Veterans and first responders are a special breed. They are driven to do extraordinary things in incredibly stressful situations all because they are passionate about doing what many among us are not willing to do: protect and serve at all costs. In the process, many are exposed to trauma most people cannot fathom. Usually, they respond to these traumas by selflessly grinding on to the next deployment or emergency situation with little regard to how all of their experiences are affecting them personally. But what happens when retirement hits, or the shift is over, or the deployment comes to an end? Many times it’s only after the fact that these brave men and women feel the effects of a career full of trauma. Suicide and addiction occur at a staggering rate among first responders and military members, due to post-traumatic stress disorder, coupled with a gaping hole in accessible, appropriate mental health care and a stigma that keeps many of them from seeking help. The stats are sobering. More police officers and firefighters died last year by suicide than in the line of duty. On average, 20 veterans die by suicide every day. Clearly, our men and women in uniform are struggling significantly when confronted with the prospect of readjusting to civilian life and many fail to ever seek treatment because of the stigma surrounding reaching out to professionals for help. The leadership team at Florida Counseling Centers has responded to this veteran and first responder mental health crisis by creating what we call the “Sheepdog” program. Sheepdog is led by former Marine Special Operator Adrian Marquez, who personally recovered from PTSD after a storied career in the Middle East that ended in significant physical and mental injuries. I sat down with Adrian to discuss how the Sheepdog Program is addressing the unique problems faced by veterans and first responders and how the program is helping these men and women using creative methods to produce healing and freedom from PTSD.
Dr. Mike Ronsisvalle: Why did you decide to start the Sheepdog Program?
Adrian Marquez: I first started to think about a program run for veterans by veterans as I was recovering from the physical and emotional injuries I suffered as a result of my combat experiences. I found that most of the clinicians I had contact with didn’t really understand the unique culture of those of us who have lived for months and years out on the battlefield. Most of the time, these professionals compared me and the other Special Operation Marines to our peers from the general population. They failed to recognize the unique facets within our subculture that separated us from other young men who had not lived through extreme combat situations. The physical and emotional demands of combat had indelibly changed me and I needed my counselors to understand that. But they didn’t get it. In many ways, I felt like I was able to recover from my PTSD in spite of my counseling experiences, not because I was helped by and understood by my counselors. I made a decision somewhere along the line to pursue a Masters degree in Mental Health Counseling because I believed I could offer veterans a deep understanding of their story that I had never experienced in treatment. As I studied in graduate school, I learned about the similarities of issues faced by veterans and first responders, especially as they attempt to reintegrate into the general population, and the idea for the Sheepdog Program was born.
Dr. Mike Ronsisvalle: What sets the Sheepdog Program apart from other programs?
Adrian Marquez: In the warrior culture we push ourselves beyond traditional limits. We often push ourselves to extremes, which end up putting our bodies and our minds at risk. Traditional therapies don’t fully understand or honor our motivations to do this. They don’t understand that sheepdogs literally have an internal calling to be caretakers who protect the flock. We are called to ensure the safety of the family and friends we seek to protect. We also do it for the brother and sister who shed their blood to the left and right of us. At a very core level, we are different. We are not part of the flock, we are driven to protect the flock. We are sheepdogs. Again, many traditional clinicians are unable to understand and truly appreciate these differences. So, the most important thing that sets the Sheepdog Program apart is the deep empathy we bring to the table in the counseling room. Another aspect of the Sheepdog program that sets us apart is the unique and creative methods we use to treat veterans and first responders. Every participant who comes into the program gets their own individualized and customized program. Regarding actual clinical interventions, the Sheepdog Program uses traditional exposure therapy to treat PTSD and trauma, which means we help our clients reprocess traumatic memories by having them re-experience the traumas in the controlled and calm environment of the clinical office. We also use virtual reality exposure therapy to literally put veterans and first responders in a virtual re-creation of their traumatic experiences while we teach them to reposition those memories in the brain. We employ dynamic and unique group sessions that challenge the mind and the body. Every participant is also paired up with a clinician who has individual sessions with them at least once a week. Often our clients are paired up with a second and even third clinician to focus on solution focused goals, substance abuse, EMDR, or any other issue that needs to be addressed. We deeply encourage our clients to engage in couples counseling as well as individual therapy for their partner. Obviously, our program is unique and comprehensive, and we are seeing incredibly good outcomes with our participants.
Dr. Mike Ronsisvalle: How can veterans and first responders get involved in the Sheepdog Program?
Adrian Marquez: Anyone interested in seeking treatment in the Sheepdog Program can contact me directly at Florida Counseling Centers here in Melbourne. I know it’s hard to make the decision to get help, so I am happy to do a free phone consultation with any veteran or first responder who wants more information about how they can get involved with Sheepdog. We have also contracted our services with most major insurance companies, including the military insurance carrier Tricare, in an effort to make the treatment accessible for anyone who wants to get help.