Off The Base: A One Year Summary of Military Families

This is a modified version of the presentation I gave for the conclusion of my yearlong Fellowship as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalist.

Former First Lady Carter: Make Military Families A Priority

Pres. and Mrs. Carter hold their annual "conversation" with the public Tuesday at the Carter Center, Atlanta.

Those familiar with this blog know it came into existence as part of my yearlong fellowship with the Rosalynn Carter Center for Mental Health Journalism. I am winding up three days at the Carter Center in Atlanta that mark  the end of my fellowship, but not the end to this blog. We have only begun to delve into the issues and there are many more voices to be heard.

Outgoing and incoming Rosalynn Carter Fellows have spent the past two days learning about new research, discussing mental health stigma and exchanging ideas about our projects all focused on improving the public’s understanding of mental health whether it be anxiety and depression or Post Traumatic Stress and suicide.

What I think many may not know is that Mrs. Carter is involved directly. She sits in on all the sessions and participates. I had the privilege today to present the stories of veterans, military families and active duty members who I’ve interviewed over the year. The former first lady listened to the voices of blog contributors Cheyenne Forsythe and Colleen Krepstekies. She read the blog entries of Jackie Dorr and Tracie Ciambotti.

And she heard directly from blog contributor Dorie Griggs, who lives in Roswell, and was able to attend today’s session. Dorie did a great job explaining her journey of becoming a military mom. Tonight, Mrs. Carter and President Jimmy Carter held their annual “conversation” with the public. They talked about The Carter Center’s projects curing disease in Africa, conflict resolution and election monitoring. Mrs. Carter talked about her fellowship program which is in its 15th year and has supported and educated more than 100 journalists including me.

During her talk tonight, she mentioned hearing the voices of veterans and told a packed audience that military families – especially those with the Reserves and National Guard – need support. It is one of many stories I and others will pursue.

So for those of you who are military – Mrs. Carter has your “six” – and for civilians such as myself – her marching orders are to build support for those families in your communities.

Former First Lady Deserves Credit

Rosalynn Carter, provided by The Carter Center.

Rosalynn Carter deserves credit for this blog. No, she’s not a contributing author. But, my “Off the Base” blog is a direct result of her dedication to improving news coverage of mental health issues.

In my case, Mrs. Carter and her advisory board selected me as a 2010-2011 Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism in part because of my  focus on covering the stresses and successes of military families undergoing multiple deployments.

I was already reporting on military life and veterans issues before blogging. But as a general assignment reporter at WUSF 89.7, Tampa’s NPR affiliate, I also have to cover a lot of other topics. The journalism fellowship that Mrs. Carter created gives me the time, financial resources and access to mental health experts to improve and expand my reporting.

I’m only a few steps into the yearlong fellowship.  Yet, I have met some incredibly resilient veterans and some passionate active duty military and their families. I am learning and sharing information on research into PTSD, TBI and other issues. And there’s much more to come.

Just taking a moment to share my thanks and the credit with Mrs. Carter who beyond my selection as a fellow sponsored the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy  in November,  A Veterans Journey Home: Reintegrating Our National Guard and Reservists into Family, Community, and Workplace. She’s given voice to veterans, to active duty, to families, to those dealing with mental health issues and to reporters.

And, she asked for no credit.

PTSD: The Story of a Vietnam Vet’s Healing

My thanks to Dorie Griggs. I met her at the Rosalynn Carter symposium for reporters in January. The two-day event at the Carter Center in Atlanta focused on ways to improve journalists reporting on returning veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Since then, Dorie and I have become friends. A graduate of divinity school and mother of three including one son at the Citadel, Dorie has introduced me to many things most recently a blog by Lily Casura, Healing Combat Trauma, which focuses on PTSD.

Casura is a self-described journalist, blogger and “friend of veterans.” Casura produced a mulit-media story about one Vietnam veteran‘s search for healing.

Just as Vietnam veterans have comforted and advocated for veterans of OIF and OEF, I am encouraged that there are other journalists, like Casura and me, working to tell their stories.

Reaching Military Families

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter during her opening remarks at the Carter Center Nov. 3, 2010.

