Laura Harper has traveled from the front lines of combat to the halls of graduate school, where she is now training for what she hopes will be a career helping her fellow veterans transition into their new lives as civilians.
Harper, a member of the American Counseling Association, is a second-year master’s student in the clinical mental health counseling program at Gannon University in Erie, Pa., who also volunteers at an outreach center for veterans. She understands what these returning service members are going through because she has experienced it herself. And she acknowledges that the journey has not always been easy.
A call to service
Harper spent four years and nine months in the Air Force, completing deployments to Qatar, Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq.
“My father had been in the Air Force, as had several other members of my family, so joining the military had always been in the back of my mind,” says Harper, who is also a member of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, a division of ACA. “Even though my dad had always said, ‘No daughter of mine will have to join the military,’ he was extremely proud when I did. In 2003, I graduated with a master’s degree in criminology. My goal had been to work in federal law enforcement, but I had difficulty finding a job due to my lack of work experience. I knew that joining the military would be a great way to earn the experience I needed. Also, 9/11 had a huge impact on me. I remember watching those towers fall on the TV during one of my graduate classes and telling my best friend that if this was a foreign attack, I would join the military — and I did.”
Harper chose to become an Arabic linguist because the job required a security clearance and would help her develop the skills necessary for the work she wanted to pursue in the federal government.
“For my first tour, I was in Tikrit, Iraq, with a group of Army Rangers. I worked [more than] 15 hours a day, flew in over 100 combat missions, hardly slept, ate crappy food and shared a bathroom with 25-30 men,” Harper says. “It was one of the best experiences of my life. We were a family. We all watched out for each other. You didn’t mind pushing yourself just a little bit harder because you knew that everyone who was with you was doing the same thing. On my second Iraq tour, I had just been promoted to staff sergeant. I had earned quite a reputation during my first tour with this group, so when I returned, I was put in charge of training every airborne linguist sent into the theater who also worked as what the military calls a ‘special operator.’ This was very stressful for me because I was used to just taking orders. Now I had to give orders and manage a large group of people. I had to learn to delegate and keep myself from micromanaging. By the end of my time there, I would say I was much more assertive and more confident in myself as a leader.”
It was during this final tour that Harper’s plans for the future began to shift. She gradually became aware of her skill for lending an ear to fellow soldiers who needed to talk.
“Many people came to me with problems that were outside the scope of the training program [for linguists],” she recalls. “Problems from back home can become magnified during a deployment. Many people were struggling with spousal [and/or] family issues. Others were having a hard time adjusting. Some were suffering from PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] and other mental or emotional problems. I liked that people trusted me enough to come to me with these issues, but I didn’t feel like I knew enough to really help them.”
Struggles with civilian life
When Harper discharged from the military, she had several job offers from private companies who wanted to hire her to work for them as a linguist. She also now had contacts at several federal agencies. But reeling from a breakup with her girlfriend of four years and changed by her time in service, Harper hesitated to follow the original path she had charted for herself.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” she says. “The stress of my military job had taken its toll on my health and, obviously, on my relationships. I was more out of shape than I had ever been and had recently had a bit of a health scare. I realized that I had let the job become my life. I loved what I was doing and will forever be proud of what I accomplished, but it wasn’t worth running myself into the ground and never having a family life. Some people can do those types of jobs and still make things work, but I doubted my ability to do so.”
In an effort to clear her head and choose a career path, Harper decided to hike the Appalachian Trail.
“During my five and a half months of hiking, I realized that I had gifts that would benefit me as a counselor,” she says. “Also, with the need being so great for people to work with veterans in the mental health system, I felt I could continue to serve my country but in a capacity that hopefully wouldn’t cause me to have a heart attack before the age of 40.”
Upon enrolling in school, Harper was nervous about her ability to succeed academically, but she soon realized her military experience actually helped her in this regard. The bigger challenge was fitting in with fellow classmates.
“It became increasingly evident that my cultural background caused friction between myself and the other members of my cohort,” Harper says. “I come from a collectivistic society and suffered from the lack of camaraderie I faced. Some students perceived me as receiving special privileges due to my background.”
A positive outlook
Despite these differences, Harper remains optimistic about assimilating into her new life as a graduate counseling student with her cohort.
