Melissa Marcario

Melissa Marcario ’93 leads the battle against PTSD

No Surrender
Coming home from the war doesn’t mean leaving the battle behind…

When it comes to combat, the wounds of war are not always easy to see.

While the majority of U.S. soldiers returning home from tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere appear unscathed, many of them, along with their families, face another long and lonely battle as the invisible wounds of war become apparent in the shape of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or traumatic brain injury.

No one knows that better than Dr. Melissa Marcario ‘93, an Alvernia graduate who is in the forefront of PTSD treatment in her work with the Veterans Administration at the Pittsburgh Health Care System. She estimates that nearly one third of the veterans and active duty military personnel she encounters suffer from PTSD.

Military records reveal that about 40,000 troops were diagnosed with PTSD between 2003 and 2008, with the number increasing each year. Thousands more have been diagnosed since 2008, and officials acknowledge that many cases remain undiagnosed, leaving the door open to the risk of ongoing psychological problems and the possibility of suicide, which has plagued the armed services in recent years.

As someone working on the front lines with veterans who have been diagnosed with the disorder, Marcario puts that number even higher — at 30 percent — and she is determined to reach out to and help as many of them as possible.

Combat-related psychological disorders have, for many years and through many wars, been widely misunderstood and under-treated. And soldiers suffering from what we now know as PTSD are often as misunderstood as is their condition, receiving no treatment or inappropriate types and levels of treatment.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD describes it as an anxiety disorder that can occur following a traumatic event. Symptoms of the disorder can be traced as far back as the Civil War. At that time, PTSD was often mistaken for a cardiac condition, and so named “soldier’s heart” because its symptoms mimicked heart problems.

During subsequent wars the disorder has been referred to by many names: shell shock, combat fatigue, war-combat neurosis, battle fatigue, and post-Vietnam syndrome.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans experience disproportionately high rates of suicide, depression, homelessness, unemployment, and other problems. Although these conditions are widely recognized, military personnel and health care providers continue to debate over how to deal with what some call an epidemic of these types of problems.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that PTSD afflicts nearly one third of Vietnam War veterans, up to 10 percent of soldiers who fought in the Gulf War, 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and 20 percent of Iraqi war veterans.

Marcario, 39, whose Alvernia degree is in psychology and English with a minor in computer information systems, earned a master’s and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. She has been with the VA Pittsburgh Health Care System since an internship that began on September 11, 2001 — a day that dramatically impacted our country, its military, and the VA. Marcario vividly recalls the point at which she realized just how profound her work would be.

“When I interviewed for the internship, somebody told me that the VA was on its way out, that all the veterans were dying off,” she said. “But I knew on that first day of training that something very important was happening, and that war was very possible, probably imminent, at that point. I recognized then how important the work I wanted to do would be to a new generation of soldiers, and that I could make a real difference.”

As military personnel prepared for war in Afghanistan, launching Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, Marcario and her colleagues pondered how those soldiers participating in the conflict would be affected. There was no way of knowing then that soldiers would return from Afghanistan and Iraq with the highest levels of PTSD since the Vietnam War.

“At that point, we didn’t know what we’d be seeing when they came back,” she said. “It was a waiting game.”

When military personnel did begin coming home after combat, it was clear that the VA’s services would become increasingly necessary and important. Advances in on-the-scene medical care in combat zones have dramatically increased the survival rate of combat soldiers. For many of those injured, however, recovery is a long and complicated process. In addition to PTSD, many veterans suffer from traumatic brain injury, which sometimes is referred to as the hallmark injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“You’ve got to not only deal with the physical issues, but also the emotional injuries,” Marcario said. “Sometimes, the emotional problems are more difficult to address.”

“There have been a lot of changes — a lot of improvements — since I started here,” Marcario said. “I’m fortunate to be able to be involved with training people who are going to go on to be psychologists within the VA, and I also help supervise psychology students and interns. It’s a good team of people doing good work.”

Did you know?

A National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise study found that participating employers and recent college graduates agreed on the necessity of out of the classroom experiences. The study emphasizes the importance of providing students with important knowledge and skills but also experience putting that knowledge and skills to practical use in "real-world" settings.

Did you know?

Seventy-six percent of participating employers put "teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings" at the top of their list of desired capabilities in new employees, according to a National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise study. These are among the skills fostered by real-world learning experiences.

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Service learning is a method of providing personal and academic development through work with established nonprofit organizations in the community. It is an avenue to introduce students to a professional environment without the extensive commitments of an internship.

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Service learning provides ideal real world learning opportunities. According to SmartBlog on Leadership, doing volunteer and service work for a non-profit organization that is connected to your major or academic program of study helps develop leadership skills, expands your perspective of the world, allows you to discover new skills in a safe environment, and develops a larger network of real world contacts to draw upon once you graduate.

Did you know?

Service learning can take you outside of your comfort zone, giving you an opportunity to work with new challenges, people, politics and interpersonal dynamics. It also offers new perspective on priorities. Hanging out with people who have had different life experiences encourages you to tackle challenges from different angles. Julie Zolfo, founder of Make Success Matter said that she volunteered for six weeks at the schools in New Delhi, India.

Did you know?

"Alvernia's Career Development Center works with students to find avenues for employment, internships, co-ops, career exploration, resume development, and graduate school options. Center staff help students assess their options and identify their own "brand" to complement their life after Alvernia.

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A recent career fair at Alvernia attracted more than 55 employers who were seeking to hire employees, co-ops and interns for their organizations. Career fairs like this one are fertile ground for students seeking real world learning opportunities and to reap the benefits of such as employers look to to hire staff members who have honed their skills and abilities via practical experiences in real situations.

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Since its inception, Alvernia has offered real world opportunities with an emphasis on service and careers that help those in need. Field experiences in areas like criminal justice, social work, nursing, occupational therapy, health care science and teacher training among others provide our students with rich learning opportunities to test drive what it's like to work in that profession.

Did you know?

In a recent American Association of Colleges and Universities survey of 302 employers, 79 percent said institutions of higher learning should emphasize helping students apply what they learn in real-world settings, and 66 percent said that completing an internship or community field project would help prepare students for success.