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Give an Hour: Helping Veterans Cope with the Psychic Toll of War

Barbara Van Dahlen's Give an Hour pairs returning troops and their families with free mental health services so that they never have to struggle alone.
Barbara Van Dahlen
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Malek Naz Freidouni

It was another hot, sticky summer day in Bethesda, Maryland, five years ago, and Barbara Van Dahlen was driving her daughters, Gracie and Mira, then 9 and 5, to swim practice. Gracie looked out the car window and saw a man in army fatigues holding a sign that read: Homeless Vietnam Vet. Please Help. God Bless. "My daughter asked, 'Mommy, how can we let this happen to a veteran?'" says Barbara, now 51. "I knew right then I couldn't let my daughters grow up wondering why we didn't do anything to help. I thought, if someone needed to step up, it might as well be me."

Barbara was raised in the shadow of war—her father was a World War II veteran. "My dad never talked about his experiences," she says. "But he always stressed integrity, honor, and service." She also grew up during the Vietnam War, and was well aware of its psychic toll. "Many of the local boys in our little rural California town were drafted and a lot of them didn't come back," she says. "Those who did were changed. I was still young when the war ended, but I could see even then that many of them were in terrible emotional pain."

Being a psychologist, Barbara knew she had the expertise to help. "We have so much more knowledge about stress now," she says. "We can do a better job with our men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan." Her idea was to create a national network of mental health professionals who would provide free ongoing counseling services. "When someone goes to war and sees and experiences unimaginable horrors, it takes a toll on his mind," she says. "Not everyone is severely damaged, but we need to wrap our arms around the ones who are." In a matter of weeks Barbara had assembled a board and recruited volunteers to help create a Web site. Give an Hour (GAH) became an official nonprofit in January 2006, and had 1,200 volunteers providing counseling by May 2008.

Its task is enormous. Since 2001 more than 1.9 million troops have been deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf, and nearly 40 percent more than once. At least 20 percent of returning personnel experience severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the suicide rate in the armed forces is the highest it's ever been. At the same time, only about half of suffering returnees seek treatment. "The military is doing more than they ever have, but the system is complicated," Barbara says. "And while they're trying to get out the message that it's courageous rather than shameful to go for counseling, that perspective hasn't always filtered down the ranks." GAH fills in the gap, working as a separate organization but with the government's approval. "We're here to collaborate and coordinate," says Barbara.