This was a very special week for me. I returned to the Carter Center in Atlanta more than a decade after I was awarded the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship For Mental Health Journalism. Back in 1999 I was working in broadcast journalism and had convinced my employer WTSP-TV (a Gannett owned TV station) to support my application so I could get a $10,000 grant from the Carter fellowship to help produce a multi-part TV news series and a documentary about depression and suicide. This week I returned not so much as a journalist but more so as a military wife to speak to the 26th Annual Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Symposium.

The symposium’s topic this year was “A Veteran’s Journey Home: Reintegrating Our National Guard and Reservists into Family, Community, and Workplace.” “National Guard and reserves make up approximately one-third of all military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are more likely than other military to face multiple deployments. Yet, once their job is finished, guard and reserve service members return to civilian life instead of a military base, and do not have the same access to health care services as their active duty colleagues,” said Dr. Thomas Bornemann, director of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program.

Liisa Temple giving the military families and social media presentation.

I was asked to speak at this event from the perspective of a military wife who greatly benefited from my husband Rex’s access to social media while deployed. Rex wrote a blog called Afghanistan – My Last Tour the entire time that he was gone; the blog also turned into a popular radio series on our local NPR affiliate, WUSF, here in Tampa, Fla., where Rex is stationed at MacDill AFB. Both my husband and I think the blog was a crucial lifeline for us and our family and friends; it ultimately made our marriage stronger and gave us something to share even though thousands of miles and multiple time zones separated us.

The audience at the Carter symposium was made up of mental health experts and military members as well as those who advocate for military families. My job as a speaker was to highlight how social media can be harnessed to help inform military families about mental health services that are available. So I made sure to highlight MILblogging, Blackfive, Bouhammer, YouServedSpouseBUZZ and many other popular milblogs; my goal was to show how working with military bloggers can be very effective in disseminating information to younger troops and their families. But to be honest I think I’m not sure I was entirely effective in reaching the audience when I got into the nitty gritty of Facebook, Twitter and using the #MilitaryMon hash tag in your tweets.

I met so many wonderful experts who are passionate about caring for the returning troops. However, there was one who just really impressed me with her energy and the services she provides through a non-profit called “Give an Hour.” Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a psychologist in Washington, D.C. with a military family background, founded the organization in 2005. “ The mission of “Give an Hour” is to develop national networks of volunteers capable of responding to both acute and chronic conditions that arise within our society. The nonprofit, which is a licensed 501c3, provides counseling to individuals, couples and families, and children and adolescents and is dedicated to meeting the mental health needs of the troops and families affected by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Van Dahlen was on the same panel with me and during her speech she said her organization provides confidential treatment for free to anyone who loves someone who has deployed.  “We mean parents, cousins, girlfriends – we don’t turn people away,” she said.

“Give an Hour” offers treatment for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, sexual health and intimacy concerns, and loss and grieving. I thought I was a pretty well informed military wife and I had never heard of this group. But I am so glad I did. And I plan to tell every military family I know about it because I have a hunch there are lot of people who could benefit from its free services.

There was also a booklet someone gave me titled “South Florida Military Family Peer Guide.” It’s a 58-page guide to deployment and I was amazed by its effectiveness; I read it twice cover to cover on the flight home from Atlanta. It is entirely based on confidential interviews with actual military families and it’s full of deployment related advice and tips in a very easily digestible format. The tips are color coded to indicate which ones are from the spouses and which ones are from the military member who deployed; each point of view is priceless and I wish I had had a chance to read this marvelous booklet before going through my first deployment. I truly hope the Florida BrAIve Fund, which sponsored the booklet will find a way to make it available online soon. However, the fund provides a magnificent web based guide for services for Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans living in Florida – just click on this link to get started.

I also had a chance to take with me to Atlanta a video I have been working on about a special new “hands free” wheelchair being developed at the University of South Florida by a dance instructor. This chair is of particular interest to injured veterans and if all goes well, the USF researchers and students working on the chair will soon get it in commercial production. You can watch the video by downloading a copy from USF’s i-Tunes U site here. Or by simply watching the YouTube link below.

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