by Maya Meinert and Megan Hazle

Memorial Day can be an emotional time, especially for those whose lives have been touched by war. But for Eugene Durrah, a Master of Social Work student visiting an American military cemetery in Europe, the meaning of the day hit home in a whole new way.

“The visit to the American cemetery made me think about the numerous lives that were lost on the battlefield, as well as the lives of our ancestors who fought and died for causes that we sometimes take for granted,” Durrah said of being at Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial. “This visit helped me realize the severity of war and how it can affect servicemembers and their families. I learned that servicemembers that died on foreign land actually were buried there, too. This tremendously affects those families that cannot afford to visit them.”

Durrah, whose father was stationed in Germany while serving in the Army, was one of 26 MSW students from the USC School of Social Work who traveled to Europe as part of the school’s global immersion program, “Military Culture: U.S. Forces Abroad in Germany.”

To better understand military culture and how it impacts servicemembers and their families, students embarked on a two-week summer trip to Germany, where the U.S. military has a large presence. The course, led by Anthony Hassan and Kelly Turner of the school’s Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families, offered insight into the experiences, life stressors, values and concerns of military-impacted populations and how best to treat them.

“Actually being on-site with active servicemembers and hearing first-hand about their personal experiences is invaluable for our students’ education and training,” said Hassan, the center’s director. “Opportunities like this are rare, especially when it comes to having access to the military in an international setting. This unique experience will increase the capacity of our students to provide well-informed services to veterans and their families.”

The program started with a visit to Los Alamitos Army Airfield in Los Alamitos, Calif., where students learned about the advancements in battlefield life-saving technology that allow more servicemembers to survive injuries than ever before. Students toured the airfield and weapons simulation room, where they learned how it could sometimes be a struggle for a servicemember to feel safe without a weapon upon returning home.

The next stop was Landstuhl, Germany, home to Ramstein Air Base—the largest American military community overseas—and headquarters for U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and NATO Allied Air Command. Students toured the base and listened to briefings from various offices, including the Deployment Transition Center and USAFE Mental Health.

Lt. Col. Dan Ervin, chief of the Mental Health Branch of USAFE, said airmen seek help more for common stressors such as work and intimate relationships, rather than the often-publicized post-traumatic stress. He also noted that one underreported mental health issue within the military is eating disorders, which can stem from the pressure for servicemembers to pass their annual physical fitness exam and stay within the weight and waist measurement limits.

Tech. Sgt. Cory Hancock at the Ramstein Deployment Transition Center, which offers a decompression program for servicemembers, talked about reintegration issues. Because life in a forward operating base, or secured military position that supports tactical operations, is extremely structured and disciplined, returning to a civilian environment can be disorienting, he said. Simple decisions like choosing which clothes to wear or what food to eat can suddenly seem daunting because there were no such choices at the base.

A highlight at Ramstein was a special visit to the flight line, a restricted area of the base where military cargo planes that transport vehicles, equipment, supplies and wounded soldiers are unloaded or prepared for flight. Students toured a C-17 Globemaster III, a large transport aircraft, staffed by an aeromedical evacuation crew that flies the injured from combat zones in Iraq or Afghanistan to medical facilities at Ramstein and in the United States.

“From that first activity to our closing session with three military spouses, I continuously felt the concept of family was strong and present at Ramstein Air Base,” said MSW student Linda Venema. “Much like in a blood-related family, the Air Force protects it own whether in combat or at home. A statement by one of our presenters rings true: When airmen deploy, they take their families with them – their fellow servicemembers that they deploy with and the loved ones they left behind.”

Student Whitney Pepper said her desire to join the military as a social worker has grown since being a part of this global immersion program.

“Everyone who has spoken with us at Ramstein has expressed they truly enjoy what they do, and I feel I would experience the same joys as a military social worker,” Pepper said. “Not only would I be able to serve my country, but I would also be able to connect with my clients on a deeper level through our shared commitment to honor and duty.”

Students also visited Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the largest overseas American hospital. Several civilian government employees and contractors working as behavioral healthcare providers said the biggest difference in treating military populations was that they have a responsibility to not only the patient’s health and well-being, but also to the military mission; that is, providers must inform the patient’s commander if they believe the servicemember may cause harm to himself or others, or cannot perform his job properly, for the safety of fellow servicemembers.

“During the briefings at Ramstein Air Base and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, I came to realize the social workers on these installations deal with more relationship or adjustment issues than mental illnesses. This has broadened my perspective of military social work,” student Anthony Mihalo said. “As a social worker within the military, a balance must be made between meeting the needs of the client and fulfilling the mission of the military. This was something I had not contemplated before my immersion experience.”

At Spangdahlem Air Base, Air Force social workers told students the most common issues they treat in airmen and their family members are usually related to marriage or family, such as relationship counseling or adjustment to military or overseas living. The social workers also said the stigma surrounding mental illness is a significant barrier to care, especially among airmen whose work requires high functionality, like piloting or servicing aircraft.

“My goal is to not only serve the 15 percent of military personnel who seek out behavioral healthcare, but also advocate for the 85 percent who fall through the cracks or do not seek help because of stigma or fear of being diagnosed with a condition that they believe would limit or end their military career,” student Cory Mazariego said. “I want to make a difference in servicemembers’ lives and remind them they are not alone – that I and other social workers are here to serve them in return for their sacrifices.”

PHOTO:  Spec. Marcela Supnet decides which donated quilt to select at the Wounded Warrior Ministry Center at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. U.S. Army Photo by Thomas Warner.

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