Marketing and Design Coordinator Christina Strachoff sat down with her father, LICSW and Veteran himself, to talk about post-deployment adjustments and vet mental health in honor of Veterans Day. The following interview includes mentions of deployment, substance use, and mental illness.
Could you tell me about your military experience? When you were in the military, what branch were you in? Where were you stationed?
I was in the United States Army. I enlisted at age 20 in 1982. I served at Fort Carson, Colorado, an infantry base, primarily. I was on gate duty a majority of the time, and was there for about a year and a half. During that time in Colorado, when I was getting ready to be transferred to Germany, I went to MPI school, so that was Military Police Investigation School. Then I went to Germany and that was probably in ‘84 for some time through ‘85, maybe even the end of ‘83. It’s hard to remember.
While I was in Germany, I served in Karlsruhe, Germany, pretty close to Heidelberg, and while there I went to Traffic Accident Investigation School so I could investigate an accident. The military, I left and went in as E-1 and I came out and I was E-4. The commander in chief was Ronald Reagan. I started with, I think, $465 a month. I think I concluded with a little more than that, but not much more.
You went on to serve veterans at the Key Program and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Could you tell me about the roles that you held there, and what you did with the veterans you served?
One of the reasons I joined the service was for educational benefits. They paid for my undergrad at Bridgewater State, which is now Bridgewater State University. Because I am a disabled veteran, I qualified for something called Chapter 31; that paid for my graduate studies at Boston University and I became a social worker.
I wanted to work with homeless veterans. After my internship at the psychiatric hospital, I was hired as a social worker for the Key Program, which is a 90-day homeless domiciliary program. I was a team leader, ran a lot of groups, and did individual therapy. I went on to work for the REACH Program [a combination substance abuse and homeless domiciliary program]. Later, I was fortunate enough to be selected to the position of Manager of a program called Vocational Industries, where my staff and I helped veterans become employed.
Many of the veterans are in recovery. When you think of recovery I don’t know what comes to mind, but in my perspective, we’re all in recovery. It doesn’t have to be alcohol or drugs. There’s all sorts of recovery in life, and it’s important to address some of the issues that have landed you here. I ran groups and different housing workshops, because it was a homeless program. Through the work program, they would participate in getting back into the swing of what we might consider “a productive member of society” — this was often one of the phrases veterans would share in several of the groups I ran. I ran multiple housing groups. I would run the community meetings. I wanted to help the veterans build their self-esteem because being in recovery, often they burned a lot of bridges and family had discarded them and they had discarded their families. So it was a challenge for them to rebuild their lives.
The recidivism rate is terrible, but if you were willing to work you could walk away with some good tools. That’s what we would try to explain to them. Here are some tools. The question is, do you use those tools and how do you use those tools? And when do you use those tools from the REACH Program?
I was able to retire, and I still help. I got a phone call today from a veteran. A friend of his drank himself to death. So we talked about that. He asked me some other stuff about me and personal stuff about my faith and stuff for his class assignment. And it’s just nice.
Jumping off of that, are there some things that come to mind that civilians might not understand about veterans?
It’s hard to really answer what civilians understand or don’t understand. But, you know, from my experience, when the uniform goes on we’re all soldiers— no matter what your specialty. I don’t think people understand the camaraderie among veterans.
The bottom line in combat is kill or be killed. And when you put on the uniform, you are ready to go to that situation if need be. I don’t know if people understand how challenging that is. To just say, “I will sacrifice myself for the cause.” We’re willing to basically die for our country.
Being a veteran wasn’t always popular. In World War II veterans were stoic, and they had reasons why. They saw some stuff that they didn’t want to share. Vietnam veterans were not welcome back to the United States. I was post-Vietnam. People disregarded me. I remember going into a store at the mall one time with you, and I asked if they gave a Veterans benefit. And boy, did I get an earful from the man and the young person behind the desk.
It’s changed since 9/11. It made being a veteran popular again. It’s kind of interesting how life comes full circle.
People may understand that or may not understand it. I mean, I would go back to the military if they let me. Obviously I wouldn’t be as spry as I used to be, but I can help people with mental health.
As far as you’ve come to understand from your own experience as a veteran and also serving veterans; what are some common challenges that veterans today tend to experience when they return home from their service?
Anything and everything that you saw that is unpleasant you hold in. You do not talk about it. Unfortunately, sometimes you bury your emotions. You bury it in a bottle of beer or a can of beer or a bottle of something.
Some people turn to substances. Many veterans don’t know that the services that are out there are available to them. I didn’t know what services were out there for me. The VA has since done a better job at promoting what services are available because they’ve seen the mistakes that’ve been made.
Mental health is a big problem for veterans. You may have noticed how emotionless I can be sometimes. There’s no time for emotions in the military. The mission is the emotion. When you’re done, then you’re thankful.
A lot of veterans that I dealt with were Afghanistan and Iraq vets. They held very important roles. Here, they’ve come back to civilian life. Yeah, they were recognized, but they were still not valued. Everything made sense back in combat. That’s the mental health piece because, you know, in combat anything goes. Whereas here, you know, if you’re angry, you can’t lose it at the Market Basket because someone cut in front of you at the deli. It’s a tough adjustment for a lot of the veterans.
They’re doing a much better job at identifying veterans and what the services are. Helping them with mental health problems, helping them with emotions…but it’s not a perfect system.
How do you want to see mental health care change for veterans?
What I would like to see, unfortunately the government can’t afford to do this, is to double and triple the size of their mental health staff.
However, I stopped for a moment and just turned to you and your work at PeaceLove. Thank you. This is what matters. Other people picking up the charge and trying to help people with mental health issues.
It’s agencies like PeaceLove that are out there on the frontlines, whether you realize it or not. Just helping people manage, whether it’s through today or for longer. You know, there’s an old expression, “You feed a man, he eats for one day. You teach him how to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”
Mental Health Resources for Veterans
Veterans Crisis Line
If you are a Veteran in crisis or concerned about one, connect with the Veterans Crisis Line to reach caring, qualified responders with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many of them are Veterans themselves. Call 1-800-273-8255 and select 1, or text 838255.