08/27/2012 03:39 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

Who Are We? And What I Would Want a Civilian Counselor to Know

Increasingly combat veterans are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with pervasive mental health disorders such as Posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and other anxiety disorders and medical issues, including traumatic brain and physical injuries. Many will seek and receive behavioral health treatment by civilian counselors -- individuals who are unfamiliar with and will never serve in the military.

A key tenet in the counseling knowledge base today is the need for clinicians to be culturally competent with regard to the target population they serve. However, most professional therapists who will be assisting military personnel, veterans and their families know little about this population. This gap is particularly problematic today given the increasing number of service members returning to civilian lives. Among such returnees are members of the National Guard and Reserve Components who comprise almost half of the Total Force.

Culture, in the military context, is comprised of the values, beliefs, traditions, norms, perceptions, and behaviors that govern how members of the armed forces think, communicate, and interact with one another as well as with the outside world. Mary Edwards Wertsch, in her study of adults who grew up in military families post-World War II, described the military culture metaphorically as a "fortress" symbolizing the kind of separateness that military life entails from the rest of society. This brand of "culture" also determines how military personnel view their functioning in life, their status, and the role of the military in U.S. society.

This notion of culture also determines how military personnel and veterans view their role in life. No matter the branch of service or era of service, the common threads shared by veterans are reflected in the indoctrination or socialization of the military core values, which include honor, courage, loyalty, integrity, and commitment. These core values guide service members in the highest ethical principles through creeds such as "I will bear true faith and allegiance," "I will obey my orders," "Semper Fidelis." ("Always Faithful.")

The values determine the behaviors that serve as the standards of conduct for military personnel. The standards of conduct apply regardless of whether the service member is in uniform. The military as a socializing institution believes that this pervasive application of standards of conduct is necessary because members of the armed forces must be "combat ready."

Perhaps the most salient difference between civilian culture and military culture is that devotion to duty in the military includes being willing to sacrifice one's life for one's country, for one's comrades, and even for an unknown person or entity, as in the case of humanitarian missions.

Counselors need to examine the military population on a continuum, from active involvement in the military lifestyle to the wounded warriors to the veterans transitioning into civilian society, we need to consider as many facets of the military experience as possible and take into the account the ethnic, personal, and familial predispositions towards worldviews and the evolution of the belief systems post combat in the lifespan of the military service member.

It is important for practitioners working with veterans to recognize the various conflicts or wars in which our veterans have served, to comprehend the historical, social, political, and cultural implications of military service, as veterans are not "a one size fits all."

** I am a Marine Corps veteran and a social work educator.