Battling combat veterans’ true enemy: the specter of suicide
It’s a startling statistic: At least 20 veterans take their own lives every day.
There’s a suicide epidemic among veterans, and mental health professionals aren’t equipped to handle it, argue Michigan State University social workers and veterans.
But a new MSU program could change that.
MSU is the first university in the country to launch a Combat Veterans Certificate Program, which immerses social work graduate students in veterans’ intense and emotional journeys from boot camp to war to civilian life.
While other universities offer social work classes on veterans, those curricula are broad.
“We have deliberately chosen to make our focus on those veterans who have experienced combat because that is something few people (especially civilians) understand, and it brings with it unique challenges,” said Glenn Stutzky, senior clinical instructor in the School of Social Work.
There are no textbooks nor lectures. Instead, seven veterans serve as the instructors, sharing on video – and in intimate conversations with students – some of their darkest moments. To gain insight into a combat veteran’s mindset, students write a last letter home and carry it around; wear dog tags; relive 9/11 through text messages, video clips and audio of phone calls; and receive ready to eat meals and care packages.
“I’m not the same person I was when I started this program,” said Joel Evers, who will graduate May 3 with his master’s in social work and certification to work with veterans. “This program has given me the awareness, tools and skills necessary to work with veterans in the future.”
He is part of the first cohort of eight students to graduate next week with the certification.
The Social Work with Combat Veterans Certificate Program is taught online and comprises three segments. The first class is open to undergraduates and graduate students studying any discipline. But the second and third classes – which launched in 2018 – are much more intense and designed for master’s of social work students to prepare them to work in the field.
Offering experiential and reflection-based learning, students visited various veteran related sites in Washington, D.C., and spent a weekend at Save a Warrior in Ohio during the certificate program.
“It was so powerful to be able to hear and embrace these veterans’ stories,” Evers said. “It’s not easy to talk about many of the things shared, but throughout the course I felt so connected to the veterans I followed.”
It’s a bond that’s crucial to helping veterans suffering from emotional and physical pain, said Tina Blaschke-Thompson, coordinator of the Combat Veterans Certificate Program, a social worker and wife of a combat veteran. Her husband, Kevin, a former Marine, returned home from Iraq physically, emotionally and mentally scarred, later revealing he was suicidal.
“Knowing this was happening in my own home – and I had no idea – really shook me to my core, and it reinforced the need for us to be focusing on the issues that we are in this program,” she said. “I had many years of social work education under my belt, but in all those years, I never learned a single thing about the military population or the challenges they experience.”
Healing is about more than post-traumatic stress disorder, Blaschke-Thompson said. It’s about moral injury – a relatively new concept in the mental health profession that occurs when a person commits an act that goes against their moral compass. So, for example, killing someone in war, even if they are the “enemy.”
And then, there’s survivors’ guilt – something which haunts Brian Hanna, a former Army captain, every day.
Hanna is one of the veteran instructors in the class. While in Afghanistan, he experienced combat immediately. There were days he didn’t think he’d come home, and vowed if he did, he’d retire and raise his children. Hanna went to battle knowing he may never meet his unborn child.
'Tape on a loop'
“On a daily basis, I think about my combat experience,” he said. “The shame, the guilt, the wishing I can change things. And I remind myself that I did the best I could, and then try to move on. But it’s like having a tape on loop.”
One day, when civilian life became more difficult than combat life, Hanna realized he needed help.
But it wasn’t easy to find, and no one seemed to truly understand the horrors of battle and the struggle to acclimate to civilian life.
“I can't tell you how many times I’ve tried to talk about certain things, and when I see the facial reactions of people, I just stop,” Hanna said. “I learned really quickly not to talk about it.”
Because of the demand, Stutzky said he and Blaschke-Thompson have received requests from human service professionals working with veterans to participate in the class. So, for the first time, this summer MSU will offer a non-credit enrollment option for those already working in the field.
“For me, this certificate program is about saving lives, pushing students to see behind the mask that so many veterans try to maintain,” Blaschke-Thompson said. “There’s a lot of hurt that’s happening behind that mask.”
“These aren’t just academic courses and a certain number of credits,” he said. “It goes beyond that. It goes into our hearts and from our hearts. It takes students from sympathy to empathy.”
The program also inspired a musical composition by two seniors, Ryan Jones and Ryan Gerhardt. Titled, “Semper,” the piece is written in three movements – pre-war, war and post-war – and reflects the emotions that might accompany each of those phases.
“Semper” will premiere at 8 p.m. Sunday at Fairchild Theatre. The free event will also feature veterans discussing their experiences. Hanna will be there, as well as representatives from veterans’ organizations.
In addition to the School of Social Work, partners on the music piece include the colleges of Music and Nursing and Spartan Battalion.
To listen to a podcast with Evers, Hanna, Stutzky and Blaschke-Thompson, click here.
Media are welcome to attend Sunday’s event.
Commencement ceremonies will be held May 3-5. Evers will graduate at 3:30 p.m. May 3 at Breslin Center.