You wouldn’t know from Susan Cohen’s calm, measured demeanor that she is on the front lines of a battle here on Long Island to make sure that our veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan get the help they need to make the difficult adjustment back to civilian life.
The sense of balance this Lynbrook woman exudes is perhaps why she’s been able to support these soldiers whose own lives are often in disarray. It’s Susan’s way of setting things right.
Susan, a clinical specialist in psychiatric and mental health nursing, first heard about The Soldiers Project on an NPR program in 2008. TSP is a private, non-profit group of volunteer licensed psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, mental health nurses, and marriage and family therapists who offer free, confidential counseling to military service members and their loved ones. Founded in California in 2005, TSP now has nine chapters across the U.S.
Listening to the radio broadcast piqued Susan’s curiosity so she decided to attend a meeting at the VA Hospital in NYC, where she met Prue Emery, another Long Island therapist also interested in getting involved in TSP.
Susan was galvanized by what she learned and what it could mean to Long Island. According to Susan, Long Island is second only to San Diego in the percentage of veterans among its citizens.
“It’s a hidden population particular to this war because they are not regular Army. Most of the people here are in the Reserves and National Guard, and as a result, we have thousands of citizen soldiers from Long Island.” Within months of learning about the organization, Susan and Prue founded our local TSP chapter.
More than just the soldiers are being affected by war, Susan contends.
“Children reflect the anxiety of their parents being in combat,” she says. “The children [of soldiers] that are from Long Island are not living on an Army base, they are in our local schools.”
She has been contacting local school districts trying to get TSP literature included in their backpack programs to let their parents know that there is help available for the soldier’s entire family.
Further, this new generation of veterans also includes many women who have suffered personal assault and/or sexual trauma while serving on active military duty.
“They’re coming home traumatized,” Susan says. “It’s called Military Sexual Trauma and the Department of Defense says that 40 percent [returning female service members] are reporting rape or sexual harassment. It’s tantamount to incest, it’s your family. It’s real and it’s awful.”
To reach as many of these victims as possible, Susan has been mailing local OB/GYN’s confidential questions they can ask their patients who are veterans along with information about TSP’s program.
“It’s a mental health challenge for the community,” Susan says. But TSP has many therapists ready to help veterans and their loved ones bridge the gap in mental health care that exists now because it will continue to widen as more troops return home.
It hasn’t been easy for Susan to get the word out to the thousands of eligible veterans and their families about TSP. Long Island can be a difficult place to disseminate information but it’s even harder in this case.
“People in the military don’t like to admit that they have problems. It could take a crisis for them to seek our help,” she says. The Department of Defense even acknowledges that community services such as TSP are critical to helping the soldiers.
To promote the new chapter of TSP, Susan began attending meetings at local VFW chapters to introduce herself to the veteran population.
“I got myself known as someone who is seriously interested in veterans’ affairs,” Susan says. She has also mailed TSP brochures to both Nassau and Suffolk county fire and police departments, VFW posts and American Legion halls.
Today the Long Island chapter of TSP includes 50 therapists ready to donate their time and expertise to help these soldiers and their families cope. Once they call TSP, a nearby therapist will contact them within a day or two to set up an appointment. Anyone feeling the effects of the deployment or return is eligible, including boyfriends and girlfriends and grandparents. Most important, no insurance is needed and there is no paper trail. Everything is kept completely confidential.
TSP also has 25 non-clinical volunteers who help inform veterans about the program. “They are my Army, my arms and legs,” Susan says proudly.
“My volunteers are getting the word out. Many of them are nurses, who are ‘let’s do it’ kind of people.”
Everyday our soldiers are coming home scarred in ways seen and unseen. Some may be returning with no place to go, and others may be reeling from the psychological effects of war while they struggle to grasp how their lives could have changed so dramatically in such a short time.
The Soldiers Project is ready to support our returning heroes and their loved ones for as long as it takes for them to heal.
“I have the time, the skills, education and resources,” Susan says. “I had to do something to help.”
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