Counselor/Veteran/Woman Meet Some of the Women Who Make Up SAFE's Counseling Staff (see article below)
Valerie Smith, LMSW, began her counseling career curious about resiliency and combat wounds; she wondered why some combat veterans were able to cope better with limitations of wounds than others. Charlotte Trussell, LPC-MHSP (Temp) looked around her military community and discovered a need to help care for victims of all sorts of traumas and for military marriages, especially those connected to special forces units. Doris Garcia-Campos, social work graduate student and intern, wanted to have a more hands-on role than the role she’d played as a soldier in support of those who rush into the crisis at hand.
Like so many veterans today, these three counselors, all of whom work with Soldiers And Families Embraced (SAFE ), were drawn into counseling careers because of their own military experience. They know firsthand that struggling with major life transitions – like from military to civilian life, for one - continue to plague our military personnel. For some, the struggle can turn deadly.
Sadly, for women who serve in the military, the increasing numbers of suicides are worse even than the numbers for men who serve. According to a recent Veterans Affairs Fact Sheet, veterans who are women are twice as likely to commit suicide as their civilian counterparts and “from 2001 to 2014, the suicide rate among women veterans increased to a greater degree (62.4 percent) than the suicide rate among male Veterans (29.7 percent).”
“One of the major tasks of a counselor or social worker is helping clients safely navigate those difficult life transitions,” says SAFE co-founder and former Executive Director Rev. Jodi McCullah, herself a US Army veteran. Like many in the area, the SAFE program was concerned about women who were veterans from the program’s beginnings as the Lazarus Project. “We were primarily looking then at the military-affiliated population on campus and found women less likely to ask for help than the men, even among those who had deployed into combat zones. It’s much like still being in the military; women often feel like they have to work harder and not show any weakness, so it made sense,” she says. “We struggled to convince them to come in for help when so many of them clearly needed to talk out what they’d experienced.” One remedy, says McCullah, has been prioritizing veterans, both male and female, for internships and as new counselors seeking licensure, like Smith, Trussell and Garcia-Campos. “Who better,” she asks, to lead someone out of a difficult place than someone who has been there herself?”
Valerie Smith joined the Army after receiving an undergraduate psychology degree in part because she was impressed with the discipline and drive of soldiers she’d met. She became a medical lab tech and was stationed for a time in Germany, and then met and married a combat veteran. “While my husband was stationed at Fort Knox, I became employed by the University of Louisville in Spinal Cord Injury Research. During my employment with the University of Louisville, I became amazed in the advances in physical medicine and curious about any similar advances in mental wellness and resiliency. That brought me back to something that had interested me since my time as soldier at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.” At BAMC, Smith worked on the same floor as the burn unit and routinely witnessed soldiers dealing with life-altering injuries.
Later, when employed at U of L in spinal cord injury research, she worked with young, athletic soldiers adjusting to a paraplegic life after spinal cord injuries. “I wanted to know what fostered resilience and if mental and emotional wellness advances were paralleling the advances in physical medicine.” Smith, who is also intimately close to her husband’s struggles with PTSD after combat, would like to see mental wellness advances keeping up with those in physical medicine.
Charlotte Trussell served a total of six years herself and also was stationed for a time in Germany before finding herself in Iraq when that war kicked off in 2003.
“We moved around eleven times in a one month period once we went in,” she says. “We were with a small support unit – maybe 20 of us, who went from base to base helping with units with their supplies and mail. We would find an abandoned building or a tent and set up shop.”
Trussell turned 21 while deployed. “There was something serene being over there in spite of the mortars…something about being in the middle of the desert,” she says. “Maybe because I was so young, I didn’t quite grasp fully how dangerous it was. But that was before roadside bombs, for example. It got a bit scarier when I left. We rode between bases all the time but, at that time, the resistance was in disarray and so there wasn’t the organized attacks on those convoys. I never realized fully like I was risking my life until close the end of my deployment.” Trussell, also a military spouse, went back to Germany and served two more years before considering a career in mental health.
