From the fall of 2012 through the spring of 2013, 43% of domestic abuse homicides in Wisconsin involved military families. In 2014, almost 50% of domestic violence cases served by Sojourner Family Peace Center that were determined to be at high risk for homicide included members of the military.
We know that men and women in the armed services, particularly those who have served in combat, experience significant trauma. Add to that the fact that research shows that high percentages of all individuals have experienced some degree of adverse childhood experiences, and the reality becomes that the trauma resulting from military service is compounded.
Sojourner has partnered with Dryhootch, an organization that helps veterans transition to civilian life, since 2009 to tackle the problem of domestic abuse in military families. Recently, SaintA trained both, with a goal of broadening their understanding of trauma, how it affects brains and behavior, and how to mitigate those effects.
“For us, this is a way to get more connected with the grassroots community,” said SaintA Chief Clinical Officer Tim Grove. “And Dryhootch and Sojourner have this amazing partnership that really is another great example of the importance of learning about how the brain and body adjust to severe forms of overwhelming stress.”
Sojourner’s Michelle Coppens said the collaboration helps bring the best service to military families.
“And Tim’s help and experience has been so valuable,” she said.
As a result of the training, Sojourner staff now look through a trauma-informed lens at each person in a family touched by domestic violence, Michelle said. And it has created a different way to approach that violence.
Perspective shift, a key tenet of SaintA’s Seven Essential Ingredients of understanding and implementing trauma informed care, has been critical, Michelle said. Rather than drawing negative conclusions from the onset, the training has allowed staff to ask, “What’s your story and how did we end up here today?” Michelle said.
The effect of trauma in early childhood really stood out in Tim’s training, said Michael Crawford, director of Peer Support Operations at Dryhootch.
“With probably 75% of those we work with, something occurred before their military service to exacerbate things,” he said.
Mike said the training also reinforced the understanding of how important resilience and relationships are and how things such as the services Dryhootch offers can bolster the resilience individuals innately possess. For instance, a service member experiencing the effects of trauma may detach from the world around him or her, he said. Having one person reach out to that vet and encourage getting out of the house to simply talk one-on-one can be hugely helpful, he said. The commonality of vet-to-vet at least cracks the door, and forming and maintaining a relationship with a particular person is critically important, Mike said.
“Although our work is self-directed by the vets, connection — how peers choose to trust or not to trust– is something we are all trying to figure out, so even during the worst storms that quiet voice can get through and start the cognitive process,” he said.
Mike said it’s important in peer support to learn how people function as human beings.
“And after that learning, we realize that the surface story often is not where the crisis exists… The things that have happened to you since you were born, your context of reality since birth, is like a computer, with those things downloaded into the brain.”
Add to that military training, Mike said, which teaches a human being to react appropriately in a life-or-death situation, such as war, to save lives, and be victorious. The difficulty occurs when that trained response is projected into civilian life situations and that program kicks in and the veteran’s reactive response — conscious or unconscious — is not in proportion to the situation.
Emotions in the military can be extremely deep, and they can add to the difficulty of transitioning to civilian life.
“In combat, what happens when the person next to you dies?” Mike asked. “You loved that person, a person who helped keep you alive. How they died is absolutely brutal, in many circumstances. And not to mention the exposure to all the other deaths around you.”
Vets may blame themselves or develop a shield against getting close to others, he said. Plus their bodies have become used to being constantly on guard, in survival mode.
“How do you come back from that? How do you survive? How does your brain survive?”
This country asks a lot from military men and woman, to maintain our lifestyles and to keep all of us safe. But then when they return home, they are expected to act as if these things never happened, Mike said.
“We need to realize the programs that have been downloaded into their brains and help them with their transitions…. We have a responsibility to seek wellness, hopefully with support from the community.”
SaintA’s training has been a part of that help, Mike said.
“The more we can find out about where we’ve been and how that can affect where we’re going, it gives us a pathway to recovery … so these veterans can find peace and contentment for the rest of their lives.”
And that includes peace within their families. Trauma is at the core of domestic violence, Michelle said. And it impacts the entire family. Working through a trauma-informed lens with every member of a family has resulted in people feeling less judged and more motivated to do something about their problems, she said.
“At the heart, no one wants to be hurt or to hurt others. The military families we work with want for things to be different and to be better.”
Taking a trauma-informed approach promotes safety, she said.
“Not just physical safety but emotional safety.”
And it changes the mindset of those Sojourner serves, she said.
“When someone can see their own experiences through a different perspective, change becomes possible.”
SaintA plans to continue with more trainings in 2016 with Sojourner, Dryhootch and other community partners. For more information on SaintA trainings, visit the Community Training page.