Purple Heart Recipient and Master’s Candidate at Touro College’s Graduate School of Social Work Urges Veterans to Reach Out for Support Services
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Former Staff Sergeant Was Speaker at Community Day Program on “Social Work on the Front Lines.”
New York, N.Y. – A Purple Heart recipient who served three tours in Iraq, and who is currently a master’s degree candidate at Touro College’s Graduate School of Social Work, said that veterans should not be ashamed about asking for mental health support at a recent community day program titled, “Social Work on the Front Lines: The Role of Social Work in Today’s Military,” presented by the School.
“In the military, the soldier’s mind becomes conditioned to believe that it’s a sign of weakness to reach out for help,” said Omar Domenech, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, who spoke to approximately 150 people, most of them students and faculty at the Touro’s Graduate School of Social Work, who gathered at the Lander College for Women/The Anna Ruth and Mark Hasten School in Manhattan. “Enlisted men and women think that asking for help will hinder their chances at getting promoted. Social workers need to enforce to the military chain of command that it’s okay to for a soldier to ask for help, that acknowledging you need help makes you a stronger person.”
Opening remarks were delivered by Dr. Anthony Polemeni, vice president of Touro College’s Division of Graduate Studies; Dr. Steven Huberman, dean of the Graduate School of Social Work; and Allison Bobick, LCSW, professor of social work.
“I am proud to be here today, both as a veteran and as a student of social work at Touro,” Domenech said. “But most importantly, I came here today to let other returning veterans know that help is available and that the American people care.”
Domenech began his military career as a National Guardsman in 2000. He did his basic military training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and his advanced individual training at Fort Bliss, Texas. On September 11, 2001, his unit was one of the first responders at the World Trade Center disaster and his job was to recover deceased from the wreckage as well as protect the site from intruders.
“It was my first ‘out of body’ experience,” he said, referring to the sensation of numbness he felt. “I will never forget the smell of burnt bodies, the overwhelming sadness.”
He later enlisted full time and went on to serve active duty in Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which was followed by three tours of service in Iraq, where he earned the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat. Upon returning home, however, he observed that “there were too many soldiers, but not enough services” to assist with mental health problems, unemployment and homelessness, marital and family issues, and day-to-day living. That is when, he said, he decided to study for his master’s degree in social work, so that he could help other veterans like himself.
The guest speakers for the morning program were:
- Steven Bailyn, LCSW, chief, community and social services, Veterans Administration, New York Harbor Healthcare System, who spoke on “Providing Social Work Services to Veterans and Their Families: Issues and Lessons Learned”;
- Lieutenant Colonel Rabbi Barry Baron, a chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserves and deputy director of JWB-Jewish Chaplain’s Council, who spoke on “The Role of the Chaplaincy in the Military”; and
- Phyllis Mervis, LCSW, and Patricia Rich, co-director, of Strategic Outreach to Families and All Reservists (SOFAR), who spoke on “Professional and Volunteer Services to Military Families.”
Domenech’s personal reflections in the afternoon program were followed by discussion groups on such topics as professional and volunteer services, crisis intervention, spirituality and the military, suicide screening and assessment, case management services, and domestic violence in the military.
In response to a growing need for social workers, the Graduate School of Social Work will be offering a course on “Military Social Work” in 2010, designed to train social workers how to counsel veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There has been a huge influx of vets returning home to the U.S. and this course will examine how the war has impacted their lives and the lives of their families,” Dean Huberman said.
He noted that in the past three years since the School opened, the MSW program has grown to encompass 150 students.