The soldier tightly gripped his M-4 rifle, pointing it at his head. He felt isolated at Kandahar Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Capt. Doris Ruiz received the call to help keep him from becoming another war statistic.
“I just kept talking to him, slowly, in Spanish,” said Ruiz, an Army master resiliency trainer now based in Bernards. “I told him, ‘Whatever is going on, it’s not worth your life. It’s not worth losing your life or your family.’ He let me get really close to him. I was afraid he’d blow his head off but I just kept getting closer. Finally, he gave me the gun.”
Moments like helping a man avoid suicide in 2012 confirmed to Ruiz that she’d made the right choice in joining the Army.
After a few years as a financial analyst for a Wall Street bank and more years as a counselor for Hudson County Social Services handling Medicaid applications, Ruiz returned to school to earn her master’s degree in social work at New York University in 2001. But her lifelong ambition was to serve her country.
“My father was a corporal from the Vietnam era,” she said. “He thought veterans weren’t treated well when they came home, so he didn’t want any of his kids to join.”
But he couldn’t stop her after the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. She felt impelled to enlist.
“Everybody wanted to do something,” she said.
The Army requires certain certifications of officers who practice social work: She had to be licensed and she had to become a clinical social worker. In the meantime, she counseled 9/11 survivors in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Much of the time, she just listened. But this was a good preview for some of the post-traumatic stress she would see later in the soldiers she counseled.
As veterans from two wars that spanned a decade return home, many bring psychological scars that the Department of Veterans Affairs must deal with. By some estimates, of the 2.6 million service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 240,000 are dealing with war trauma of some type, from post-traumatic stress to depression. This led to alarming suicide rates among the military.
Among full-time soldiers, the suicide rate soared to 29.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2012, well above a 25.1-per-100,000 rate for civilians of a similar age group during 2010, the latest year available, according to a Pentagon report in USA Today.
‘A soldier first’
Once Ruiz was certified as a clinical social worker in 2006, she was able to join the Army Reserve with the classification of MOS 73-A or Military Occupational Specialist as a master resiliency trainer. Ranked as a captain, she serves with the Army Reserve Unit 1972. In 2012, she was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Ruiz’s commander told her: “You have to be a soldier first, then a social worker. If don’t get that, you won’t be deployed with us.”
Being a soldier first means learning to think and react based on military training. It involves the discipline, the respect, the cohesiveness of the military unit. Although she never served on the front lines, she was trained to handle an M-16 rifle. In Kandahar, her unit was awakened at all hours by a thundering siren, warning about in-coming mortars and rocket strikes.
“I arrived in Kandahar in May,” she said. “Summer is what they call the killing season. So that summer, we had mortar attacks every day. It takes a toll.”
That constant threat keeps adrenaline running and it teaches soldiers to rely on each other.
“You are thrown in with a bunch of strangers and the strangers become your family,” she said.
Those bonds are often the strongest men and women will make in their lifetime. But when they don’t develop, it can be damaging and dangerous. The soldier who wanted to commit suicide in Kandahar was upset because he felt he didn’t fit in with his unit.
Ruiz recalls another soldier she helped. Wracked with guilt about killing two insurgents, the soldier was convinced he was going to hell. Although he was deeply religious, he became suicidal and was referred to her for treatment.
“He was a young kid,” she said. “He got fired upon and the bullets were flying all around him. But when he killed those two insurgents, he got so depressed he stopped eating. He wasn’t calling home. Finally, his wife alerted his commander and that’s when we got involved.”
Ruiz was part of a Warriors Recovery Center (WRC) on the base, staffed with social workers and nurse practitioners who intensely worked with 12 to 15 soldiers for seven days at a time, teaching them to look at their stresses in new, more constructive ways.
“We helped him see that no, he hadn’t just killed two men; he’d saved five other lives,” she said. “His men were alive because of him.”
