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Iraq War Veterans, Families Helped With Trauma and Grief

Published: February 16, 2009

A CSULB expert in trauma and grief counseling helps returning Iraq War veterans and their families to deal with the pain of frequent separations by participating in a yearly $5 million contract with the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BuMed).

William Saltzman, who joined the Educational Psychology, Administration and Counseling Department in 2003, has worked since 2004 with the UCLA Trauma Psychiatry program. Earlier this year, Saltzman and colleagues began the Families OverComing Under Stress (FOCUS) Project, a resiliency training program that aims to reduce the effect of combat stress on families by supporting open communication, encouraging parents to maintain consistent routines and helping parents develop positive coping skills. As part of that program, Saltzman is working to put in place family-based resilience enhancing programs at Marine, Navy SEAL and Seabee bases across the country, including Camp Pendleton, 29 Palms and the Seabee base at Port Hueneme. Other sides are spread from Okinawa to a special warfare training base on Virginia’s Coronado Island.

Saltzman discussed the challenges military families face during testimony before the U.S. Congress in 2008. Among them are the extended and repeated separations, altered family roles and responsibilities, increased stress for the caretaking parent, and possible parental mental health problems, physical injury or loss.

“We are seeing unprecedented numbers of parents among deployed troops,” said Saltzman. “Presently, there are 140,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and, of that number, 40 percent are parents. It is unprecedented.”

In particular, Saltzman is interested in how military families struggle with multiple deployments. “I’ve spoken to Marine families where the mother or father has been deployed four times in three years,” he said. “This really undercuts the ability of families to cope. It undermines the bonds of attachment between parents and children that are essential for their welfare and development.”

Saltzman applauds the military’s efforts to support its members but he believes those services need to include more children and family. “We work with family development problems,” he said. “The key is to enhance the sense of community. One thing I have found in all my work in helping families to deal with stress is that family members become isolated and estranged in an effort to protect other family members from what they experienced. They feel these experiences cannot be shared with spouses or family members. There is a breakdown in the sense of community. The key is to build communication and I do that by eliciting strength-based narratives from all the family members. They talk about what they went through during the deployments. I work to identify gaps in mutual understanding.”

Saltzman cites the decision by a returning Marine to delay his return by four weeks to supervise the return of others. “His family freaked out,” Saltzman recalled. “Here they had a welcome all planned with banners and they were afraid something had happened. The mother became angry. Was it more important to stay in Iraq than to come home? When we collected the narratives of the husband and wife, we were able to get the husband to explain how difficult it was for him to leave his buddies. His sense of personal responsibility compelled him to stay. Sharing this helped the couple to appreciate their experiences and to work together.”

Portrait of William Saltzman
Photo by Victoria Sanchez
William Saltzman

The stress on children can be especially difficult. “We ask the children to develop narrative times lines and to include questions for their moms and dads,” he said. “Their art work and time lines help to bring the families together. They talk about what is going on in the family to clear up any misunderstandings.”

Saltzman remembered the pain of a soldier father when confronted by an 8-year-old son who would not speak to him when it came time for the dad to ship out for Iraq. “The dad went off to war feeling his son hated him. But the son later explained that he didn’t look at his dad because he was afraid he would cry or not know what to do,” Saltzman said. “He did not hate his father. The goal of this program is to bridge those gaps.”

Saltzman is co-director of CSULB’s Marriage and Family Therapy program. In 2006, he received a Faculty Scholarly and Creative Activity Award to study “Development and Pilot Study of a Brief Intervention for Military Families Impacted by War-Related Injury, Death or Combat Stress.” He received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Maryland in 1995 before performing a post-doctorate at UCLA in their Neuropsychiatric Institute. He is a California native who grew up in Los Alamitos.

Saltzman is hopeful about the program. “One of our goals is to see between 150 and 200 families per program and we want to do a lot of outreach in addition,” he said. “We want to train Navy personnel in basic resilience skills, to perform basic assessments of families and to explore topics like post traumatic stress disorders, depression and different types of adaptive behavior. We are working with software game designers to create a way for military family members to use Internet-based gaming to interact. I hope to mobilize Naval chaplains worldwide to help them better deal with the problems they hear when they are embedded with the troops.”