“I do have a tendency to want to take charge of a situation, and I recognize that,” she says. “In many instances, it helps me, but I have to keep it in check. On one of our first group assignments my first semester of grad school, I found myself assigning other members the tasks and was then completely taken aback when they didn’t complete them on time. ‘Staff Sgt. Harper’ had to learn to take a backseat to the grad student Laura.”
“I [am] about 10 years older than the average graduate student, and I worried that this would cause problems,” she continues. “But we actually have several older students in our program. In the beginning, I saw myself as different from all the other students and tended to focus on those differences. I was the only openly gay student in the program and the only veteran. And there are definitely still times when I feel misunderstood or like an outsider, but I have to continue to push myself to hold on to our commonalities. I think, overall, the other students respect me, and we have found ways to connect with each other.”
Harper also believes strongly that more veterans should be pursuing degrees and careers in counseling. However, she acknowledges, “They need to be in a good place mentally to do so. Not that you have to be perfect by any means, but you can’t help others if you can’t get help for yourself.”
Harper says individuals who previously served in the military would bring a unique perspective to counseling, and she believes this would be a great asset to the profession.
“Many of us have been exposed to things that most people our age have not,” Harper says, “and I don’t just mean combat. Many of us have lived in other countries and have worked with people from all over the world. Many of us have been trained to be leaders and on how to work with a team, which is invaluable in the counseling setting.”
During her personal journey from military service member to counselor-in-training, Harper has also discovered aspects of the counseling profession that she didn’t anticipate, including its focus on social justice.
“The first thing that surprised me was how important the role of advocacy is in the mental health world,” she says. “When I originally thought of myself as a future counselor, I had a very one-dimensional view of being a counselor: sitting in an office listening to people. I didn’t know about all the other roles of a counselor. Throughout my adult life, I have seen myself as an advocate in many areas. In grad school [when she was pursuing her master’s in criminology], I worked for the rights of prisoners and attended protests against the death penalty. In the military, I helped fight for gay rights, and I continue this fight today. As a civilian, I volunteer my time to help vets in a variety of ways. I already saw myself as a crusader for social justice in my private life. When I realized that, as a counselor, this aspect of my private life could be a great asset in my professional career, I was stunned. My excitement over my new career grew exponentially after that.”
As someone who has experienced the rigors of military life, Harper offers advice to counselors who may not be particularly familiar with this segment of the population.
“Just like when dealing with people from other cultures, don’t assume too much about us as individuals,” she says. “Also, there are a lot of differences between veterans of various generations. World War II veterans, Vietnam veterans and 9/11 veterans have very different backgrounds. Not only are we generationally different, but each group had different experiences within the military structure and in returning home after war.”
Harper has also noticed a general perception of veterans that she would like to see changed.
“Because I was in Iraq, [some people think] I must have PTSD or some other mental health issue,” Harper says. “Yes, there are many returning veterans who are struggling with these issues, but not every one. The media perpetuates this view of all veterans as ‘broken’ somehow, but people rarely get to see the success stories that happen every day. Many are high-functioning, successful individuals who are contributing to society in a variety of ways. On the one hand, I appreciate the attention that the issue of PTSD is getting because it allows more veterans to receive the help they need. But on the other hand, the constant visibility of PTSD causes a bit of a backlash. At my part-time job, I had people worrying that I was going to ‘lose it’ one day because they knew I had been deployed, even though I gave no evidence that this would happen. People at church, upon finding out about my tours, might ask, ‘And, are you … OK?’ I appreciate the concern, but it does start to weigh on you.”
Harper is looking forward to the future, when she can put into action what she has learned both in school and on the battlefield to help her fellow veterans.
“My goal is to work for the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] after graduation, either at a hospital or an outreach clinic,” she says. “When I first encountered the VA system after discharging from active duty, I found it comforting to come into contact with others who had ‘been where I had been.’ I’m much more trusting of civilians now, but when I first returned from overseas, I found it hard to connect with people who had never served in uniform. Although I am very much enjoying gaining exposure to the nontraditional therapy models that are utilized at our veterans outreach center, I look forward to working with veterans in counseling groups and in a more clinical setting during my internship this fall.”
Harper was recently awarded a scholarship from the NBCC Foundation.
Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.