Atlanta VA Health Care System
Social Workers help Veterans create positive life change
By Elizabeth Mazza
The month of March is a time of national recognition celebrating the profession of Social Work. The National Association of Social Workers has described the profession as one that helps to create, "positive life change." Atlanta VA Medical Center Social Workers are a staff of 160 who serve veterans in many capacities; chronic illness, homelessness, counseling, caregiving, aging, crisis intervention, suicide, women’s issues, trauma, veterans returning home, substance abuse, mental health, residential and rehabilitative care to name some of what they do.
Here at the Atlanta VA, in honor of Social Work Month, we are featuring three Social Workers who have served our country and are now our very own. All three were deployed to the Middle East. All three experienced combat. All three are women. All three feel their time of service changed their lives and have made them even more effective in their field of social work; especially in working with their fellow comrades.
Ms. Andy Jean-Baptiste, LMSW, Inpatient Medicine Social Worker, assists veterans in the hospital with a variety of concerns such as benefits, financial distress, health matters and in providing support and assistance so that a veteran may return home or continue to receive the care they need. Ms. Jean-Baptiste served in the Army Reserve as an E-5 (Sergeant) from January 2001-January 2009. She was deployed to Iraq from September 2006 to September 2007 serving in the capacity as a Patient Administration Specialist at the 399th Combat Support Hospital (based in Massachusetts). The 399th CSH provided medical treatments for the multinational force in Iraq which included service members, Iraqi Police/Army, insurgents, civilians and even children. "There were mortar attacks 3-4 times a day; I got very little sleep... the most difficult part was the exposure to the casualties of war." She spoke of the hands on work that had to be done. She worked toward establishing trust with soldiers who had arrived fresh from battle in allowing her to remove their weapons and belongings. "Over time I continued to talk with many of these same soldiers who shared with me their feelings of loss, about their wives, children and other family members. The result of my assignment is that I realized the field of Social Work was what I wanted to do. It was similar to the therapeutic relationships I had developed in working with fellow soldiers during a very difficult time in their lives. "
Ms. Jean-Baptiste expressed her feelings about her adjustment upon her return home. "I came back home knowing that my experiences from my time of service has changed the individual that I am." She went on to say that, "As a reservist, I lost contact with some of those who served with me. I felt, left out…alone in a sense. My friends who didn’t serve did not seem to realize I was different than who I was before I left. I didn’t want to talk about my experiences...the adjustment back to civilian life were some tough times." Under the GI Bill, Ms. Jean-Baptiste completed college. She went on to earn her Master of Social Work degree and ultimately came here to the VA. "I find working with other veterans very therapeutic. It helps me heal…I feel there are others like me. Being a veteran also gives me an edge, because some veterans tend to open up more once they find out I too have served."
Ms. Carmin Nowlin, LCSW, is currently a Psychiatric Social Worker helping those in crisis in need of acute mental health care. Ms. Nowlin was an Officer in the Army, making rank as a Captain and served from May 2001-May 2006. Ms. Nowlin was deployed twice during her time, both times to Iraq. During her first deployment, she served in the capacity of Captain in the Ordnance Corps as an Automotive Platoon Leader. During her second deployment she worked as a COTR and managed a labor contract. When asked how she entered into the field of Social Work, Ms. Nowlin stated, "As an Officer, I was responsible for the health, morale and welfare of soldiers." She explained that in working as a civilian you go to work and then home and much is unknown about your coworkers. Ms. Nowlin stated, "In the military you live in the field environment, it’s more on a personal level. You are sleeping in the same tent together and you come to know details of a soldier’s personal life. You learn about the psychosocial issues that impact their readiness for deployment and as a leader you can make a difference. I found this to be challenging, but was one of the best aspects of my military experience. I came to know a profession in Social Work would allow me to pursue a career similar to that aspect of what I did while in the military."
Ms. Nowlin entered into the military single and with no children. She was married and had her first child during her time of service. "My husband proposed to me on the parade field and we were married in June 2004." She spoke of having her first child in February 2005. "Four months after my son was born, I was deployed to Iraq. I had to prepare physically and emotionally to leave my husband and child behind." She spoke of her husband raising their son on his own for seven months. "When I returned in January 2006, my son took his first steps two weeks after I got home." Now as a wife and mother of two she reflected upon how she became aware of how her family members felt when she initially went to Iraq and how she saw that she now had more at stake than just herself. "I had to stay focused on the mission and I felt guilty about not being with my family. I was missing the first months of my baby’s life." Ms. Nowlin went on to say that, "For me I knew what I wanted from my career in the Army but after becoming a mother, I was not ready to make additional sacrifices and left in May 2006." Ms. Nowlin enrolled in graduate school earning her Master of Social Work degree. After earning her License in Clinical Social Work, she came to the Atlanta VA as a Social Worker and with that she says, "Here I am." Ms. Nowlin plans to remain settled in the Atlanta area with her family and continue her career with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Ms. Jessica Alexander, MSW Intern, served in the Army Reserve from February 2002- August 201. She was deployed to Iraq as a Mental Health Specialist in an Outpatient Clinic. Although the clinic was a separate entity, there were services provided in collaboration with the hospital alongside them. Ms. Alexander spoke of working with patients who were admitted to the hospital as well as walk ins to the clinic and also as a part of an outreach team promoting awareness of the supportive care and services available to soldiers. "In the military, there has been a tendency for soldiers to have concerns in seeking mental health assistance however; this point of view has improved greatly over the years. I can say with certainty, the Army is very pro -Social Work." When asked how her experiences during military service made all the difference in her career choice, she reports, "I was already enjoying doing so much that was similar in the area of Social Work. It was a natural transition." After years of military service in the area of Mental Health, Ms. Alexander then completed college under the GI Bill. She is looking forward to graduating with her Master of Social Work degree in Spring of this year and desires to serve her fellow veterans as a VA Social Worker.
Some of their experiences are different, some similar, each with different perspectives to bring to the table in working with veterans. It is important to know that among our ranks, these are just three stories shared about our veteran Social Workers. There are many more among our ranks. We thank all of them and honor their continued work in serving their country.
Patient Centered Care-One Veteran at a Time.