by Cortney Fielding

After returning from a particularly violent tour of duty in Iraq, Col. David Sutherland caught himself scanning the lakes and canals scattered across his Texas town.

The U.S. Army brigade commander wasn’t admiring the scenery. He was on alert for the bodies of murder victims, like the many he’d pulled out of similar looking waterways on the other side of the world.

“What you see impacts you; it stays with you,” said Sutherland, now a special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an April 22 talk hosted by the USC School of Social Work at the Davidson Center.

Sutherland told the audience of about 70 students, faculty, mental health care professionals and veterans that therapy for him was going to Walter Reed Medical Center each day to visit wounded warriors, which was his way of coping with reintegration. But the Purple Heart recipient acknowledged that many in the military still don’t feel comfortable reaching out for help like he did.

“The first thing we have to battle is the perception of a stigma,” he said. “We have to allow them to come forward and say, ‘I have a problem,’ and know it’s not going to affect their careers. It’s okay.”

Sutherland, who often travels the country seeking best practices in veteran and family services, made his remarks during a daylong tour of the School of Social Work.

The school launched its military social work and veteran services master’s degree program in 2008 in response to a growing number of armed forces personnel experiencing mental health challenges that few professionals were prepared to treat.

USC is believed to be the first research university with a program aimed at preparing social workers and other trained mental health professionals to help the nation’s armed forces personnel, military veterans and their families manage the pressures of military life and post-war adjustments. It was also the first in the nation to enroll Army ROTC graduate students in a military social work concentration.

Sutherland also visited the school’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families for a demonstration of its “virtual client.”

Developed in partnership with USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, this advanced technology, when complete, will allow students and social workers anywhere to hold virtual counseling sessions with lifelike avatars programmed to look, talk and act like members of the military.

Afterward, Sutherland had high praise for the school.

“I am inspired. You are doing some amazing stuff here,” he said. “What you all are doing here is cutting-edge. It’s going to transform this issue. To say the best is yet to come is absolutely true.”

Before the day ended, the high-ranking military official admitted to a personal motivation for ensuring mental health is taken seriously in the Armed Forces. His oldest son is thinking seriously about enlisting in the Marines.

“The bottom line is, when he comes back, I want my son back,” Sutherland said. “And we all feel the same way.”

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