Transitions may be the toughest part of the military experience for, especially the transition to civilian life with no ready-made tribe. “I miss the comradery,” says Trussell. “I do miss a group of people who know you and who you see every morning. They became my family. To this day, I miss waking up and putting on that starched uniform and those boots – this was back when you shined them. I miss going into work and that feeling of pride. That was one of the first times that that happened in my life.”
Once Trussel left the military, she went to college to become a teacher but switched her major after a psychology class. “I fell into this but the more I got into it, the more I realized I loved this,” she says. “I started to see a need for people who specialized in trauma. Not just war or sexual trauma but also childhood trauma like emotional and verbal abuse. There’s too much criticism and divisiveness in this world today and people need to be felt and heard and loved and nurtured.”
Trussell is working toward more specialized training in trauma work, but she also has found herself concerned and drawn to the families and marriages of those in the special forces community. “Because I have been in the military community for six years as a Soldier and now as a spouse within the SOF community for the past twelve years, what I really get concerned with is marriages.”
“There’s a lot they deal with but they don’t stop and process that afterwards; so, one day, they are sitting in a country shooting at an enemy combatant and then they are literally coming home to their family less than 12 hours later. They don’t have a lot of time to process in between missions and training and what I’m seeing a lot of is how they are struggling to reintegrate and reconnect. I’d like to see marriages cared for more – personally working on service members’ side of the marriage to help them care for themselves so they are able to be better, more patient, more relaxed with their spouses and children,” says Trussell.
Doris Garcia-Campos enlisted at 17. She was living in Maine at the time and her father was in the military. “Everyone in my family went army,” she says. She went into military intelligence in 1982 and studied to become a Russian linguist. After four years as enlisted, she went back as an ordnance officer and served another 20 years. She retired in 2006, then worked as an Army civilian until retiring again in 2016, often working in relief of natural disasters and often watching social workers in action in those situations.
“In the Army, I had done hurricane relief, and I had been to Iraq, always supporting the fight from a logistics perspective. I saw others doing the more hands on stuff, though,” she says.
In Iraq, for example, she watched for the first time social workers who helping displaced populations. She also watched social workers offering the humanitarian side of relief during Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, and found herself drawn to another way to be supportive.
“I could plan how many boxes of things or what kind of rail you need, you know, logistics,” she explains, but I wanted to help in a different way and I knew I needed a skillset that was more hands on, where I could really help people. I had always liked what social workers do because that involves not just the psychology but also the resourcing and tapping into what’s out there. It was some of what I had done but with an added social complement, that human aspect.” She currently serves as a graduate intern for SAFE and is working towards being a licensed counselor. She says her own experience, including two combat deployments, and life as a military spouse all inform her ability to connect with clients, male or female.
All three women have found that their experiences as soldiers not only led them to counseling, but also that their military experiences inform their practice. “Being a veteran is a practical help and even a comfort to many clients,” says Smith. “It’s good that we have counselors who understand that and who have been there also, and it’s a comfort to lots of our clients, male and female.”
Says Trussell, “People tend to think ‘combat veteran’ and think about a guy, but we certainly have women who deploy into combat zones and who saw things over there they can’t un-see.”
Transitions out of the military especially may be more difficult for women. Veterans who are women are twice as likely to commit suicide than their male counterparts, according to new figures released by the Department for Veteran Affairs.
Garcia-Campos says, “There’s a lot of pressure for most women to be competitive, to do better than you think you can. When you’re always looking to do better, always trying to run faster and jump higher, you become hard on so hard on yourself that it becomes a detriment.
Pressure to excel can really take a toll on mental health without good mental wellness habits, says Smith, “When you’re always forward-looking, you’re always trying to do better or be better, it makes it tough to be mindful and in the present, which is necessary because that’s the only time your mind gets a break. You have no time to process, make sense of and learn from events and experiences.”
Garcia-Campos agrees. “There’s a lot in the Army that you have to get smart at,” she says, “counseling programs like SAFE help clients build the emotional muscle to be to react in a competitive way. You need that when you are dealing with the constant change. You can either hide from it or embrace it and learn from it.”
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention (OMHSP) Facts About Suicide Among Women Veterans: August 2017