She secures treatment for vets' invisible wounds

Barbara Van Dahlen enlists mental-health professionals to Give an Hour.
Barbara Van Dahlen enlists mental-health professionals to Give an Hour. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: November 29, 2012

The unkempt man was wearing fatigues, standing in the street and holding a sign that read, "Vietnam vet. Please help. God bless."

The year was 2005 and Barbara Van Dahlen, a licensed clinical psychologist, was driving with her then-9-year-old daughter, who asked why the man was begging in the world's richest country.

It was a moment that helped propel Van Dahlen into her official mission, the founding that year of Give an Hour, a national nonprofit providing free mental health services to military personnel and their families affected by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other post-9/11 conflicts. (Give an Hour recently expanded to include victims and first responders dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.) Since 2007, Van Dahlen has mobilized 6,500 licensed professionals, who have given away 70,000 hours of therapy set up through giveanhour.org. The organization runs on a $1.5 million budget - grants, sponsorships, and private donations - with 17 employees who help train providers. In addition, hundreds of volunteers counsel at schools, and take part in suicide-prevention conferences and other outreach organizations.

Van Dahlen told the story while visiting Philadelphia this month to support the Bands of Brothers concert at the World Cafe Live in University City. Since September, weekly webcasts on bandsofbrothers.org followed 12 vets forming three rock bands while raising awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I didn't want my kids growing up and saying later that I should've done more," recalled Van Dahlen. "I knew I had to do something."

When Van Dahlen saw that Vietnam vet that day, she was already hearing that droves of the newest war-weary soldiers were coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq suffering from PTSD - increased anger, flashbacks, hallucinations, sleeplessness, sexual dysfunction - and many finding themselves homeless, without jobs, or addicted to drugs and alcohol.

So to promote her campaign, Van Dahlen collaborated with veterans service organizations, distributing Give an Hour information across the country, and advising commanding officers of returning troops about the warning signs of mental illness. She testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, and has spoken at the Pentagon and the White House.

This year, Van Dahlen was cited as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world.

"Barbara is a great combination of intelligence and drive. She gets things done," said Steve Holtzman, cocreator of the Bands of Brothers, one of Give an Hour's 85 affiliates. For the weekly webcasts, "she taught us how to help the vets talk about living with PTSD . . . ."

Last summer, Van Dahlen was invited to help train officers as part of a suicide-prevention campaign at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, home to 40,000 soldiers. The workshops encourage soldiers to identify triggers and to seek help. The rate of suicides at Fort Bliss is down, with three so far this year, compared with six in 2011.

"Barbara can relate to all people, whether they are high-ranking officials or civilians," said Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, the commander of the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss, in a recent phone conversation.

Slender in stature, graceful in manner, Van Dahlen, 53, grew up the youngest child and only girl of four children in California's San Joaquin Valley. Her father served in the Navy during World War II, spending battle time in the South Pacific where he was injured - although he never spoke about the details. He later worked for Edison Power Co., dying in 1986 at the age of 62.

Two circumstances shaped her decision to be a psychologist: Throughout Van Dahlen's childhood, her mother, who is still alive, suffered from severe mental illness, often speaking in rambling sentences that made no sense. Her father pretty much raised Van Dahlen and her brothers. "My father always talked to us [about my mother's illness] and gave us reality."

Then, when Van Dahlen was 15, her 21-year-old brother drowned in a river while pulling his girlfriend to safety. "That was a real pivotal point in my life . . . really brutal."

After graduating from California State University with a degree in psychology, she received her doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1991. She stayed in the East, where she "fell in love with the seasons" and now lives in Bethesda, Md., with her daughters, Gracie, 16, and Mira, 12, and her husband, Randy Phelps, also a psychologist.

By 1994, she was working with children with emotional and learning issues, and she saw her first military family. The couple was stressed: The husband was getting ready for assignment to a new post, which meant they would have to look for another psychologist for their 4-year-old son, who was developmentally delayed. It was then she realized the tremendous strains that can arise when a soldier receives a new assignment and a family moves to a new city or country.

In the last decade, 2.6 million troops have been deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf, many doing multiple tours. Nearly 20 percent have come home experiencing symptoms of PTSD, according to a 2008 Rand Corp. study.

"Soldiers deployed are constantly on battle-ready, never knowing what's going to happen to themselves, or to the platoons coming behind them," Van Dahlen said. "Some soldiers are not as equipped to handle the strain. And then there's traumatic brain injury, which we know can affect moods."

These kinds of numbers make it hard for the military to tackle the needs of all the afflicted soldiers, Van Dahlen said. Many vets live far away from formal Veterans Administration services. Also, some soldiers are reluctant to expose their vulnerabilities to other military personnel for fear of jeopardizing their careers.

There prevails a warrior mentality in the military that one should "man up," and "get off their butts," according to Van Dahlen.

"I was sitting with a senior military official recently, and he was calling men with PTSD whiners," Van Dahlen said. ". . . and I'm thinking, after all of this time, there are still people in the military who have these feelings."

As the wars wind down, one million soldiers are expected to return home by 2017 - yet budgets supporting them have been cut, further taxing the military to provide needed services.

"Once you've experienced some horrific things, they're never really gone. Our veterans need to know there are options," Van Dahlen said.

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