Serving veterans' mental health needs in Eastern Iowa

I-SERVE graduate Laura Boddicker advocates for better mental health services for military veterans like herself

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Millions of U.S. military servicemen and women have returned to civilian life after serving in the armed forces, and while serving in the military is challenging, many returning veterans find reintegrating even more difficult.

In fact, according to research published in the Journal of Psychiatric Services, rates of depression and other mental disorders are high among services members within their first year returning from deployments.

It’s not just a change of scenery, after all. Returning also means a change in job duties or a new career, living arrangements, lifestyle and more.

“When you go into the military, you are stripped down mentally, so the person you were before the military is no longer,” said Laura Boddicker, a Navy veteran originally from Tennessee now living in Newhall.

“You change everything,” she continued. “You have to be so focused and your personality has to be structured.”

Returning to civilian life is like switching gears to the “complete opposite,” she said.

“It can be a huge culture shock. It’s a completely different way of living,” she continued. “You struggle to find your place in the world, struggle to find people you relate to and struggle with employment because you have a different type of personality and it’s considered inappropriate. It’s a huge adjustment.”

When Boddicker moved to Iowa with her husband after serving together in the Navy, she struggled.

They moved in with his parents and she enrolled at the University of Iowa, but only stayed a month before dropping out.

“I lost my independence from living on my own, and there was no more camaraderie — I didn’t have any friends,” Boddicker said.

She was 22 — close in age to many of her peers, but not in maturity level.

“They hadn’t done what I did, so that socializing level, that maturity level was completely different,” she said. “I couldn’t find any commonalities with anyone. So that was really hard — all I had was my husband.”

Her depression put tension not only on herself, but also on her marriage, she said.

“I was used to having a structured environment and that was gone, so I didn’t know what to do anymore,” she said.

She took one year off before she “felt ready” to return to school, this time at Upper Iowa University, which was a more “non-traditional” school that helped her transition better, she said.

In 2014, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology — a degree she chose to help people like herself.

In the military, she struggled with anorexia and regularly experienced sexual harassment, she said. After experiencing treatment for herself, she hoped to become a mental health counselor for other veterans.

She returned to UI for a master’s in rehabilitation and mental health counseling and again felt alienated in her classes as the only veteran and mom in her program, she said. She worried she’d have the same issue and again struggled her first year, but then found UI’s I-SERVE program in the College of Education.

I-SERVE — which stands for Support, Education, Resources for Veterans and Enlisted — assists students serving in the military as well as veterans and dependents of veterans in networking, filling out applications, completing coursework, finding internships and jobs and more.

“In the military, there’s always an answer,” Boddicker said. “So many veterans get lost transitioning and get lost in the system — they struggle because they don’t have that support.”

But I-SERVE can “give them the answers” and the resources needed to succeed. With I-SERVE, veterans aren’t “lost in the dark,” she said. “They’re not alone — they have someone there who’s been through it, but can also be there to help them through. Having a program for veterans, sponsored by veterans provides that camaraderie again.”

The program not only helped Boddicker feel welcome, but also assisted her efforts to improve mental health services for veterans by funding two trips to Washington, D.C., where she met with Iowa legislators, including Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, to discuss mental health services.

Boddicker said her meetings resulted in more mental health counseling internships to be offered by VA clinics around the nation — from just a few openings to hundreds.

“I struggled finding who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do” after leaving the military, Boddicker said. “But when I found I-SERVE, I finally found who I was and who I can be because I realized that my true passion is to advocate for veterans and to help them transition and integrate back into the community after military service.”

Today, Boddicker, 28, is a mental health therapist at Family Psychology Associates in Cedar Rapids and primarily works with people struggling with physical or mental disabilities. She hopes to continue advocating for veterans and eventually create a community where veterans can seek support from other veterans, she said.

“The problem is, providers are so overworked and can’t give veterans the care that they need. It’s sad that some people get turned away or just can’t get the support and needed treatment,” she said.

She believes a veteran-to-veteran system may be more effective.

“When a veteran goes up to another veteran, there’s automatic rapport,” she said. “There’s still that ‘you know what I went through, you understand.’ It’s a little more difficult to talk about your story with somebody who hasn’t been a veteran. ... It’s important to have rehabilitation of some sort. Somebody to talk to to help them transition easier.”

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