Ruiz said that some of the stresses that she and her colleagues saw at the WRC were more intense than the military has seen in prior wars.
“These guys have served multiple tours of duty, some of them going back 10 or 12 years,” she said. “They’ve been married two or three times. (In Kandahar) they would tell me, ‘I’d rather be here,’ and I would say ‘Why?’ They would tell me, ‘Because here, I am somebody. At home, I’m nobody.’ “
In Kandahar, Ruiz and her colleagues strove to make the atmosphere in the WRC a home away from home for their clients. Some of soldiers they counseled joked they’d like to live there. But Ruiz said the work they did together was very effective in helping the soldiers deal with their challenges. She said 97 percent of the soldiers were able to return to the battlefield and 3 percent were sent on to Germany to then return to the United States.
“The 3 percent who went home didn’t want to leave,” she said. “They wanted to be back with their buddies.”
“What we did in seven days, it was amazing,” she said. “We had a very good team. We had a wonderful commander, Col. Peggy Miller, who let us do our job.”
After a year in Kandahar in 2012, Ruiz returned to the U.S., and is still a warrior-citizen as a captain in the Army Reserve and is considered an active-duty officer. She travels once a month to the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to drill with her unit, for which she was recently appointed officer in charge. She also travels once a month to another base in Spokane, Washington, to teach resiliency training.
Resiliency is key
In civilian life, she also puts her Army resiliency training to good use. As the program coordinator for Project Hope at Valley Brook Village, an affordable-housing community for veterans on the campus of the Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System campus at Lyons in Bernards, she counsels veterans from World War II to the first Gulf War. Most of the 66 veterans are disabled and/or have come through mental health treatment at Lyons and many have a history homelessness. Many of them have PTSD. She, another counselor and an employment specialist are helping these veterans to return society as productive individuals.
Ruiz’s boss in her role at Valley Brook Village is Community Hope’s Director of Veterans’ Housing Anthony Oakes, a licensed rehabilitation counselor. He said Ruiz’s work there has been “phenomenal.”
“She brings compassion to the table, but she maintains that compassion within boundaries. She combines her social work training and her training as a soldier in a way that not many people can pull off. As a soldier, she knows how to teach the veterans to stand on their own; she doesn’t do their work for them. There are no words to describe what she does. If she left, I don’t know if I could replicate what she brings to the table,” Oakes said.
Ruiz is more modest about her role, turning the credit back to the veterans themselves.
“Basically, they can take control of their thoughts. They can do that. And it’s a simple basic step called ATC: activating thoughts and consequences,” Ruiz said.
In a recent group therapy session at Valley Brook Village, which New Jersey Press Media was allowed to observe, some of the participants shared their thoughts.
During the session, residents made comments such as, “In the Army, they tell you never to isolate yourself.” “Training is one thing that brings us together.” “The unit can be the community, the village.” “Friends complement each other, put their strengths together. Work towards a complementary team.” Some of the vets talked about their own personal missions to accomplish goals they’d set for themselves. One vet said he’s learning to be flexible and not get stuck in a bad incident.
Activating events can be happy, but even happy ones can trigger stress, insecurities and fears, Ruiz said. By learning to recognize the triggers and developing effective responses to them, the soldiers can learn how to move past the stress.
Ruiz said understanding military culture is key to helping the veterans..
“Just as in social work, we have to learn about different cultures. Social workers have to understand military culture, because we have tens of thousand of soldiers coming back,” she said. “A lot of them have been to hell and back, and it’s one deployment after another. … A lot of soldiers might like to go to a private practice. But if they go to a private practice that normalizes everything, they (the staff at the practice) are not going to connect with that vet.”
Ruiz also underscored the importance of a positive attitude for healing.
“Here at Valley Brook Village, as case managers and counselors, we use all the veterans’ strengths,” she said. “We work with their strengths in a manner of positive psychology.”
Pamela MacKenzie: 9089-243-6616; pmackenzie@njpress