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Counselor offers insights into finding peace after war

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At 70 years of age and with a new part-time practice in West Virginia's capital city, there are many places you could find a tale to tell in the long career of licensed clinical social worker Richard Vincent.

But instead of focusing on the varied jobs he has held here and elsewhere in America, first as a Marine, police officer and teacher, then as a longtime counselor, let's pick up the thread of the tale that took him out of the country in 2005.

This was a job that brought him to Germany for three years, his office routinely filled with soldiers who'd witnessed the stuff of trauma and nightmare.

"Wow," said Vincent, blowing out air, when asked to describe working as a counselor at an Army clinic in Wiesbaden, dealing with soldiers just back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

He is seated in the living room of his Arlington Court townhouse. It's a sunny, peaceful day outside, basil and tomatoes growing in his garden out front. But Vincent's gaze looks backward on less-peaceful encounters.

"You have guys coming back who've spent a lot of time in what you might call relatively safe places, but they weren't," he said. "Because you never knew when something was going to blow up. On the other side, I met guys who were out there kicking doors down, surviving from day to day, fighting."

His job was to prepare soldiers for a return home or a cycle back into the field. With limited time, he would try and educate them on post-traumatic stress disorder and how to navigate again in a civilian world after the trip-wire mentality of the front.

"You tried to get their brains calmed down," he said. "I ran an anger management group. Frequently guys didn't show up. Sometimes their commander would mandate they come in -- but you can't force people to change. They have to make that change themselves."

Soldiers suffering from PTSD need to know it's a normal response to the abnormal, terrible things they've witnessed, Vincent said. "When you've been through trauma, when you've seen someone beside you take a bullet through the head, [PTSD] is a normal reaction. It's a lifetime experience, from my perspective.

"Most important is to let them know this is something that happened to you -- it's not about you or your personality. You were on a mission, you were assigned to do your duty. And you're not at fault when you had to carry out your mission."

A psychologically wounded warrior's psyche may turn different directions after mustering out of the service. "A lot of these guys turn out to be workaholics. Some alcoholics. Rage-aholics. Just some way to cope with the stress," he said.

Isolation from others is the reddest of red flags.

"You can have a better quality of life with some work and understanding of who you are and what that was all about. You have to have a good support system and learn how to be with your family, with your friends. That's critical as opposed to isolating yourself and not socializing, which is a very common symptom of PTSD."

Vincent brought more than just a counselor's compassion to the task.

"My father was a POW in Germany in the Battle of the Bulge. So, I grew up on PTSD. I think that it was kind of my calling to go to Germany," he said.

Whatever the war, some traits of wartime trauma are universal, he said.

"Hypervigilance. Anger, rage, difficulty concentrating. One of the things you don't do with somebody that has PTSD is come up behind them and touch them. Or try to make too much of a rational conversation with them when they're in a rage. Just be there with them and support them as long as they're not hurting someone or hurting themselves. Just be present with them."

Vincent has always brought into his counseling elements of different disciplines and life experiences, from the Theravada Buddhist meditation he has practiced to the core training he received when younger at the Gestalt Institute in Cleveland.

"I'm a firm believer in the unconscious and helping people become aware of the patterns -- the maladaptive patterns -- they've learned, and to become aware of those through some of these mindfulness techniques."

Three years of counseling on the Army base was enough though he continued working with soldiers at the Veterans Administration here, he said. "I really had had enough military experience. I have two grandkids and I was ready to come home and spend some time with them."

He now keeps up a part-time practice, renting space at Covenant House with two other full-time clinical social workers. "I'm not advertising, per se. It's kind of word of mouth. At this time in my life, I still enjoy doing therapy. I just don't do it 40 hours a week."

Nowadays, his counseling focuses on adults, and occasionally couples, who share a particular trait.

"Adults interested in making changes in their lives," said Vincent. "I've been around so long, I've experienced many, many situations. I feel I can adapt my particular style, if someone is interested and motivated in making some changes."

Even if they're not, he added, "it's our job as therapists to help motivate them to become more aware of their behavior, thoughts and emotions. That's our job."

He offers some basic advice for coping with depressive states and maintaining emotional wellness.

"Do something. Whether it's walking, yoga -- everybody can do something. Even if you're in a wheelchair, you can do tai chi. Or go to Buddhist meditation classes.

"People with depression, if they would just simply get out -- I believe this -- at least 50 percent of the people would notice significant improvement if they walked four or five days a week for a mile or two and increased it gradually."

Reacquainting yourself with your body can be crucial to settling down the mind, he said. "I don't think there's hardly anyone who comes to see me who isn't introduced to some kind of breathing technique."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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