Teaching civilians to care for those who served

Samara Freemark
Public Insight Network

Earlier this week I wrote about the Department of Veterans Affairs’ plan to hire almost 2,000 new mental health staff and support personnel by summer 2013. Advocates welcomed the news, but feared that even those new hires wouldn’t be enough to meet the need — and wondered whether the VA was even capable of recruiting so many new staff so quickly.

And some voiced another concern: that staff without a military background aren’t fully equipped to handle the special needs of service members and veterans.

Jeannie Campbell, a veteran and director of veterans mental health initiatives at the National Council for Behavioral Health, told me, “Success in treating someone is all about the therapeutic relationship — understand that person walking in, where they’re coming from, their way of life, their perspectives, their experiences. We have our own culture and language in the military. We think and speak a certain way. But it’s hard for other people to understand.”

A training program in Los Angeles is trying to help one key group of civilians understand where service people are coming from.

Since 2009, the Military Social Work concentration at the University of Southern California has aimed to teach students not only to be good social workers, but also to effectively serve the specialized needs of military members and veterans. The program rose from concerns that the field of social work wasn’t doing a good enough job engaging with the military. It’s the only program of its kind in the country.

“Veterans try to go to civilian providers but often the providers just don’t get it,” says program head Anthony Hassan. ”My fear is that people aren’t connecting on that first meeting. The first five minutes are all-important. If a veteran feels he’s not understood right away, it can really turn him off.”

The Military Social Work concentration offers clinical practice courses focusing on service members, veterans, and their families, as well as Military Culture as a Workplace Environment, which Hassan describes as “Military 101″: a crash course in military lingo, rank, and culture.

Student Max Molina, who hadn’t served in the military before he entered USC’s program, says learning things like the difference between a captain and a lieutenant can sound trivial, but understanding those distinctions and being able to talk intelligently about them is actually tremendously important.

“A lot of times servicemembers feel like they’re not understood,” he says. “Explaining the basics of their everyday life can be tedious. Knowing these basics can give you a jumpstart, so you can jump ahead to more important stuff.”

USC expects to graduate 250 students from the program in 2013. Hassan calls that”a drop in the bucket” when measured against the national need, which he says will only grow.

“I’m afraid that by 2014 when everyone’s back [from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan] everything will stop,” he says. “But we deal with veterans for forty years. We’re talking about a generation that will be affected. This doesn’t go away.”


Samara Freemark Reporter
Public Insight Network

Reporter/producer Samara Freemark joined the Public Insight Network after four years at Radio Diaries in New York City, where she spent her time helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories for NPR. In the process, she developed an unshakeable belief in the beauty and power of personal narrative.

Before Radio Diaries Samara worked as an environmental reporter, a posting that took her to sinking islands, Superfund sites, and literal snakepits – Burmese pythons, to be exact. She also churned out copy and tape in the newsroom of WUOM Ann Arbor. Before settling on a career in radio she tried out policy research, community organizing, and urban planning before deciding she preferred soundwaves to spreadsheets.