Honoring and Helping Veterans

November 2006

Regardless of how different people may feel about war, the majority of the American public manifests respect and empathy for veterans and the monumental changes they go through while serving our country.

It is only fitting that in the month of November — when we honor our country's veterans — we talk about ways social workers can help these committed citizens and their families.

The veteran reentry process is challenging, often painful, and sometimes ends in tragedy. Invariably, family and support systems suffer as well, so it is very important for veterans and their loved ones to recognize signs of distress and seek help.

Our profession's role is to help foster greater understanding of the many issues facing the returning veteran, including the effects of war on family life, workplace readjustment, rebuilding self-image and gaining a sense of place in society. Our role must be to advocate, coordinate and provide necessary services to help veterans regain control of their lives.

During my 14 years as a social worker and research specialist at the Clemente J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wis., I was privileged to work with veterans. Some were outpatients, and others were residents in the nursing home care unit.

Watching their interactions, I learned about resilience, faith and unselfishness. Many would take time to cheer up their fellow veterans, even when they could not be as positive about their own situations.

I witnessed the dedication of the families, which often included distant relatives and even divorced partners, who chose to look after them. In the social work department, we always said that the most valuable resources were our patients' human resources.

I also saw the misery of lives shattered when war could not be left behind, either emotionally or physically, and our frustration when we could not facilitate a satisfactory resolution.

Perhaps one skill that served us best was to let our patients and clients decide where their capabilities could take them. We had to recognize the diversity of the veteran population, and we needed to be flexible and able to change as we moved through the path that the patient drew us along. Veterans have a lot to teach us about letting go, reinventing oneself and digging deep to find new connections with a world that seems out of touch.

The profile in our most recent National Social Work Public Education Campaign advertisement is a perfect example of this strength. This month, millions of readers of O, The Oprah Magazine will learn about Army National Guard Specialist and Iraq Veteran Chuck Ross who got help from clinical social worker Rick Selig [see story in this issue].

Chuck had made a commitment to his wife Jennifer that he would seek counseling when he returned from his Iraq tour of duty. Both of their fathers had been Vietnam veterans and Chuck's father eventually committed suicide. Chuck agreed to have his story told in the social work campaign because he wants other military personnel who experience combat stress to be honest and deal with it.

After seeing a fellow soldier blown up or shot, or realizing that they have killed an Iraqi child, many soldiers choose to suffer in silence.

Social workers give voice to countless children, victims of abuse, patients, substance users, struggling parents and older adults. In our service men and women, we will find a growing group of highly vulnerable individuals as well.

According to VA figures, the number of veterans from all areas treated by the VA for post-traumatic stress disorder jumped 30 percent from 2003 to 2005. But a study in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that enormous numbers of soldiers won't see therapists. It showed that 38 percent of soldiers thought to be mentally ill did not trust therapists, 50 percent worried that seeing one could harm their careers, and 65 percent feared being seen as weak. Barriers to therapy and assistance for some won't be overcome soon, but an increase in cases like Chuck Ross's do provide hope.

Also, thanks to the leadership of VA Social Work Services Director Jill Manske, her deputy Kristin Day and the more than 4,400 social workers employed through the VA system, it's getting easier for vets and their families to get the help they need. Last year, the VA partnered with the Department of Defense to launch the social worker-led Seamless Transition Program. The program incorporates VA social workers into all DOD military treatment facilities to address needs of veterans and families from a broad biopsychosocial perspective.

Every one of us needs to bear a bit of the responsibility of helping our soldiers and returning civilians with their reentry into ordinary life. We all benefit when they are able to live in and contribute to their communities.

To our colleagues who have worked to make this happen for countless veterans and their families, and to those who have served themselves, thank you, and Happy Veterans Day.