Three openly gay and lesbian service members and the wife of one panelist sat for an hour and a half in the Sanford Auditorium at USU to answer questions from 31 military mental health specialists about the types of issues that affect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) service members, especially when deployed.
The panel was part of a 10-day course called “Topics on Deployment Psychology” conducted by the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) based in Bethesda, Md. According to Dr. Ken Furman, who organized the course, CDP’s mission is to train military and civilian mental health providers to provide evidence-based care for service members and their families. “Topics on Deployment Psychology” focuses on preparing doctors to help service members with deployment preparation, adjustment, sustainment, completion and re-acclimation. The course is designed specifically for uniformed mental health specialists who may not have experience being deployed or may be new to their careers.
Furman arranged the LGBT-themed panel based on his professional estimation that the related areas of therapy needed to be discussed. “This is one of the areas I thought needed some consideration,” he explained. “It’s not talked about in terms of training programs and [was] certainly not before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ [ended].”
During the discussion, students asked questions about a variety of LGBT-specific issues that they had seen with patients or wanted to know more about, including coming out in uniform, dealing with harassment, substance abuse, isolation and even transgender issues. Panelists talked about life under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), trust issues with military mental health providers, dealing with hostile co-workers and being isolated when a spouse is deployed.
This included testimony from Angela Shrader, an Army Captain, and Cathy Cooper, her partner of 20 years. Together they described life under DADT, navigating conversations among military personnel in such a way as to not be identified as a couple.
Shrader recalled a situation where she was having surgery and her supervisor wanted to make sure she had someone looking after her at home.
“Cathy was there to help me,” she explained. “But I couldn’t tell my boss that. She was insistent, so I had to make something up. I told her my mother was coming into town, which was not true. It went against everything I believe about Army values and integrity.”
Cooper expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to share their story, “For me it was a privilege to sit before those mental health professionals as a same sex wife of an Army Captain. I hope they left with more insight into their own comfort level when it comes to treating LGBT persons.”
Panelist Todd Burton, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army National Guard, shared with the audience his experiences while on deployment the day DADT officially ended.
“I immediately came out to my superiors, though it was probably easier for me,” he told the group, “because I was protected as an officer.”
All four panelists consistently told the students that the decision of whether or not to come out to fellow service members has a lot to do with the climate of the unit and how safe they feel.
Afterward, Burton said being a part of the discussion was a positive experience.
“It was an incredible privilege to participate in this forum,” he added. “The students were engaged, interested, and really want to do the right thing as they move from the classroom to the field. They presented challenging questions that really showed their commitment to meeting the needs of all service members.”
CDP Executive Director David Riggs said similar dialogs in the past have been limited. “Where it’s come up usually for us is in discussions of professional ethics. The question that has come up over and over again, before DADT was repealed: ‘Do we have the obligation to report that someone has come out?’”
He pointed out that the Topics on Deployment Psychology panel was different because it focused entirely on LGBT issues, “I thought it was a very nice discussion. The questions that were asked were clearly on the minds of the providers.”
Cooper had a similar reaction, “I know the panel discussion was beneficial because so many attendees came up to us afterward and thanked us for the insight.”
Burton said he believes the panel’s inclusion at a military medical training facility was just as significant as the content.
“The Center’s decision to address this topic is one of the most important steps to date towards full inclusion of LGBT service members by the military,” he explained. “The medical community is critical. Their willingness to reach out and talk about these issues now and in the future is a necessary step towards full integration and acceptance.”
Army Capt. Rich Blake, a student in the course, agreed. “That’s exactly the point,” he said. “More important than the content itself or the perspectives that the panelists gave was the fact that it was actually happening. It was pretty obvious by most of the reactions of the other military psychologists in the crowd that this was a big moment in military history, where there was an open discussion about how policies and regulations were affecting the military’s LGBT community and what we’re going to do to make a positive impact on that.”
One of the impacts Furman would like to see, he professed, is students taking what they learned from the panel, as well as the other classes, back to their commands. “All of these folk are going to go back to their training sites, so I would hope that this would open up discussions for them back there with their training faculty to allow them to explore treatment considerations where the folks actually are.”
The course is conducted five times a year. After seeing how well the panel went, Riggs said he supports holding similar panels in the future, “I think it’s a good idea; we’ll probably do it.”