For many soldiers, returning home to civilian life after a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan can be difficult. And without help, navigating the readjustment can be treacherous—for soldiers and for their loved ones.
Major Steven Keihl, who is director of mental health for the California National Guard, served 16 months in Iraq and knows firsthand the particular challenges these combat veterans face. Keihl completed his M.S. in Psychology at Walden in the spring of 2008 and is continuing on for a Ph.D. in Psychology with a specialization in Health Psychology.
"Dealing with the reintegration needs of our soldiers returning from Iraq is a personal and professional passion," Keihl says. "I struggled with a lot of those issues myself."
Challenges faced by returning soldiers include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—about which, Keihl says, "there is a lot of misinformation"—and other mental health issues, caused in part by long combat time. "In WWII, the actual combat time was less than 100 days a year," Keihl explains, "and right now the average Iraqi Freedom combatant is engaged 221 days a year.
"We make sure we tell [soldiers] that it's normal for normal people exposed to abnormal events to struggle with readjustment to the world they come back to—[particularly] socially, with primary relationships. They feel lost, like they don't belong," he says.
Depression and suicide are among the risks for returning soldiers. In fact, Keihl notes that the Army suicide rate in 2007 was the highest in 26 years, according to the Department of Defense.
Returning soldiers from the National Guard and the Army Reserve are at a particular disadvantage because they don't have the same support resources as active duty personnel, and they must reintegrate into a civilian lifestyle, often facing insensitivity. "Someone [at their civilian job] asks them, 'Did you kill anybody?' and that's the last question they want to answer," says Keihl.
He and just three other full-time staff members are charged with managing clinical services for 22,000 California National Guard soldiers. Therefore, he says, "We do not provide clinical services; we connect soldiers to the various agencies that can help them. We hand-walk people through the process, and make sure they get the treatment they need."
Keihl oversees six programs and participates in six others, covering issues ranging from suicide prevention to marriage issues and financial problems. They also have an "Embed Program," in which civilians train with troops and address mental health issues "right on the ground level," Keihl explains. "No other state has that."
Keihl has found that what he learned in his Walden courses—for example, on the topics of memory and learning and traumatic brain injury—"informed the training the soldiers got throughout the state of California." And his research design and statistics class affected how he gathered information for a research project for the state of California.
"Walden has been a great experience for me," he says. "It was very applicable to my work." He also notes that for military personnel like himself, who travel so much, Walden's flexibility is key: "I did one month of the program when I was deployed out of the country," he says. "As long as you have a laptop and Internet access, you can make this work."
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