A lot of my friends back home don't really get it. It's difficult for them to figure out why, after graduating college, I chose to move 3,000 miles across country and join the Army. I tried to explain and give them time to adjust. But three weeks after graduation, I found myself in Fort Knox, Kentucky for LTC; a crash course in leadership, basic soldiering skills, and intestinal fortitude.
When it was over, I took a taxi home from the airport. As we drove across the George Washington Bridge, I looked at the skyline: the Empire State building, the MetLife building, the Chrysler building, the noticeably absent World Trade… In that moment, I knew one irrefutable thing: I will always love New York City. But my heart lives with the Army. I'm Hannah Stryker. I'm a first year graduate student at University of Southern California, studying military social work. And this is my Army story.
I have always romanticized what it meant to be a soldier. I imagined the horrors of war muddled together with unfaultable loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Like a passionate black and white film reel at a drive-in theater.
Naïve, I know, but not wrong. I spent my senior year of college interning as a social worker at a local veteran center. I will always remember how, after the Fort Hood massacre, during a Vietnam veterans group session, everything was so heated and no one could get a word in. So one Marine stood, trying to say his piece. And when he stood, ALL the Marines in the room stood. Even after 40 years out of the service, they still stood for their fellow soldier. I understand that now, in a way I couldn't have without going through training.
Far from romantic, there is a certain devastation of how combat and various wars have broken down the framework of who the soldier was before he or she entered the military and then they come home to a general public that does not like to admit that war does not end on the battlefield. Society tends to belittle the soldier's emotional issues, generally not understanding the psychological effect of the horrors and acts of war.
In 2007, with suicides among active-duty soldiers reaching their highest level since the Army began keeping records in 1980, it would be hard to deny that there are severe deficiencies within the military health care system that require addressing. I have known soldiers before and after they have gone to war. War will change you. Whether it is for better or for worse, war will change you. I have made the choice to work with those soldiers who came home with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a normalized diagnosable reaction to traumatic events. I would like to play an active role in increasing the awareness of PTSD and suicide prevention, endorsing access to treatment options for all soldiers, and breaking down the barriers of stigma and shame surrounding mental healthcare in a military setting.
I do not believe that this is naïve. It is the worst part of man: injustice, hatred, illness, and war that demands tenacity and strength for the defense of humanity. These soldiers sacrificed their well-being for something greater than themselves – for their ideals, for their country, for service. It has fueled my passion for military social work and suicide prevention. I believe that the suicides of thousands of soldiers were and are preventable. Social work in the military will give me the opportunity to help those soldiers who have made the choice to put service before themselves. These men and women inspire me to become something greater than who I am.
Today, I have the honor of being able to call myself an American soldier AND a social worker. And the Army willing, I will be able to continue helping our troops manage the consequences of war after I receive a commission in May, 2012.