Story by Erin Wittkop, Defense Media Activity
I recently had the fortunate opportunity to attend the Military Officers’ Association of America 2013 Warrior and Family Symposium at the Ronald Reagan Center in Washington, D.C. This year’s theme was “Mental Health: Linking Warriors and Their Families, Government and Society.”
The event consisted of expert panels and keynote speakers each offering a distinct and insightful perspectives on how American citizens, military families and service members can help troops cope with the invisible wounds of war.
Each expert had incredible information to share but I was especially struck by the wisdom offered during the day’s first panel, “Six Degrees of Separation for Warriors & Families: The Impact of Mental Health Across Generations.” This panel consisted of four individuals who had personally come to terms with the psychological effects of war.
Air Force Reserve Maj. Bonnie Carroll, Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors president and founder, Army Maj. Kevin Polosky, executive officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice director of logistics, Debbie Sprague, wellness and life coach for military caregivers and wife of a Vietnam vet, and retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard “Mick” Trainor all offered their unique insights from personally healing from the wounds of war or helping a loved one heal. While their experiences differed as they each represented a different generation of warfighters, one factor rang true for all of them: peer support was key to overcoming the psychological burdens they’d faced.
“The human dimension is so important. [It’s] a constant in dealing with troubles,” Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard “Mick” Trainor said. As a Korean War veteran and the brother of a World War II veteran, Trainor emphasized the role camaraderie played in helping himself and his contemporaries cope their combat experiences. “One of the great things after World War I and World War II was the American Legion and the VFW. People would join these things and they were with their substitute [battle] buddies.”
Army Maj. Kevin Polosky, Iraq and Afghanistan vet and husband and primary caregiver to his Army veteran wife, agrees that a kindred spirit is sometimes the best medicine, especially for active duty troops who aren’t comfortable with the idea of formal counseling.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in combat. I think I’m lucky because I have a spouse who I can share it with but I actually remember being at a friend’s house, we were outside smoking a cigar and I just looked him and said, ‘Dude, I’m having some problems,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m having some problems, too,’ and that was the best help I’ve ever gotten. To me, it’s finding that peer or someone you can relate to and just being able to bring it up in conversation [is the greatest help].”
Air Force Reserve Maj. Bonnie Carroll, TAPS president and founder, agreed it is “peer-based support that is so critical,” explaining that it’s at the core of her organization. “TAPS is the frontline support resource for all those who get that knock on the door and receive that folded flag. We now have [over] 40,000 surviving families who gather around the country in care groups and support groups.”
Caroll also relayed the story of how Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was taken by the way TAPS families were connecting with each other during a survivor gathering in 1996. “He said to all of us, ‘I now understand why there has to be this community of care. We can’t do for you what you must do for each other.’”
When Debbie Sprague’s Vietnam veteran husband began his intense struggle with latent post-traumatic stress disorder and complications from Agent Orange exposure, she found a lack of peer support to be one of her biggest hurdles as she tried to help her husband cope.
“When my husband was diagnosed and I looked around, I would get blank stares when I talked about the fact that he had PTSD or things like, ‘There’s no such thing. He’s just in it for the money. It’s a good excuse for bad behavior.’ I was totally at a loss because no one I went to could help me; no one understood what I was going through.”
Today, Sprague leads her own support groups to educate other military and veteran spouses about the effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury and help them support friends and loved ones who may be suffering.
Despite her own difficult experiences, Sprague remains hopeful about the future. “I think having spouses and families understand and be educated is going to be a real support too for our veterans.”
As the panel came to an end, Sprague offered the audience a challenge to continue making progress for our country’s service members and veterans in need:
“I would like to challenge each of you whether you’re a warrior, a spouse or just someone that cares about our warriors, to go out and find a peer and give them support and encouragement and help. If we, each and every one of us, do that to one person and we keep paying it forward, I think we’ll move a long ways towards getting all of our warriors the help that they need.”
I, personally, intend to meet her challenge.
Disclaimer: The appearance of hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the Department of Defense of this website or the information, products or services contained therein. For other than authorized activities such as military exchanges and Morale, Welfare and Recreation sites, the Department of Defense does not exercise any editorial control over the information you may find at these locations. Such links are provided consistent with the stated purpose of this DoD website.