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A job market for vets helping vets

A member of the U.S. Army honor guard stands near the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery.

If you're looking for a growth industry, take a look at mental health services for vets and military members. With thousands of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and depression, there's plenty of demand.

There’s such a serious shortage of mental health workers that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is in the midst of hiring 1,600 of them before next June. And, there's a ready labor pool. Vets themselves who can help fill the gap.

Over the past two years, Trey Tippens has traveled from universities to community colleges, meeting with veterans who are figuring out their futures.

“A lot of the vets we talk to go into political science or business, or things like that,” says Tippens, an Army veteran who is a semester away from getting his doctorate from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.

Tippens goes to these schools with a simple -- but unusual -- message.

“We are trying to legitimize mental health treatment. And this is a career for many veterans that’s not even on the radar for them. And we are trying to say this is a real job, and this is something they can do,” he says.

Tippens helped create the program Train Vets to Treat Vets, which is pretty much what it sounds like. The school is developing courses about PTSD, military sexual trauma, and how deployments impact family dynamics.

While the program is still small, administrator Robert Kinscherff says the number of veterans enrolling has more than doubled and is expected to again next year.

“This is one of those situations where what is a smart business move is also the right thing to do,” he says.

In just the past few years, programslike this have started popping up around the country. In Chicago, you’ve got the Adler School of Professional Psychology and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles offers a master’s in military social work.

Vets can use the G.I. Bill to cover tuition at these schools, but getting some top-level degree isn’t the only way to get into this field. San Antonio clinical psychologist Bret Moore -- an Iraq veteran -- works with businesses as a consultant.

“You actually see a few private companies that are helping veterans learn how to be paraprofessionals, to help other veterans get linked into other services, mental health services that they may need,” says Moore.

Whatever mental health jobs vets take, often what inspires them are the terrible, terrible stories. The suicides…the domestic violence…the total desperation.

The stories of vets falling through the cracks -- like Anthony Gonzales.

“I’ve been diagnosed with a mild case of TBI, Post-Traumatic Stress, depression, substance abuse, suicidal tendencies,” says Gonzales.

The 30-year-old lives deep in the Bronx in a shabby apartment in a neighborhood of apartment buildings. Spend any amount of time with him and you hear him use the word ‘isolated’ a lot.

He’s gotten some therapy. But what he really wants: a spot in a 90-day PTSD treatment program run by the V.A., but it’s full.

“I’m tired of isolating myself, but I have problems with people…um, trying to get the suicidal tendencies and thoughts from reoccurring. Just to be able to function close to a normal life,” he says.

“A lot of these guys are still on the battlefield when they come home. This, this isn’t a game,” says Trey Tippens from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.

Tippens knows people like Gonzales are struggling because there aren’t enough services to go around. And Tippens feels a sense of duty to help, especially because he can talk to a vet like no one else.

“How powerful would it be to talk with someone who has been through something that is similar that can speak the language you speak?" he asked.

Tippens knows veterans won’t be -- and shouldn’t be -- the only ones to meet the need out there. But when they do, he’s seen first-hand; it’s easier for vets to trust, to open up, to just get help.

Which, for Tippens, is really the point.

About the author

Dan Gorenstein is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Health Desk. You can follow him on Twitter @dmgorenstein.

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