December 16, 2017

How grief has made me a better counselor

**This opinion piece was ghost written by staff writer Hanna Holthaus with permission of Jason Blakemore

When Tom Palozola died on Memorial Day, my confidence as a counselor plummeted. His suicide was the worst thing I’ve experienced in my job. As a veteran, I’ve lost a best friend to a gunshot wound and experienced several other similar situations both in and out of my time in the Army, but Tom’s suicide hit home.

I had  gotten to know him post-military. I got to see all of his potential. I got to see everything Tom did at Webster and I got to envision what he was going to do down the road. When I think of Tom, I think of all the things that could have been. His loss is the biggest I will  ever have as a counselor.

I have been a counselor since 2005 after leaving my three year service with the Army. At the time, I did not  know exactly what I wanted to do. I  installed water lines for a living when the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) contacted me to be a service officer for their organization in Columbia, Mo.

I took the job and mediated situations between veterans and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA). I loved counseling, even at the start. I mostly saw Vietnam veterans at the VFW, and I realized how different their experiences returning home from combat were from my own.

They were not welcomed back. They had to endure atrocious situations unlike anything I had been through.  These people would find themselves walking through airports where complete strangers would call them “baby killers” or spit on them.  In order to help them, we had to move past that. I really wanted to help, to acknowledge what they went through and try to move forward. It was hard, but when I could help a Vietnam veteran let go of their negative mindsets and see how far the country has come, I felt extremely proud.

As I became more experienced, the VFW promoted and transferred me to St. Louis where I finished my bachelor’s degree and earned my counseling license. It all fell into place after that. I got a job with the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation, and they assigned me to Webster University a year later. Now, I get to work with veterans right here on campus instead of hoping they’ll find me. 

I mostly see Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the university, and the dynamic differs from working with the older generation.  When I start working with a veteran now, most of them are coming to me with a financial or educational issue, and I love being able to fix that.

If everything is great and the only thing a student needs is monetary help, we get that done, but I have to remind them they can come to me with other things. If getting through the day is hard, they can let me know. I want to help when they are struggling.  If someone comes in with a serious mental issue, it is up to us to problem-solve, set some goals, allow him or her to take a deep breath and walk out of my office feeling better than they did coming in.  That is the reason I am here. My job is to lay all the cards on the table, not to make a veteran’s decision for him or her but rather to open up options that they may have for their future.  My job satisfaction comes from helping people problem-solve.

I have gotten to help many veterans as a counselor, and I have had countless good experiences. I once had one student with major medical issues, and it took two years longer to finish his classes than planned. He graduated recently, and I was ecstatic. He keeps me updated with how he is doing in his career, but I am just excited about the adversity he overcame.

However, no matter how many success stories I see, I always remember the missed opportunities when I look back on my career. I think about the unsuccessful situations, the black marks of the students I wanted to help, but it did not work out. The situations that do not work out are the ones I take personally because I wish I could have helped more. 

When I watched Tom graduate with his bachelor’s degree last year, I started to look forward to him graduating with his master’s. His loss was so far out of left field that for a long time, I could not fully understand what happened or know what I needed to do. I did not even know if I should continue being a counselor. I thought if I could not recognize his struggles, there was no point in being here.

I know those closest to Tom did not see any warning signs either, but my practices will still change. It is tough to ask a veteran ‘are you planning to hurt yourself or others?’ unless you see some warning signs. I did not see any warning signs with Tom, and I now know to be even more diligent than before.  When I see a veteran take a semester off, even if I have no cause for concern, I will reach out. I will never fully get over Tom’s loss, but it will hopefully be the worst thing I will ever have to go through.

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