from drill sergeants in basic training, or any other number of reasons, even though the military is selective about who gets in.”

The United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs website shows that VA’s suicide hotline has been receiving about 10,000 calls a month from current and former service members. Since its launch in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered more than 500,000 calls and made more than 18,000 life-saving rescues.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) estimate that over 67,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.  America’s homeless veterans come from all wars—World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq. Almost half of homeless are Vietnam veterans and of these, more than 50 percent are African American or Hispanic.

Then there are some issues that plague veterans across the board. The new buzz phrase for PTSD symptom is “moral injury,” says D’Leon. “The moral injury is the dilemma faced in those first two years of coming back. You had the greatest ideals in the world: honor, bravery, conviction. It’s tough to rationalize, let alone tough live with, knowing you were a part of something so against all the principles of spirituality.”

The transition home can be brutal. In an article that appeared in the Huffington Post in January 2012, an increase in numbers of domestic violence, post traumatic stress cases, brain injuries was cited.

“In that place between military and civilian life, a warrior falls off the radar,” explained D’Leon. “Hunting down those who fall off that radar is essential. Not much has changed since Vietnam in treating military and their transition home. The Veterans Administration does a great job with the resources they have. It’s not enough.”

Opening the Military Social Work program has probably come at the right time and aims to do this. Enrollment has increased since it opened in 2009, going from 47 students to 180 in 2011. An absolute benefit about the program, said Coll, is that 70 percent of the students have had some formal affiliation with the military. “Some are retired, some are spouses, some are military children. There are captains sitting in a classroom with enlisted men and women. There are vets from different wars. And yet, they are all there with one thing in mind—they have to understand and approach the military culture differently.”

A Civilian Counselor's Primer for Counseling Veterans by Dr. Jose Coll

A Civilian Counselor's Primer for Counseling Veterans by Dr. Jose Coll

Another major component to the program, said Coll, who is now at St. Leo University as Director of Veteran Student Services, is to get vets to use their GI bills and earn their higher education degrees. “They already have the leadership and discipline training and can think critically,” he said. “With a degree, they can have voice and power and be able to change their lives politically, economically and socially.”

This could be easier said than done. Many vets do not feel like they fit in. They may be sitting in a classroom with other 23-year olds, but how many have been deployed to Afghanistan three times? “The community at large doesn’t understand where you’ve been as active duty,” said Coll. “This is a challenge you have to face for many years to come, for the rest of your life. You have to use your experience but don’t let it get in your way to success. You gave that person sitting next to you the opportunity not to serve.”

For some, the best transition might be to start in community colleges. Often times, however, any transition is unbearable and takes time.

“Even if you can sit still, your mind is going a million miles a minute,” said D’Leon. It took him nearly six years to earn his degree at San Diego State University after returning from Vietnam. “It’s hard to focus when you’ve been trained to move at a moment’s notice. You’re aware of every minute thing—shuffling of papers, a pencil that is dropped, the inflections of your professor’s voice. Sometimes you have to bite your tongue. Sometimes it’s difficult to participate because you’ve been trained not to make mistakes—or someone can die. Better to not say anything, not put yourself in that position. That’s the mentality of a combat vet coming back to the classroom.”

Coll realizes the implementation of a program like USC’s military social work may take years to see a difference, but the difference has begun. His biggest wish is that the Department of Defense develop a model where, as soon as men and women are recruited, they are prepared to start thinking of life after the military, for retirement. “Everyone has to get out sooner or later, and the dialogue has to be about your newfound capabilities and the transition to school and career. The military has to take ownership of this element of transition.”

In the meantime, Coll knows USC is on the right track in addressing the military culture specifically. “Education can turn their lives around, but we have to give them the tools and attention to see their abilities and believe that they can be productive members of society after serving in the military.”

Vietnam vet Ernie D'Leon, kneeling left, with his recon team

Vietnam vet Ernie D'Leon, at left, kneeling, with his recon team

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