Military veteran, graduate student and American Counseling Association member Derek Neuts is working to foster a better connection between counselors, service members and their families to help make the transition to life after combat a little easier.
Neuts and his wife, Naomi, founded the Institute for Veteran Cultural Studies (IVCS) in October 2012 and officially launched operations this past May. The purpose of IVCS, a privately held provider of continuing education and professional development courses, is to increase the sociocultural competency of helping professionals who are working with returning veterans and their families. According to the organization’s website, it also aims to initiate a “dramatic change in the way reintegration and its inherent difficulties are perceived, supported and treated by professionals who assist veterans in the United States.” IVCS will offer online classes, hybrid seminars, workshops and training classes, with materials designed around standards enforced by the National Board for Certified Counselors.
Neuts, a member of the Oregon Counseling Association and the Washington Counseling Association, decided to cofound IVCS with Naomi after experiencing an especially difficult transition back to civilian life.
Between 2001 and 2005, Neuts was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb., as a security forces fire team member. He also deployed to Kuwait for a tour of duty at Kuwait City International Airport.
“I conducted security and police operations while stateside and engaged in antiterrorism and air base defense while deployed,” Neuts says. “In 2003, I deployed to Kuwait to join one of the largest troop movements since World War II and provided security to the logistics hub that supported all forward operations. While there, we experienced tests of our security measures by hostile forces. I personally dealt with multiple dangerous situations on the ground that were deeply disturbing to someone serving in a support role of military police.”
Upon returning from Kuwait in 2004, Neuts was initially diagnosed with depression. After several years of fighting for medical claims through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), that diagnosis was eventually changed to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Neuts was discharged from the military in 2005. “I wasn’t able to function normally and had multiple cognitive issues related to an undiagnosed case of PTSD, among unrelated physical injuries that were inherent with serving in the role of military police,” he says. “My family experienced losing everything due to the lack of support after my discharge.”
Neuts says he would try to hold down a job. “But I would be laid off or I would quit. I had blackouts, memory issues and [would react with] startled responses or aggression that were just not compatible with the civilian work sector,” he says. “It was horrible, and employers would think I was making it up. Despite being medically treated, you ran the risk of being labeled as ‘crazy’ if you talked about it.”
In addition, while waiting for the VA to approve his medical claims, Neuts and his family experienced homelessness and stigmatization.
“We had to use every public resource available to us to survive until the VA would approve my claims,” he says. “The VA didn’t consider the Air Force a combat branch, [even though] it has multiple combat units that operate on the ground.”
Because of Derek’s disabilities, Naomi was given power of attorney to represent him in his case against the VA and was eventually successful in pushing his claims through.
“It came down to multiple screaming matches both over the phone and in person,” Derek says. “She learned a lot as a post-military caregiver from this experience.”
With the help of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Neuts, Naomi and their two children moved to Oregon in September 2006 so he could receive medical care with little to no wait time at a VA facility.
“Harkin’s office helped us draft our first-ever claims and get them into the system, and then they also helped us find [VA facilities] that were friendly to our situation,” Neuts says.
In 2007, Neuts entered the VA’s vocational rehabilitation and employment program, commonly known as Chapter 31, and attended Marylhurst University in Oregon. He earned his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, focusing on business, human communications and counseling psychology, while also securing a certificate in training and development. He is now in the process of finishing his master’s in organizational psychology at Walden University and has plans to pursue a doctorate.
“I’m using this education to advance my training career and to specialize further in acculturation and organizational issues surrounding veterans,” Neuts says. “In the meantime, I’m using my education in psychology to help [veterans] indirectly by training counselors in cultural competency, a highly needed area that’s very underserved.”
He is also interested in determining whether the U.S. military, as an organization, “is psychologically harming service members through their training methods, which have been carefully developed over decades. Soldiers are clearly showing signs of an unfit reacculturation into American society,” he says.
There is often news about programs being implemented and accommodations being made to help veterans reintegrate into society, Neuts says. But he notes little mention is ever made of the possibility that the onus should be placed on the military to change its training methods.
“We don’t dare as a society to tell the military that what they’re doing to soldiers may be having long-term mental health effects,” he says.
After finishing his master’s, Neuts wants to push further for a national standard in cultural competency training for counselors through IVCS’ projected programs. The institute hopes to develop at least eight classes that, when completed in combination, would qualify professionals for a certificate of competency. IVCS currently is offering one class, “Veterans, Society and Systems,” which is approved for eight CEU credits by NBCC.
“I consider [our courses] the next ‘level up’ for counselors who want to take their commitment to counseling military personnel more seriously,” Neuts says.
The two designed the first course workbook, nearly 100 pages long, themselves. “We designed these from the ground up,” Neuts says. “We did all the research, writing, and publishing ourselves … so we are throwing our knowledge out there on the table from an experiential standpoint. We lived the life, so it can’t get any more real than this.”
Derek and Naomi had a desire to found IVCS while they were both undergraduates, but they didn’t have the necessary training or resources to do so at the time. Naomi earned her self-designed bachelor’s degree in human communications, human development and psychology at Union Institute and University, where she focused on military and veteran family acculturation and its long-term impact on reintegration.
However, the couple did start designing the program while they were in college. “When we left the military, we quickly realized that the level of cultural competency and support by counselors for veteran families like ours was far below the level needed to provide adequate services,” Neuts explains. “We were constantly dropped halfway through counseling programs, referred to other agencies and individuals, and told numerous times that we couldn’t be helped because our situation was not understood. We couldn’t allow this to continue to happen to other families. Universities and colleges were not teaching cultural competency to a level that’s in-depth beyond the basics associated with clinical classes — and [they] still don’t. We are the first to concentrate on just this area alone.”
Says Neuts, “Students that we are receiving into our new program are … seasoned professionals looking for a new perspective and those who have never dealt with veterans before and are looking for a meat-and-potatoes class that gives them real-world information they need.”
Neuts credits Naomi for giving him the confidence to embark on his journey to launch IVCS. “She told me that I was ready and that I would probably regret not doing it and stepping through that fear,” he says. “She was the heart and soul of this.”
With the creation of IVCS, Neuts says he is grateful for the chance to “enact a paradigm shift in how counseling professionals view these issues. Hopefully, we can encourage them to remove their clinical lenses for a moment in time to connect with veterans” through IVCS’ classes.
Above all, he believes mental health professionals need to receive guidance from those who have experienced military life and life afterward. He is looking especially forward to doing just that through IVCS.
“While many of us can’t fulfill that role, our family can, and we will, one class and one student at time,” Neuts says. “We have years of work ahead of us. It seems like an insurmountable amount of work to get this organization off the ground and keep it running … but we love it. It will all be worth it in the end.”
Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.