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Workshops provide better understanding of military culture to improve veteran care

Sep 15, 2023

A series of workshops at Indiana University aims to improve care for veterans across Indiana by giving students, faculty and staff a better understanding of military culture and veteran experiences.

The Veteran Trauma and Transparency Program, now in its second year, is made up of four in-person workshops held on the IU Bloomington campus throughout the semester.

The Veterans Trauma and Transparency Program provides an understanding of military culture and the various stages a service member goes t... The Veterans Trauma and Transparency Program provides an understanding of military culture and the various stages a service member goes through, from enlisting to returning to civilian life. Photo courtesy of the IU Interprofessional Practice and Education Center

“In order to reach people where they are, we must understand who they are and where they’ve been,” said John Keesler, associate professor in the School of Social Work, who worked with the collaborative team to develop the program. “You never know where you will encounter a veteran. However, when you better understand the experiences of veterans, you will likely be better able to support them.

“We wanted to create a path forward for attendees to learn about veterans and to become comfortable in asking one basic question when working with people: ‘Are you a veteran?’ This certificate program is about removing barriers, increasing transparency around veteran experiences and needs, and giving attendees a foundation upon which to build.”

The program is a collaboration between the IU Center for Rural Engagement, the IU Interprofessional Practice and Education Center based in Indianapolis, the IU School of Social Work and the Department of Criminal Justice in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. Attendees are required to attend all four workshops, which build off each other throughout the semester. Those who complete every workshop will receive a certificate of completion from the Interprofessional Practice and Education Center.

Indiana has the 16th largest veteran population in the United States, with 400,000 veterans.

“There are so many invisible wounds that veterans and those still serving carry with them,” said U.S. Army veteran Todd Burkhardt, the director of campus partnerships for the Center for Rural Engagement who helped develop the program. “That could be military sexual trauma, post-traumatic stress, alienation, isolation, substance-use disorder, moral injury, survivor’s guilt, or grief and loss. ”

He said the suicide rate among veterans is also high. In the past 20 years, the number of veterans who have died by suicide is four times the number lost in combat.

“It’s important to have that knowledge or understanding of what veterans or service members have witnessed or experienced, and what military culture is,” he said. “A lot of times, it’s like the tip of the iceberg. You can’t see what’s underneath, and there might be a lot of first-hand or second-hand trauma with veterans that people aren’t aware of. We thought if we could prepare future professionals — or current professionals — then they could be better prepared to work with the veteran population, and to better take care of their needs and understand their obstacles and challenges.”

“In order to reach people where they are, we must understand who they are and where they’ve been.”

Keesler said the program also provides an understanding of military culture and the various stages a service member goes through, from enlisting to returning to civilian life. The workshops discuss a variety of resources available to help veterans, such as workforce development, health, mental wellness and benefits.

“Military culture is different from civilian culture,” Keesler said. “Social work practice embraces cultural humility and a systems perspective to well-being. Students are bound to encounter veterans somewhere in their career, whether they are working explicitly in veteran services or elsewhere, like with community mental health. This certificate series complements and expands upon what students are learning in the classroom.”

Organizers say the goal of the program is to better prepare future professionals -- or current professionals -- to work with the ... Organizers say the goal of the program is to better prepare future professionals — or current professionals — to work with the veteran population and to understand their obstacles and challenges. Photo courtesy of the IU Interprofessional Practice and Education Center

Burkhardt, who served for nearly three decades in the military, first as a U.S. Army infantry office, and then as director of IU’s Army ROTC program, said the workshop content is relevant to anyone pursuing a career or currently working in health science, health care, criminal justice, psychology, counseling, nursing, public health, social work, speech, language and hearing, and more. Program attendees work together across disciplines in small teams, and Burkhardt said the ability to learn from each other across fields or areas of interest has a powerful impact.

“What really stuck out to me during the program last year was the willingness of veterans and service members to be vulnerable and to talk about the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful and all of the complexities that come with a military experience,” said Alex Buchanan, who helped to develop the course as well and serves as project manager with the IU Interprofessional Practice and Education Center. “I think the push and pull of the military is something I won’t forget. It is eye opening.”

Guest speakers talk about their experiences and what they’ve learned, either as a veteran, a current service member or a military spouse. Irina Watkins, who graduated from IU in the spring with her Master of Social Work, has been a military spouse for 20 years. She spoke with program attendees last year about her experience.

“I talked a bit about the struggles of moving all the time, about being a military spouse while my husband was deployed, about navigating the military system, the decision to get out of the military upon his medical retirement, and how we are navigating that path of such a huge transition,” Watkins said. “I think it’s important to understand where veterans come from, especially if you encounter any resistance. Why might that be, and what have they been through when they come to you for service.”

Organizers ask that students who participate in the program be third- or fourth-year undergraduate students or graduate students, because of the content and discussions within the workshops.

“There’s a seriousness of the nature of what we’re talking about, and we bring in guest speakers who talk about lived trauma. It gets heavy,” Burkhardt said. “We bring in people who have lived it and talk about their time in in combat. We bring in spouses, who are on the home front and are dealing with a loved one who’s deployed in a combat zone, or perhaps trying to navigate that with children. And then, when maybe some battles are over, others are just getting started as veterans begin the reintegration process to civilian life after their service. It gets graphic, and it gets sad. It’s incredibly real, and I think that’s important.”

“It’s important to understand where veterans come from: Why might that be, and what have they been through when they come to you for service.”

Michael Gillis, a student pursuing his Master in Social Work at IU, took the course last year. He said he wanted to learn more about what his dad and grandfather went through, in addition to helping his future career.

“Though I have never been in the military, it has shaped my life and the lives of so many others, and I want to give back and help where I can. As a social worker, I believe it is essential because we will be dealing with the veteran community in some way throughout our careers – be it directly with a veteran or service person or with someone from their family. To get a better understanding of their mindset will help us be better care providers.”

Laura Karcher, a clinical faculty member in the Speech-Language Clinic at IU Bloomington, also took the course last year. She said she serves veterans though IU’s collaboration with the Indianapolis VA, and she wanted to develop a better understanding of the changes that veterans in today’s military experience, as compared to what World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans may have experienced.

“I learned a great deal about changes in the military culture, and I came away with a much better understanding and appreciation for the impact on families and what supports are and are not available for them,” Karcher said.

Her clinic helps people with traumatic brain injuries and their families.

“The complexity of the military culture and traumas they experience are very different than those who sustain non-military TBIs. Understanding the culture and importance of implementing trauma-informed care with the veteran population and their families was a key takeaway for me. I also learned a great deal about the incidence of substance-use disorders, and how the prevailing military culture impacts this and recovery.

“The information is vital to anyone providing services to any population, as you don’t know who is a veteran. Asking is a first step toward providing appropriate care and understanding the special circumstances our veterans face.”

Organizers hope to eventually make the program a three-credit course at IU. Fall’s workshop sessions take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Sept. 20 to Nov. 1. For questions about the program or its requirements or content, contact Alex Buchanan at albuchan@indiana.edu or Todd Burkhardt at toddburk@iu.edu.

Author

IU Newsroom

Teresa Mackin

Deputy Director of Media Relations, Indianapolis

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