Helping vets with hidden scars
By Jeff Stensland, email@example.com, 803-777-3686
Social work professor Nancy Brown vividly remembers driving to her house in Forest Acres after her son, Will, was deployed to Iraq in 2009. For months whenever she turned the final corner onto her street her heart would start racing and she would become filled with dread.
“I knew that if something were to happen to him there would be a strange car waiting in my driveway, and I always half-expected one would be there every time I turned that corner. So I didn’t want to turn that corner,” she said. “I called that the year of not sleeping.”
For Will, an Army reservist who came back safely from Iraq, home would never be quite the same either. Brown says her son intimated to her his nervousness about driving down streets on garbage pick-up day. The plastic recycling bins placed next to curbs reminded him of the roadside bombs he and his fellow soldiers would encounter in Iraq.
But Will would be alright. No longer on the front lines, he found a way to work through the stress of war and his degree in Russian and Arabic studies has landed him a job as a media consultant overseas. He also recently got married to a woman he met in Kyrgyzstan while studying Russian at the London School of Languages. Brown keeps a photo of him and his finance on her desk—a dashing young couple standing dockside on a bright summer day in an exotic port-of-call.
Others in the Brown’s lives would not be so lucky. Will’s best friend since eighth grade, Marine Lance Cpl. Mills Bigham, never could shake the hidden scars inflicted during his service in Iraq. Bigham’s shooting of a 12-year-old holding what turned out to be a shoddy grenade haunted him until he decided to end his own life in 2010. He was only 23.
Brown says she wishes she could have done more for Bigham while he was alive and admits that she struggled with bouts of guilt about his death.
“I would ask him how he was, and he would always say ‘fine,’ but he wasn’t,” she said. “War changes people.”
To help honor Bigham, Brown and a former colleague are creating a military social work program at USC that trains people in the community to identify when veterans are struggling with PTSD and equips with them with tools to help. USC also offers a certificate for master’s level social work students that covers issues of trauma, substance abuse and family relationships.
The community program now being developed is designed for social workers, health care professionals or anyone else who may have frequent interactions with veterans and their families. Along with Bigham’s family, Brown helps promote a non-profit called Hidden Wounds, which provides counseling to veterans and their families.
Suicide has become a major concern of the nation’s military. Among active duty troops, there was a record of 350 suicides in 2012, nearly twice as many as a decade before. And an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day, according to Department of Veterans Affairs.
Brown, who has spent more than three decades as a therapist and directs USC’s Drug and Addiction Studies Graduate Certificate Program, said the problem of PTSD may be especially difficult for reservists and National Guard member, who must quickly transition from combat situations back to office jobs in the civilian world.
“A lot of our vets are doing really well, and we have to acknowledge that,” she said. “But there are many others who the war has taken a big a big toll on and who are not having an easy time adapting back.”
USC Counseling and Human Development Center at 803-777-5223
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255.
Veterans Crisis Line 1-800-273-8255