DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alumna’s career spent counseling military personnel

For many American soldiers, getting used to life in the war zone is tough enough. But University of Denver alumna Donna Finicle has seen firsthand how difficult it can be for soldiers and airman to re-adjust to life off the battlefield.

Finicle (BA ’67, MSW ’72) spent more than two decades of her career as a Veterans Administration social worker, counseling veterans, soldiers and their families in the Colorado Springs area; she retired in 2004. Three years later, Finicle started a fledgling Welcome Home Warrior program to fill the emotional, physical and psychological needs of veterans after they return home.

“One thing about working with veterans and active-duty soldiers is you have to establish trust and prove yourself,” Finicle says. “My experience working with soldiers is they’re extremely keen observers. You have to do what you say and say what you do. You cannot give them a lot of psycho babble. You have to be really real and down to earth with them. You have to really know where they’ve been and what they had to do and know a little bit about the how the military functions.”

The “culture” of the military brings different challenges treating soldiers and their families, compared to civilians, Finicle says. “Soldiers and veterans tend not to ask for help because they are supposed to be strong and not have problems,” adds Finicle, who started working with Vietnam vets in 1984. “I know the military is trying very hard to overcome this. But it’s a [part of] the culture.”

Soldiers and their families go on a retreat as part of the Welcome Home Warrior program. The retreat includes discussion groups and treatment for psychological wounds from the war, plus fun family activities. The retreat also offers counseling, child care and even spa and beauty treatments for wives and daughters. The Welcome Home Warrior program relies on volunteers and uses fundraising to pay for the retreats, which are free to military families.

Finicle says the program has grown each year and she sees the need for more retreats because of the many tours soldiers have done since going to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and later in Iraq.

“It gets worse and worse each year,” Finicle says of the trauma soldiers face when they return home. “They’re suffering, they’re struggling, they’re having a bad time, [and] that includes the ranking officers and the men on the ground. A normal human would have trouble after one tour, but multiple tours over and over again are something else.”

Knowledge and communication among families are two keys to solving the problems caused by the war zone, Finicle says.

“They all come back expecting a normal life but they can’t,” she says. “Because they’re having sleep problems, stress problems, problems being around people or in crowded places, problems with anger and anxiety and problems being in traffic congestion, they’re having a hard time at home. Some advice I give to the family is to keep the lines of communication open. It’s also important for families to understand about these war-zone experiences. Once they are the same page, they can support each other. If they don’t understand, then they are in the dark and they get angry.”

Anger is a common byproduct of the war, something that seemed to stir Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan — a psychiatrist and devout Muslim at Fort Hood who was set to begin a tour in Afghanistan — to open fire at a crowded soldier readiness center earlier this month.

Such an incident can trigger anger, Finicle warns, and create more problems. Results of anger can be suicide, violence or even murder. Suicide numbers for 2008 grew for the fourth consecutive year, the Army reported in January. The Army suicide rate rose to 20.2 for every 100,000 soldiers, surpassing the civilian suicide rate for the first time. The numbers include the Army reserve and National Guard.

“When there’s an incident [like Fort Hood], there’s an emotional reaction amongst soldiers and others,” says Finicle, who was honored by the National Association of Social Workers as the social worker of the year for 2009 for the Pikes Peak Region. “One of the things has been a lot of anger. Wanting to kill the shooter. That’s one thing that has to be dealt with. Of course there’s grief. There’s lots of grief. A current death triggers soldiers back to previous deaths. It can stir up things.”

For more information on the Welcome Home Warrior program, call 719-687-1000 or e-mail welcomehomewarrior@comcast.net or visit www.whwarrior.org.

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