The things they carry: Helping mend the psychological wounds of war
As one war ends in Iraq and another continues for the foreseeable future in Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. soldiers arrive home, only to face a more prolonged and far lonelier battle with the psychic aftermath of combat experience.
Rebecca Townsend was working as a school psychologist with a part-time private practice in Clarksville when she began to see the emotional toll warfare takes — and not just on soldiers. In 2006, with the entire 101st Airborne Division deployed to Iraq, she found more and more clients coming to her for help, including teachers at her school whose spouses were at war and students with absent dads or moms.
And then the troops started coming home — some injured, others with less visible scars. Army suicide rates have more than doubled since 2004, according to an Army study led by the National Institute of Mental Health. So many Fort Campbell soldiers committed suicide in 2009, that the post declared a state of emergency.
“There are so many that either won’t come forward for help, don’t know how, don’t trust anyone, or are so emotionally damaged they don’t know that there’s any way out of it,” Townsend explains. Her voice betrays quiet outrage as she describes one soldier she assisted, a homeless veteran of three tours who suffered from PTSD. “What bothers me,” she says, “is that I feel we’re going to lose a whole generation of kids to emotional damage. If they can’t find an outlet for it that’s healthy, we’re going to have a bunch of missing people, emotionally missing in action.”
She quickly realized that Clarksville’s tiny community of mental health providers — and even the Army’s OneSource assistance program — were overwhelmed with demand.
Townsend began offering free counseling to soldiers and families. But she couldn’t begin to address all that need as one woman in one small office. She decided to assemble a larger network of mental health professionals willing to offer free therapy to soldiers and families, called Soldiers and Families Embraced (SAFE), which she describes as “a place to be heard and have their feelings validated.”
“At Fort Campbell, there’s a warrior mentality,” says Townsend. “The Department of Defense does an awesome job training warriors. That’s their mission. Their mission is not mental health care. That’s where we as a community have to assist. We have to do our part for these guys.”
Townsend also began providing support services for military families through an organization called “Not Alone,” which offers web-based support groups for servicemen and families. Through this organization, she counsels individuals and couples and recently led a retreat for military spouses.
Since marrying a National Guard officer in 2009, Townsend understands better than ever the pressure on military families, both during and after deployment. “I have seen so many guys just fall apart in here and allow themselves to feel the anger, the sadness, the loneliness that comes home with them from war,” she says.
Those feelings, she adds, are often bewildering, even frightening for soldiers’ families. Many veterans don’t feel that they can explain themselves, or share the details of their combat experiences with a spouse. “They do it consciously and subconsciously to protect their loved ones,” says Townsend. “For many family members, if they knew what their soldier had experienced — and then also knew they would have to go back to that — it would cause a lot of anxiety for them.”
Often, it’s Townsend’s job to help newly stateside soldiers and their families get to know each other again. “We practice communication in here,” she says. “We think we’re hearing each other, but we’re really just building up our own defense.”
She says soldiers often feel like strangers in their own homes and in civilian society.
Townsend aims to help warriors find their place in the world away from war. “They feel helpless here. The soldiers come back, they don’t have a mission, and they feel guilty about the buddies that they left behind.”
Eventually, Townsend reimagined SAFE’s mission to one of education. She took postgraduate training in military mental health and has since led training seminars for psychologists, schoolteachers, and administrators all over the state, in the specific counseling needs of soldiers and families. “I can reach more people that way,” she says.
And SAFE recently merged with a nonprofit called Lazarus that matches soldiers with services they need, from immediate food and shelter to medical care and drug rehab.
“I felt it was my duty to offer something to these guys and these families who I felt like had not been taken care of, given all that they have given … I want them to feel like they belong.”
Not Alone offers support to warriors and families suffering from PTSD and combat stress. notalone.com
SAFE trains mental health professionals in the special counseling needs of service members and their families. thesafenetwork.org
The Lazarus Project offers no-cost counseling, support groups, and other resources for soldiers, veterans, and families. facebook.com/thelazarusproject