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Teaching veterans to be mental health workers

A program at Newton’s Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology looks to train military men and women to become therapists who can help other vets.

 THE DRILL SERGEANT flipped on a television at the front of the warehouse-like room that was home to Trey Tippens and dozens of other Army recruits during basic training in March 2003. The news footage showed a shower of bombs over Baghdad at the start of the US invasion. Many in the room would be headed there after training, the drill sergeant told them. “We just kind of sat there in silence,” Tippens remembers. In the days that followed, a group of soldiers gathered occasionally in a back stairwell to read Scripture. Often the group asked Tippens, the son of a Methodist minister from Virginia, to end the meeting with a prayer. Channeling his father, Tippens became an unofficial chaplain. “When you join the service, you don’t think you’re going to be leading prayer groups,” he says. “It seems that’s what everyone wanted. Everybody kind of needed that.”

Tippens deployed to Korea for most of his three-year enlistment. As friends from those first days in the Army returned from tours in Iraq, Tippens saw changes in some — nightmares and anxiety, signs of stress, things that couldn’t be fixed by a prayer group. “I saw there was a need that wasn’t being met, and I couldn’t fill it,” he says. Tippens left active duty in 2006 for school. Now the 33-year-old Marlborough resident is a fourth-year doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology and coordinator of a program aimed at encouraging more people like him — those who know the structure, culture, and potential consequences of military service from personal experience — to choose a mental health career. “Veterans treating veterans. I may be biased,” Tippens says, sitting in the lunchroom of the school’s new building in Newton, “but that’s probably the ideal situation.”

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