Serving Those Who Serve
Pioneering Doctoral Program Focuses on Research to Help Veterans
American military deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq may be ending, but the wars live on for thousands of U.S. service members who faced danger and death daily while serving their country in a hostile land. Many veterans, men and women, now cope with psychological battle scars that linger months or years after the completion of their military duties. They are home now, but the peril they faced and the suffering they witnessed still affect their lives, especially in their family relationships, in their workplaces and in their communities.
Recent studies suggest that 5 to 17 percent of military personnel returning from deployment exhibit symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and as many as 25 percent suffer some psychological problem as a result of their service. Veterans may be coping with substance abuse, depression, anger, blast-related brain trauma and other war-related effects that can hamper their ability to hold jobs or maintain healthy relationships with family and friends.
The U.S. Department of Defense recognizes this burgeoning need and is pouring millions of dollars into programs and clinical trials to test new treatments tailored to military personnel. However, the military also needs researchers who have advanced training in experimental methods and statistical techniques to help develop these therapeutic programs and evaluate their effectiveness.
UTSA is preparing to step into this role with a new doctoral level degree program in psychology that will train students in research skills that the military needs to provide the best possible mental health and wellness care for service members and their families. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the program in January 2012, and the first students began this fall semester.
“Post-traumatic stress therapies that have worked for civilians are not as effective with military veterans who bear the psychological scars of combat."
Alan Peterson, Ph.D.
University officials expect that the program will become a national model for training psychologists who are skilled in conducting research and evaluation of treatments that meet the military’s needs. Students must already have master’s degrees to enroll. They then will spend three years acquiring advanced skills in scientific research procedures, statistical analysis and grant writing. They also will receive in-depth training in military psychology and culture.
“We see a good future for our program,” said Robert Fuhrman, chair of UTSA’s Psychology Department. “This takes advantage of all the resources that are unique to San Antonio. It takes advantage of our strong military presence and our military medical infrastructure; it takes advantage of our strong faculty and our ability to collaborate with the University of Texas Health Science Center.
“With these resources, it almost can’t help but succeed,” Fuhrman said.
The Coordinating Board’s approval was the culmination of work that began under former Psychology Department Chairman Richard Wenzlaff, who convened the first faculty planning discussions for a doctoral program more than a decade ago. When Wenzlaff died suddenly in 2003, that initiative went into limbo. When Fuhrman became chair, he renewed planning for the program.
“We agreed we wanted a research-oriented focus, as opposed to training students for clinical practice,” he said. “Originally, we took a more general approach that would have offered broad skills in research methods, but in no specific area.”
After several rounds of discussions with the Coordinating Board, ideas took a more focused direction, Fuhrman said. By that time, the nation was deploying military personnel to two war zones and coming to grips with the psychological consequences to service members. Congress and the president also had approved the latest round of military base consolidations, a decision that brought a new concentration of military medical services to San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston. Revised Coordinating Board guidelines also instructed universities to develop programs that would prepare students for jobs that exist in the workforce.
Veterans may be coping with substance abuse, depression, anger, blast-related brain trauma and other war-related effects that can hamper their ability to hold jobs or maintain healthy relationships with family and friends.
“This really makes sense for us because we are preparing students to be part of research teams,” said Rebecca Weston, associate professor and graduate advisor for the doctoral program. “You need to have people who are able to deliver the treatment. But you also need people who understand research and statistical methodology and who can tell you if the treatment is working.”
Another boost to the University’s doctoral program came via the Department of Defense, which funded a large San Antonio-based research and treatment program for combat-related post-traumatic stress, South Texas Research Organizational Network Guiding Studies on Trauma and Resilience, or STRONG STAR. The $50 million program is led by the University of Texas Health Science Center and offers clinical research and treatment through 20 partnering military, civilian and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) institutions, including the San Antonio Military Health System and Fort Hood in Killeen. While the core of STRONG STAR focuses on finding effective treatments for combat-related PTSD, other collaborators work in areas of genetics, suicide prevention, neuroscience, traumatic brain injury and related fields.
Post-traumatic stress therapies that have worked for civilians are not as effective with military veterans who bear the psychological scars of combat, said Alan Peterson, a retired Air Force colonel who is director of the STRONG STAR program. His clinical research is examining how to make those therapies more effective for service members who have survived combat zones.
“We know very little about how to treat PTSD in the military,” Peterson said. “There are things about the traumatic experiences that are similar [in civilians], but lots that are very different.”
“This takes advantage of all the resources that are unique to San Antonio. It takes advantage of our strong military presence and our military medical infrastructure; it takes advantage of our strong faculty and our ability to collaborate with the University of Texas Health Science Center."
Robert Fuhrman, Ph.D.
Peterson will teach a core course in military health psychology to UTSA doctoral students. This will include an understanding of military life and culture. He also expects that the STRONG STAR program will offer research and training opportunities for many of the doctoral students. When they graduate, they will have both the research skills and the understanding of military culture that will open many job opportunities for them. They also will have connections with military collaborators and an understanding of how to apply for their own research grants, he added.
“These graduates will have a unique set of skills and will be very marketable,” Peterson said. “The military has plenty of clinicians who can deliver treatment [but] would benefit from people who understand the military and who want to do the research piece of the puzzle.”
Now that the Coordinating Board has formally approved the psychology doctoral program, UTSA faculty members feel the doors are open for them to seek their own research grants from the Department of Defense and service branches. There are faculty members with expertise in every area of psychology, including substance abuse, domestic partner violence, teen and child psychology and organizational psychology.
“A lot of us are thinking about the future and talking about programs to get our students involved in working with our military community,” said Michelle Little, an assistant professor who studies adolescent aggression and substance abuse. There are plenty of opportunities to develop and test programs geared to military families, she said.
“This has made us all a little more motivated and confident as researchers to put proposals together and apply for funding,” said Daniel Beal, assistant professor of psychology and a specialist in industrial and workplace issues.
Beal hopes to study psychological factors among current and former service members that influence workplace aggression and violence. “My interest is in how stress and battle fatigue affect their decisions and daily performance at work,” Beal said.
“I am so thankful that the Higher Education Coordinating Board approved a doctoral program focused on mental health and wellness, particularly for our military service members. UTSA, with its location in San Antonio — with its high number of military members serving in our bases, and retired military — is perfectly positioned to study the significant issues in mental health due to constant deployment. This is so synergistic with the community of San Antonio and our military missions, and resources such as the Center for the Intrepid and the Wounded Warrior Family Support Center. With this program, UTSA has been a leader in linking up the community’s needs with their academic programs.”
Senator Leticia Van de Putte, R.Ph.
Six students have enrolled for the inaugural semester, Weston said, and they are thinking already about future opportunities.
Miranda Richmond is one of these students. She holds a master’s degree from UTSA and is now a research coordinator at the STRONG STAR program. She also teaches a psychology course at Northwest Vista College.
“The doctorate will allow me more opportunities to bring in my own grant money to do research in areas that interest me, as well as opportunities to teach at a university level,” she said. “I have discovered that I love to teach.”
Being practical, she noted that she also has a husband who is pursuing his own career, and that may require relocation in the future. “I may be looking for new job opportunities down the road,” she said. “The doctoral degree and added training make me very flexible, which is nice.”
“This really makes sense for us as a university and as a community,” said Fuhrman. “It is preparing students to become part of research teams, and they will have the background and understanding of the military that will make their evaluation skills relevant to the important mission of serving our American veterans.”