Their communities are often fractured, their concerns invisible, their lives misunderstood.
With the advent of the all volunteer military in 1974, the general American public is no longer forced to deal with the realities of military service. Today, less than .5% of the United States population serves in the armed forces. Writing in the New York Times Karl Eikenberry and David Kennedy today’s Armed Forces as described as “a maximally powerful force operating with a minimum of citizen engagement and comprehension.”
Since large numbers of American troops have begun cycling home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public has become increasingly aware of the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, along with the other injuries which wartime military service can bring, including burns and traumatic amputations and more.
Recent news stories have emphasized also the pain of returning soldiers dealing with wartime events, as manifest in the tragic suicide rate among American service personnel. Recently, David Finkel’s book Thank You For Your Service brought novelistic skill and reportorial accuracy to this story, as he chronicled the struggles of Adam Schumann and his wife dealing with what it means to return from war. Despite good books like this, military families have received much less attention from writers and journalists than they should.
However, they are beginning to attract the attention of clinicians, social workers and others in the helping professions.
Yesterday, at the Red Cross headquarters in midtown Manhattan, the Mental Health Association of New York City’s Veterans Mental Health Coalition held a panel discussion for clinicians and the general public about the realities faced by America’s military families. Presenters included a representative from the James J. Peters Veterans Administration Medical Center in the Bronx, the Military Family Clinic at the New York University Langone Medical Center, therapist Judith Kellner, and individuals representing military families living in the New York city region.
The most powerful segment of the presentation came from individual stories presented by military family members. Katie explained what it was like to be seven months pregnant and learn that her deployed husband had TBI and had been medically evacuated to Germany. This brought about changes in him, their relationship, and each parent’s relationship to their children. Katie is a veteran also.
Elizabeth, representing the Bronx Veterans Administration family services program, described local Veterans Administration services available to members of military families. Family referrals at the Bronx VA peaked in 2010, with 174 families engaged in therapeutic work there. Between 2007 and 2013 some 740 families have moved in and out of Bronx VA family services programs. Often, Elizabeth indicated, individuals will come for family counseling, and stay connected to other programs within the institution.
The New York University Military Family Clinic’s motto is “healing happens in communities.” They provide comprehensive family assistance, including legal, financial, discharge upgrade, and other kinds of aid. The clinic has adopted a flexible approach, adding services when needed and directing individuals to other service providers and community partnerships when necessary. The principal thrust of the military family clinic is psychoeducational, an effort to persuade veterans and their families to be mindful of themselves and their own needs. They provide this service pro bono, and have striven to limit necessary paperwork they will assist any veteran from any service, discharge status doesn’t matter and will even try to help with the cost of transportation, if necessary.
Therapist Judith Kellner
modeled her emotionally focused therapy program with one veteran and they described the process and its benefits. Emotionally focused therapy is an effort to do the opposite things soldiers of been trained to do in order to survive. In the military they need to remain cool, distanced, and focused on the mission. In intimate relationships in civilian life they must make strong bonds and connections.
The punchline to the panel presentation is that when soldiers deploy, change happens inside of families, and often they need support, too.