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Finding Purpose by Serving Others: Health Care Careers Helping Veterans

If there is one thing former Marine Michael Lewis wants people to remember it's this: Veterans are your brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors. They are people you know. And, all they want after they serve is to come home. They don't want to be pitied or stigmatized. But, they do need us to realize the unique challenges they face returning to civilian life after serving their country.

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Lewis, who served from 1978 to 1986, knows quite a bit about what it takes to help a veteran come home -- both from his own journey and from working with other veterans. He knows more than most about the roadblocks and stressors they face, and about the rough turns their lives can take. Lewis is a career/veterans affairs counselor at the Channing and Marie Bete Veterans Center at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. He is co-founder of the college's VetNet, a club for student veterans. He suffers from PTSD, is a former addict and has been homeless. Lewis is also an example of how a veteran can find purpose serving others.

Transitioning to civilian life

When he left the Marine Corps, Lewis had what he calls a "healthy case of PTSD." Only, back in 1986, there was little understanding of PTSD and few services in place for veterans reintegrating after their service. His personal journey was not an easy one. But, roughly 30 years after graduating high school, he was at Greenfield Community College for his associate degree in health science.

As a student, he co-founded VetNet, a student veteran organization dedicated to supporting vets as they begin their academic careers. His advocacy and counseling work, as well as the simple drive to help others, led him to pursue his bachelor's degree in social work.

Social workers can be instrumental to veterans reentering civilian life. They can help vets navigate the bureaucracy of the Veterans Administration and remain a key link to services and benefits throughout vets' lives. Some social workers serve as case managers, while others may work in advocacy or crisis intervention. Clinical social workers counsel individual vets or run therapy counseling sessions.

Students interested in social work will need to have at least a bachelor's degree. Employment for social workers is predicted to grow through 2022 (BLS.gov) at a rate of 19 percent. Social workers specializing in mental health and substance abuse will be in even greater demand, with 23 percent growth predicted.

Tackling the hidden wounds of substance abuse

Lewis know firsthand that many vets struggle with issues of addiction and substance abuse. Mental health and substance abuse counselors can play a pivotal role in a veteran's journey to recovery. They may work one-on-one or in group settings to help vets understand their addiction and behavioral triggers. Counselors help vets make goals and access the support services they need to achieve them. Counselors often work with families providing both education and coping strategies.

Lewis, a former addict, worked to counsel recovering addicts prior to earning a bachelor's in social work. The minimum amount of education for substance abuse counselors is a high school diploma and on-the-job training. There are specific skills substance abuse counselors need that are innate -- empathy, patience and a willingness to listen. There are other skills that come out of life experience, perhaps from a counselor's own recovery from addiction. Social workers in private practice must have a master's degree and be licensed.

For his part, Lewis feels that studying for his degree has helped to inform his own counseling practice. It has given him another skill set to draw upon. He's learned how to actively listen and to pick up on the nuances of body language. It has given him an understanding of his own biases as well as an understanding of how culture, society, and policy affects individuals.

Healing physical wounds

Many vets return with injuries or permanent disabilities. For them, coming home begins with healing their bodies and learning how to adapt and regain their independence.

Occupational therapists help injured and disabled veterans recover physically and regain control of their lives. OTs often begin by physically evaluating a vet and assessing their individual needs at home and at work. OTs create a plan that may include the use of adaptive equipment or prosthetics, stretching or strength exercises, changes to their physical environment, help with daily tasks and education of vets as well as their families and employers. Lewis, himself, considered becoming an occupational therapist before pursuing his degree in social work. Occupational therapy fit well with his background as a Marine instructor and physical fitness instructor.

The field of occupational therapy has been steadily growing over the last decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) predicts the need for OTs will increase by 29 percent through 2022. Job growth for the occupational therapy assistants, who work under the direct supervision of OTs, is predicted to be 43 percent. Occupational therapists must have a master's degree and be licensed to practice, while occupational therapy assistants need only an associate's degree.

Service and support

For many years, Lewis didn't share his story. When he finally began telling others about his life, he found it both cathartic and empowering. He hopes that he can help others to stand up and give voice to their own journeys. Today, Lewis is poised to graduate from college and has carved out a meaningful life serving and supporting others, including his fellow veterans. And, of course, he hopes that all his fellow veterans will find their way home -- and then on to a peaceful, successful life.

Sources:

Occupational Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm

Occupational Therapy Assistant, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapy-assistants-and-aides.htm

Social Workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm

Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-and-behavioral-disorder-counselors.htm

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