by Sue Ann Rybak
* The third article in a three-part series on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Sister Nancy DeCesare, associate professor of human services at Chestnut Hill College, is on a mission to heal the invisible wounds of war. As the daughter of a World War II veteran, she understands that the scars of war not only affect veterans but their families as well.
After learning about the Soldiers Project, a private nonprofit organization that provides free counseling and support to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and to their families, DeCesare, who has more than 30 years experience working in social work and teaching, decided to act.
“It became quite evident early on that this should be something we should do in the state of Pennsylvania,” said DeCesare, who is executive director of the Soldiers Project PA. “In Pennsylvania, we have 70,000 veterans who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and nationwide 2.3 million veterans.”
The Soldiers Project was founded in 2004 by Dr. Judith Broder, a clinical psychiatrist who felt it was her duty to not only help veterans returning from war but their families as well.
DeCesare said there is a shortage of mental health professionals trained to deal with this population.
She said today’s veterans suffer from a variety of issues, including post traumatic disorder, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma. DeCesare said the Soldiers Project mission is to provide statewide quality care to service members and their families. It is a mission she said society cannot allow to fail.
According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, in 2013 the Veterans Administration reported that a veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes – that’s 22 veterans a day.
“Veterans have served their country well and put their lives on the line,” DeCesare said, adding that even one suicide is unacceptable.
“I think if more people knew about us, more people would step forward to help volunteer,” she said. “And people with generous hearts, who are very skilled, have stepped forward to say, ‘Yes, I will do that – this will be my service to my country.’”
DeCesare said the Soldiers Project is unique because it provides free services to veterans and their families for as long as they need it.
“As we grow we are getting more referrals that are very serious and that need to be handled quickly and professionally,” she said.
Joseph O’Rourke, retired chief of behavioral health at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, said working as a clinician volunteer at the Soldiers Project PA., has given him the “privilege and opportunity of serving Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans and their family members.”
“The Soldiers Project provides a necessary service at no cost to service members and their families,” said O’Rourke, who is a Vietnam-era veteran. “I have not found any other groups providing free mental health services to Iraqi and/or Afghanistan combat veterans and family members.”
O’Rourke, who has more than 30 years experience in clinical social work, said he knew firsthand the devastating effects of post traumatic stress disorder.
“PTSD is insidious,” said O’Rourke, a certified trauma specialist. “I can count on one hand the number of post deployment soldiers that I met with who didn’t have a significant sleep disorder. These are people who hadn’t slept for more than four hours at a time for years – yet we expect them to function at 110 percent.”
O’Rourke said he has watched services erode over the last 40 years. He said even the health care services provided by the government through Tricare and Military One Source are limited. Military One Insurance will provide veterans with 12 sessions – if more are needed they must be assigned to a different therapist.
“They basically have to start all over again – to form a trusting relationship” he said.
He added that in rural areas it can be almost impossible to receive quality care.
“We are still losing soldiers to suicide everyday,” O’Rourke said.
He noted that recently Army Secretary John McHugh said he thought the military’s suicide problem was linked to “broader societal issues.”
“These people are not going to take responsibility,” said O’Rourke, referring to the bureaucracy and its attempt to limit services to veterans.
O’Rourke said there is a “disconnect” between how the military defines PTSD, treats it, and recognizes it — as a psychological would that occurred in battle. He cited the military’s current policy of not awarding Purple Hearts to veterans with PTSD as an example. O’Rourke added that awarding the Purple Heart for mental illness that results from combat, would help recognize that these are legitimate mental conditions.
He said all Americans have a responsibility to support “our troops, veterans and their families.”
O’Rourke recalled how a 98-year-old man, who had served on the USS Indianapolis, had to receive PTSD therapy on his deathbed to reduce his agitation.
“My point to this story is this stuff doesn’t go away – our grandfathers and fathers came back with it,” O’Rourke said. “Most of the old timers don’t talk about it. I can’t tell you how important I think this work is.”
He added that PTSD is not a battle veterans should have to fight on their own.
For more information about the Soldiers Project PA go to www.thesoldiersprojectpa.org or call 215-242-7736. If you are interested in becoming a clinician volunteer call Sister Nancy DeCesare at 215-248-7028.
Updated An earlier version of this story, erroneously stated that O’Rourke was a Vietnam Veteran.