Germanna Community College's new Student Veterans Support Counselor understands what it's like to be deployed during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
He understands what it's like to make the transition from active duty to civilian life.
And he understands veterans' frustration in dealing with the red tape that too often tangles their efforts to get the benefits they've earned.
Robert M. Dixon, a Westminster, Md. native who lives in Stafford County, had a 22-year career in the U.S. Army, serving during the Gulf War as part of Operation Desert Storm and as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He retired as a lieutenant colonel. He said that during his Army career and two years as a civilian working at Quantico he developed a respect for other branches of the service including the Marines, Navy and Air Force.
His last assignment was serving on the Army’s Suicide Prevention Task Force.
“One of my duties there was to serve on an interdisciplinary team to try to identify [reasons for] the spike in suicides in active duty and reserve members as well as to come up with some integrated approaches as to how we might reduce those numbers,” Dixon said.
Dixon said the NIH, the CDC and the Department of Defense have been studying the increased rate of suicides among active duty military personnel and veterans.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has set up a crisis line for vets in urgent need of mental health care at 1/800/273-8255, press 1.
Reports say it’s harder to track the total number of veteran suicides than those of active duty military members, but there is concern that the number may be climbing. And some fear the worst years may lie ahead as the U.S. draws down its forces in Afghanistan.
“I think the evidence is still out,” Dixon said. “Some people say it’s easy because people are deploying and coming back with a lot of issues. I’m not sure it’s that simple, because we were noticing spikes in people who have never deployed as well. So I’m not sure it’s just a problem limited to veterans who have been deployed to combat.”
“Some of the issues that precipitate some of that revolve around health problems, family problems—things the general public has a difficult time dealing with as well,” Dixon said. “But there is a disproportionate rise in suicides in our veteran population.”
He said one of the difficulties the military faces in dealing with the problem is reluctance on the part of many in the military to seek help for mental health problems like depression, anxiety and PTSD.
“When you’re dealing with the veteran’s population, there’s a certain stigma attached,” Dixon said.
“No one wants to be seen as having mental health issues. But the reality is that if people would just reach out for help when they think they need it, there are a lot of resources available and it really helps to alleviate some of the underlying things pushing people to think about that.”
Germanna and the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board recently signed an agreement to ease and expand student access to mental health services for all its students, including veterans.
”This agreement will help our counseling staff provide better crisis intervention and referral service to students in need of mental health assessment and treatment. I’m looking forward to working closely with RACSB staff to develop a plan to address mental health crises and provide access to the RACSB Emergency Services Program,” said Pam Frederick, Germanna Dean of Student Development.
Dixon said we can all help in addressing the situation.
“I’m convinced at the end of the day that the best prevention against suicide is looking out for each other and checking on each other and knowing each other. So many cases are such that people went into isolation mode and didn’t want to talk, which is normally associated with general depression.”
Dixon said active duty military personnel and veterans find talking about mental health issues: “ hard to do because it’s counter-culture to the military. Nobody wants to be seen as the weak link. But the reality is that if you’re suffering with this in silence, no matter what you do, it causes problems.”
Of his new job at Germanna, Dixon said: “ I’m grateful to have the opportunity to help the young men and women who have given so much already. For me, it really is personally about giving back. I also feel education is so important to setting our veterans up for the rest of their lives—it’s the difference between just getting by and having a good life.”
Dixon said it’s impossible to say exactly how many veterans are students at Germanna, because only those receiving VA benefits are identified as such.
“A segment of the population uses the GI Bill and we can track them,” Dixon said. “Others don’t and some veterans don’t want to be identified as veterans. They don’t want accolades. They’ve put that part of their lives away and don’t want to discuss it.”
He said that over the next few years he’d like to “build a mutually supportive network of veterans and family members. We have a significant number of family members of veterans using GI Bill benefits.”
Dixon said the major concern for most students who are veterans is “the timely delivery of benefits that they count on not only for tuition, but for housing.” Many also have anxiety about returning to the classroom environment again after the military. He believes his experience as a veteran using VA benefits has provided him with a background that can benefit student veterans experiencing problems with benefits and access to veteran resources to help them with their transition back to civilian life.
Questions regarding eligibility for education benefits or VA policies and procedures may also be directed to the Department of Veterans Affairs at 1-888-442-4551 or http://www.gibill.va.gov.