‘We have to learn how to come home,’ says veteran

A well-timed bear hug from a Vietnam veteran persuaded Jonathan Wicks to put down the gun he’d raised to his head and start seeking therapy for the post-traumatic stress he developed after serving in Iraq.

Nine years later, Wicks is the one giving back to former military service members as a counselor at the Tacoma Vet Center. It’s rewarding work for a veteran inspired by his own therapists at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“PTSD showed me what my meaning is” in life, he said.

Wicks shared his story Friday with an audience of nearly 200 at the University of Washington Tacoma, urging them to show compassionate, nonjudgmental care for veterans leaving the military after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His testimony was part of a conference on veterans and military families that was targeted at professionals in social work, counseling and human resources. They’re among those most likely to encounter veterans struggling to adjust to civilian living.

“We have to learn how to come home just as well as we learned how to go into the military,” said Stephen Robinson, a retired soldier who helped bring the conference together as vice president of external affairs for Prudential.

The caregivers at the conference aim to help veterans move on to fulfilling lives. In the South Sound, more than 9,000 troops are leaving the military out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord every year.

Across the military, the Defense Department is shedding tens of thousands of positions for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

One former Lewis-McChord soldier said leaving the military made me feel as if “I didn’t know who I was.”

“I lived ‘hooah’ so long I didn’t know how to speak civilian,” said the 23-year Army veteran, Sean Lanegan. He left the military two years ago and is the volunteer coordinator at Operation Good Jobs for Goodwill.

Many of the professionals who attended the conference had personal connections to the military, either from their own service or a family member’s. They heard frank, heartfelt appeals from veterans and experts.

“You may have deployed three times. You may not have left the wire. You were still away from your family for three years. That’s not good,” said Anthony Hassan, the conference’s keynote speaker.

Hassan, an Air Force veteran, now leads the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families at the University of Southern California. He’s trying to share information around the country so behavioral health professionals have a basic understanding of how to help veterans feel comfortable and receptive to care.

“We went to war for 12 years, and we’re going to have problems. That’s the truth,” he said.

The turnout exceeded expectations for Diane Young, director of UWT’s social work program. She’s noticed more and more veterans taking classes in her program.

“I’m so inspired,” she said.

Judging by applause, Wicks was a local favorite in the morning panels. He grew up in South King County and pursued education at Tacoma Community College and the UWT.

He encouraged the audience to keep an open mind when they hear veterans’ stories, even if they don’t know the right thing to say.

“The people who helped me the most were not combat veterans,” he said. “They just showed me compassion. They showed me compassion I didn’t know people had.”