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Wartime Psychology: Alumna counsels soldiers who are back from war

Feb 18, 2008
by Liz Daube, '05

While her peers completed internships in crisp, well-lit offices, Capt. Jessica Parker, Ph.D., wore battle fatigues and slept in a tent during a 106-degree Texas summer. She ate dehydrated food and went without showers for a month. She held her own during convoy operations, firing her weapon and dodging snipers.

To become a clinical psychologist for the U.S. Army, Parker had to go through basic training. The experience was supposed to help the ’00 Flagler graduate better relate to her patients – who, as she put it, “have gone into a war zone one to five times and have been blown up, burned, amputated, dealt with human remains of their fellow soldiers … etc.”

Parker will also need the training in Fall 2008, when she leaves Brooke Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston and deploys to Iraq. There, she’ll help soldiers in the field deal with combat stress.

“There’s no such thing as a protected area anymore – everything’s a frontline,” Parker said. “We [army psychologists] are not safe or removed anymore. We’re sitting in the back of the humvees … You have to qualify on a weapon just like everyone else.”

She will be in Iraq for at least a year, debriefing soldiers after fire fights and making sure they get “three hots and a cot” – a day of real meals and rest – before returning to duty.

So, to recap: Parker gets to wear camouflage every day, try to help patients deal with almost unspeakable horrors and, eventually, expose herself to the same kind of conditions that leave many soldiers without life or limbs. It’s a situation that’s led many of her friends, along with this reporter, to ask: “Why?”

Parker laughed a little at the question. It was a friendly, “I know, I know” sort of laugh: not bitter, not sarcastic.

“You always hear people say, ‘The recruiter didn’t tell me this,’ ” she said. “I talk to my friends across the country who are doing civilian residencies.

“They say, ‘I saw someone who had a little bit of depression.’ … I’m thinking, that’s it? That’s all you saw today? I can’t even begin to explain what I saw today.”

After receiving her master’s degree in mental health counseling from the University of Florida, Parker thought the Army would give her unique opportunities in her field. She said most people don’t realize that many advances in clinical psychology have come from the military’s treatment of soldiers during wartime. Parker hopes to be “on the cutting edge” of diagnosing and treating problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe brain injuries.

She’s also learning to help patients despite a variety of setbacks that aren’t found in most mental health settings. Most people in the military tend to develop a stoicism that prevents them from easily talking about their problems, Parker said. On top of that, she added, many of them suffer from survivor’s guilt.

“It’s reeducating: ‘It’s okay to be a soldier and it’s okay to have feelings,’ ” Parker said. “You have folks who say, ‘That should’ve been me, I should’ve died. I’m sitting here complaining to you, and I don’t feel I should be doing that.’ ”

Parker said there are also issues of how to treat soldiers who will be heading into combat again. A common problem when they return home is hyper vigilance – a symptom of PTSD. Parker said some soldiers can’t relax with family and friends because of wartime habits they’ve developed. They constantly search the street while driving or walking, trying to figure out if a roadside bomb is hidden in a pile of trash.

In average PTSD cases, Parker said, patients would be taught to overcome those fears. But Parker can’t help her about-to-deploy patients to relax completely.

“PTSD dealing with a rape victim is very different than dealing with PTSD with a combat victim,” Parker said. “For a rape victim, I want that person to feel comfortable around members of the opposite sex and not look over their shoulders all the time.

“You’re looking at probability [of a repeat incident]. They [soldiers] are like, ‘I have multiple burns and I’ve been blown up 30 times.’ … If I take away all their alertness and hyper vigilance, I’ve just made them a danger to themselves and their convoy.”

After hearing so many stories of loss and danger, Parker said she’s not immune to her own fears of deployment. But she believes in what she’s doing in a way she never did before.

“I think before I got into the military, I saw therapy as a choice in a lot of ways,” Parker said. “Some people say psychology is just for the wealthy…you know, the classic image of the guy lying on the couch and complaining about what someone said to him.

“But you realize it’s such a practical field. There are syndromes and issues that are just so complex, you can’t figure them out on your own … Coming into this type of setting with this intensity, you realize: ‘I do have a purpose.’ ”

Parker said she loves her job. The soldiers she works with keep her motivated – and as ready as she can be to leave for Iraq.

“I can’t tell you how much I am inspired on a daily basis by 19-year-olds with 50 percent burns on their bodies, missing limbs and saying, ‘Captain Parker, please don’t get me out of the Army. I want to go back to my unit,’ ” she said. “They believe in what they do, and that is why I go to work every day.

“These guys are heroes. You haven’t lived until you are walking down the hallway of the hospital with one of your patients who has prosthetic legs – and he is out-walking you.”

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