When Army Sgt. Arthur Moore returned from Vietnam in the 1960s, he said he and fellow veterans were treated like pariahs by people who opposed the war. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jose Cadena’s return from Iraq was very different. He and his fellow veterans were welcomed as heroes.
Despite the differences in how they were received, Moore and Cadena struggled with similar demons at home, they said on Nov. 18 at Fordham Westchester.
“Life can be a living hell when you return,” said Cadena, one of five panelists at “Serving Those Who Have Served: Social Work With Active-Duty Military, Veterans and their Families.”
“First, we go through a honeymoon phase,” he said. “Then you start to realize you may not be needed as much at home. Life went on while you were gone. And then there’s conflict and anger—and the anger will destroy you.”
Cadena said it is difficult for veterans to open up to family members, friends and others about their difficulties acclimating to life at home because they are afraid of being judged.
“You cannot judge me if you didn’t walk in my boots. At one point, I made the mistake of telling my wife I’d rather be back in Iraq,” he said. “Life is hard, and knowing to get help is important. I’m glad the military is starting to realize that.”
Moore’s journey was quite different. He and other Vietnam veterans had to sue to the government to obtain treatment for psychological injuries.
“It took 35 years,” Moore said. “For six years now, I’ve been getting help for post-traumatic stress disorder, anger management and more.
“At first, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Nobody knows what a veteran goes through but a veteran. I’m glad I am finally getting the help I need. It has helped me.”
That active-duty soldiers and veterans often distrust outsiders is nothing new to Mary Ann Forgey, Ph.D., associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) who teaches a course on “Social Work with Military Service Members, Veterans and Their Families.”
Forgey was a civilian social worker from 1983 to 1987 for the Army’s Family Advocacy Program in Wiesbaden, Germany, where she coordinated child and spousal abuse programs. She also has conducted research at Fort Hood, Texas and Fort Bragg, N.C.
Two summers ago, she contacted a veterans center in New York while trying to place social work students. When the center director learned that the students weren’t veterans, he told Forgey he didn’t think it would work.
“I pleaded with him to take this particular student because of her interest. I told him he had an awful lot to give in terms of his knowledge in helping this student be effective with the veteran population,” Forgey said.
“We have many social work students and professionals who are interested in this work, but have little or no experience with the military,” Forgey said. “Conversely, we have active duty and veterans who often distrust outsiders. So what do we do?”
She suggested that social workers employ a cross-cultural competency approach when dealing with veterans, a technique that is typically used to overcome differences in race or sexual orientation. Though that approach may be flawed, she said, it is useful nonetheless.
Forgey urged social workers to embrace the modernist view of cultural competency by familiarizing themselves with the language, rituals and acronyms of the military.
“Take a ‘not knowing’ stance with the client and find those cultural brokers who will share their experiences,” she said.
“Looking back on my own experience entering a military culture, I never understood the commander’s ‘need to know’ and that, as a clinician, I’d have to share with him,” she said. “I was working in the area of domestic violence and child abuse and originally thought, ‘I’m not going to share that kind of information with a person’s employer.’”
Fortunately, a unit commander took her aside and explained that he had much more responsibility than any civilian employer.
“He issues her or him a weapon. He had a need to know—not everything, but certain things,” Forgey said. “That conversation was pivotal for me.”
In her GSS course, Forgey tries to continue that conversation for her students. Moore and Cadena and others have served as “cultural brokers” so students can learn to take a “not knowing” stance and learn how to be respectfully curious.
Civilian social workers also must think about how veterans have been treated within the larger culture.
“How have military culture and veterans been treated by the social work profession? We were kind of absent for the Vietnam veterans. And maybe even worse—we may have been hostile,” Forgey said.
Other panelists who described how they are reaching the veteran and active duty populations and their families at the event include: Tina Atherall, executive vice president of Hope for the Warriors, a nonprofit that works to enhance quality of life for U.S. service members and their families nationwide who have been adversely affected by injuries or death in the line of duty; and Elizabeth Rahilly and Kristen Tuttle of the Veterans Administration of the Hudson Valley.