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Report on the 10th Annual Hunter College, School of Social Work Conference, "Vietnam Veterans: The Hidden Client"
Dan Okada, Criminology Department, Marist College
Having just attended the 10th Annual Hunter College, School of Social Work's conference on "Vietnam Veterans: The Hidden Client," I walked away with a feeling of dismay. As with most multi-faceted programs the good as well as the bad were in evidence. The good was okay; the bad was abysmal. If this gathering of social workers, therapists, veterans, program administrators, and others presumably interested in the plight of the Vietnam veteran was indeed representative of the support and services available to vets, perhaps vet-isolationism is not such a terrible alternative.
As a preface, the intent of this conference, that is, the reason for its existence, was manifold: to help those who work with vets better understand their client; to discuss various methodologies that might better provide assistance to the vet; and to provide the vet who needs services with resource information and clinical support.
Having missed the first nine conferences, I am assuming that was indeed the focus. Unfortunately, in year ten, the clinical participants appear to have taken over and the vet has successfully become "interesting," as in, "Aren't these guys interesting?" This is not necessarily to criticize legitimate concern, it is however, an indictment of the therapeutic process that compels those dealing with the problems of the vet to "fit" vet symptoms into psycho-analytic clichés. The manner in which trained social workers have determined that treatment should be administered to vets-in-need is to look up our ailments in the therapeutic bible, DSM-III, and promote the prescribed "appropriate" treatment. Is this true concern?
A short performance of the current play "A Piece of My Heart" by one of the cast members opened the conference. This is a work based on Laura Palmer's anthology Shrapnel in the Heart which in turn is based on messages/letters that have been left at the Wall. It was moving. The keynote address was delivered by the famed pioneer and inspirational leader of the PTSD and the Vietnam veteran movement, Dr. Chaim Shatan. Dr Shatan presented an eloquent history and analysis of the plight of the vet. He is a good one to have on our side. Unfortunately, the focus of the conference--the workshops--did not equal the emotion or content of Novella Nelson's reading or Dr Shatan's overview.
Workshops were divided into two areas: one was recommended for veterans and novice clinicians, the other for "veteran" clinicians experienced with PTSD. Since I thought I knew something about PTSD I attended two workshops for the latter group. While the workshop leaders may truly care for those they assist, that concern was not transmitted to the audience. Upon hearing the process these folks have initiated with vets and their families I very much felt that the vets who sought aid from these clinicians would have been better served by buying a dog. In one workshop, the clinicians boasted of having had one vet and his family for over four years and have now gotten them to the point that they are considering divorce!
The case study presentations in two workshops offered little or no insight into the issues being discussed and did not demonstrate much appreciation of the vet under scrutiny. Instead of humanizing the vet, discussing the reality of being a vet and the symptoms that could be generated because of this status, the presenters chose to objectify the vet and treat him as any other social service client. In fact, there was a presentation of a case of a 35 year-old substance/child abuser. When asked about his age, the case worker was not sure, but she "believed" the client to be a Vietnam combat vet. Not. In this case, rather than simply saying the methodology they were presenting could be appropriate for vet populations also, the message was that vets definitely should be treated with the model being discussed.
Perhaps this is the therapeutic milieu, clinicians must remain detached from their charges; but there is detached and then there is detached. Rather than relating the need for compassion, the presenters voiced the need for compelling methodology. Rather than outlining what made the vet unique, they described what made him/her similar. Given the make-up of the audience, vets and social service providers, the presentations were almost insulting.
In other workshops, participants who were actually doing something for the vet had significant discussions with their audience. One was a former Qui Nhon MP, who, like most others who have sought assistance for Vietnam vets, found none and organized a vet self-help organization without the benefit of agency backing or institutional support. The Vietnam Veterans Hootch Group was his creation and attempts to find housing and provide focus for displaced vets in the greater Brooklyn area. Another workshop addressed the problem of substance addicted vets and was led by a former convoy driver/social worker. The lessons presented in this workshop were also compelling. This is the issue: those clinicians who seem to be most empathic are former vets. Is the Vet Center cry of "Vets Helping Vets" still true? It certainly was at this conference.
It is categorically impressive that for the past decade Hunter College has sponsored this event. Organizers, presenters, and participants are to be congratulated for recognizing a need and trying to provide a service. It is too bad the theoretical focus of the conference was not carried out in practice. In examining the conference-reality from the two perspectives presented, the therapist and the veteran, the vet once again got screwed; issues were introduced but not discussed, dispassion rather than compassion was exhibited. For the therapist, products of their education and not their heart, process rather than substance was stressed. Maybe if the therapist already knows the jargon and has successfully detached him/herself from the vet then learning alternative methodologies is relevant, but if that was the intent the leaders also did a poor job of educating the audience. Clearly the twain was not meeting in New York's Upper East Side.
The workshops did identify the areas in which vets and their families need assistance. Vets do have problems related to homelessness, substance abuse, and other psycho-social disorders. They need an arena and an advocate to so these issues can be raised, discussed, analyzed, evaluated, and resolved. This annual conference can be that vehicle and the participants can be that advocate, but the organizers need to reflect on their original mission, i.e., aiding those who are/were reluctant to seek aid.
It might be argued that after ten years, the passion surrounding vet issues has cooled. Perhaps it is time to move on in the therapeutic world and seek other groups-in-need. Unfortunately, there are still many brothers and sisters "out there" who need the services of the compassionate and skilled. Ultimately, if this conference is to progress to years eleven and twelve and beyond, it must regain its initial integrity and purpose. We are still in need of consideration and are still seeking answers to questions we do not know how to ask. I hope this conference is not a harbinger, because if it is then to paraphrase the song, "We are looking for help in all the wrong places..."