Career Concerns Impact Mental Health During and After Military Service

Nov. 19, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

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Growing awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans has increased funding for research and treatment. But less discussed are other mental health problems, like depression and anxiety – which are more prevalent among service members than the general population.

This story is part of our ongoing reporting project Nebraska: State of Mental Health.

Veterans who served between 2001 and 2007 are at about 50% higher risk for suicide compared to the general public.

But deployment-related factors, like combat experience or length of deployment, do not put a veteran at higher risk for suicide. In fact, the suicide rate is lower among veterans who have been deployed.

Maj. John Reardon is the Mental Health Flight Commander and 55th Wing Director of Psychological Health at Offutt Air Force Base. (Photo by Becca Costello, NET News)

Yet one researcher notes, “the reality is that depression is often ignored in studies of veterans’ mental health, which tend to focus on PTSD.”

"The problems that we all experience outside of the uniform are certainly going to find their way into service," said Maj. John Reardon, mental health flight commander and 55th Wing director of psychological health at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue.

He manages a mental health clinic on the base offering active-duty service members psychiatric care, domestic violence aid, and help with substance use disorders. The clinic has about 15,000 visits every year.

"I think what's unique about the military relative to say somebody who works at Walmart, for example — I care about how that person is functioning in their job, but whether or not they show up to work intoxicated, impaired, distressed, distracted, is not nearly as significant as a person working on Strategic Command with nuclear operations, right?" Reardon said. "So the implications are much larger."

And that’s the fear — on top of the general stigma about mental health, service members worry that admitting a struggle with depression or anxiety will mean tanking their career for good.

One study shows, of active duty service members:

  • 44% think their unit leadership will treat them differently if they seek help
  • 43% think they would be seen as weak
  • 41% think members of their unit might have less confidence in them
  • 33% think it would harm their career
  • 25% think their leaders would blame them for the problem

A few active duty service members responded to an online request by describing an incredibly stressful work environment. Several active-duty service members declined to be interviewed for this story.

Reardon says it’s a misconception. Some people are discharged after seeking mental health care – and fellow service members often believe they left because they admitted to struggling.

But he says there are always more details not included in the rumors. For example, someone struggling with depression may start drinking too much and end up getting in a fight, or getting a DUI.

"But if one day you're loading rounds into a weapon because you work at the armory or firing range the next day, questions are going to come up," Reardon said. "And so that puts the member in a difficult position potentially, and the unit for that matter, because they're trying to navigate a sensitive situation without disclosing a ton of information."

Alan Koziol is a Navy veteran living in Omaha. (Photo by Becca Costello, NET News)

Reardon says up to 90% of service members who seek help don’t face any career consequences. But even leaving a military career has its own significant challenges.

Navy veteran Alan Koziol of Omaha says re-entering civilian life was the hardest part of his military service.

"When you serve with the military, [you're] very close to those people," Koziol said. "And then you leave the military [and] you may never see those people again. It's like saying goodbye to your family and just one day walking out."

The problem is well-documented; the veteran suicide rate is highest within three years after leaving service.

A military base is designed to take care of every need: food, housing, medical care, even gas stations and grocery stores. And then suddenly, you’re on your own. Many veterans say they wish they had more guidance.

But officials say the guidance is there, as long as service members pay attention and take advantage of it. Anyone who’s been on active duty is required to go through the military’s Transition Assistance Program or TAP.

Aimee Salter is the program manager for TAP at Offutt Air Force Base.

"The overarching goal is just to prepare service members for that transition into civilian life, making sure they're successful in whatever they choose to do," Salter said. "Whether it's go to school, get a job, start a business, and then be comfortable with that transition as well because it is a big change."

It’s an intensive program with several days of classroom-style workshops that go over a ton of resources, and it’s easy to zone out. Salter says one service member she knew got so overwhelmed by the transition process that he decided to re-enlist instead.

"And I think a lot of people look at it like that, death by PowerPoint," Salter said. "It is a fire hose of information. But if you start soon enough, you can take it multiple times, you can access your resources, you can come sit with us one on one, so it's a much slower process, the sooner you start."


A binder full of information sits ready for active duty service members to participate in the Transition Assistance Program. (Photo by Becca Costello, NET News)

A change that went into effect last month will ensure all service members start the transition a full year before they leave.

"A lot of people fail to realize that TAP is a benefit, and no other employer is going to pay you to learn how to get another job while on company time," Salter said. "So there's a lot of money and a lot of resources that go into this program to ensure that they're successful in the civilian sector."

And Salter says they’re always available to keep helping a veteran, even if they transitioned out several years ago.

Community resources are also available, like Transition Assistance Advisor Bonnie Bessler, a contract worker for the National Guard who helps veterans from all branches of service make the transition. Finding a job is a common concern.

"Our problem in Nebraska is not necessarily unemployed, it's underemployed," Bessler said.

In fact, the veteran unemployment rate in Nebraska is lower than the overall statewide rate.

"Sometimes our men and women come out with a high expectation that, 'I've served our military, now I am demanding this $80,000 salary.' Well, that's not the way that works," Bessler said. "Most service members think that they can earn more of an income. And they probably can. In some cases, they just need to know how to hone their skills. They need to understand how to go into an interview and sell themselves."

That’s one of many things Bessler can help veterans with. But Koziol says it’s not that simple.

"I was an aircraft electrician. And so the federal government had trained me to work on federal aircraft," Koziol said. "I could go work for Duncan Aviation starting out at the bottom even though I had five years of experience on two different airframes. Now, I have 11 years of different experience on three different airframes and I still can’t get work on aircraft."

DHHS Licensure

A legislative study report notes the DHHS Licensure Unit didn't include information about using the military training credit on the web pages for those occupations.

The report says the Licensure Unit agreed to add the information on each web page and application by November 1, 2018. That information is still not available on 44 of the 45 web pages — and is not included on 16 applications for a license.

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson emailed a statement: "The Department developed a brochure 'Nebraska DHHS Licensure Unit Services for the Military.' This brochure includes information related to military education and military spouses and is available on our Professions and Occupations landing page under our Military Information category."

Both the federal and state government recognize this problem, and Nebraska lawmakers have worked recently to change that. A law passed in 2015 requires the Department of Health and Human Services to accept military education, training or service that is substantially similar to the education required for the credential or license.

But a legislative study last year found not many veterans are taking advantage of the opportunity because they don’t know it’s an option. In 2018, two applicants got approval to use military training for a license or credential. So far in 2019, no applicants have requested review of military training, education or experience.

And, the law only covers occupations licensed by the DHHS, like nursing and massage therapy.

"One of the things that we do during TAP, is we try and expand their search," Salter said. "Oftentimes they're coming out with kind of blinders on, only looking at very narrow jobs...and so we try to kind of expand that search for them to say, 'I know you're really focused on this, but let's take a look at all these other industries that may have something for you.'"

Koziol says his family struggled for years. He is working now, but even finding a job not using his specific skills was difficult.

"This is what it took for me to get my current job," Koziol said, handing me a recommendation letter.

It's from the highest-ranking Nebraskan there is: Gov. Pete Ricketts.