Clinical social worker Vicki Johnson has written an advice column for Fort Campbell’s military newspaper for nearly two years, giving soldiers and their families an outlet for sharing their problems anonymously.
It’s become so popular that now Johnson is hoping to syndicate her advice to readers at other military installations, focusing on the problems common to military life: long deployments, loneliness, stress, injuries and raising children while overseas and marital strains.
“The military lifestyle is just a microcosm of society,” said Johnson, who spent nearly three years counseling soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division through their second deployment to Iraq. “Just because our lives are structured, that doesn’t mean that you’re not facing divorce, child problems, like everyone else.”
Johnson started the weekly column in the Fort Campbell Courier to encourage more soldiers to take advantage of therapy and counseling resources on base.
“They want to go in for help, but it’s perceived as a sign of weakness and some people think it can have punitive repercussions for their careers,” Johnson said.
She started finding letters on her car and people would stop her on base or around town to get advice. “After that first month, people who knew me asked if the letters were real,” Johnson said.
One recent “Dear Ms. Vicki” letter was signed “Help Needed:” “My husband spent a year in Iraq when his guard unit was activated,” the author wrote. “He has been home two years this month and he is struggling as is our marriage. I believe he has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and is handling it with beer.”
Advice columns such as “Dear Abby” have long been common features in daily and weekly newspapers, but the sometimes shockingly candid letters triggered by Johnson’s column initially concerned the base’s commanders. They were worried the newspaper was airing soldiers’ “dirty laundry” right on the front page, editor Kelli Bland said.
“We decided it was a great line of two-way communication that we hadn’t thought of before, and we didn’t want to inhibit the soldiers,” Bland said. “It gave our commanders insight into how their soldiers were thinking.”
The problems range from the severe to the mundane, and Johnson draws on her own experiences as the wife of a career soldier, the mother of three boys and a cancer survivor.
“My advice is, ‘Don’t make the problem worse than it is,'” Johnson said. “I do think I keep it real. I try to tell people the truth.”
The response has been overwhelming and positive.
“I am writing to you today as an Army wife of 22 plus years. I have been through five different deployments into combat with my spouse and coming up on a sixth this year,” one recent letter said. “I love your column. I love that you answer questions the military family has.”
Soldiers, like police officers and firefighters, risk their lives every day but they can’t cope with the extreme pressure if they act like victims, Johnson said.
“I’m not saying deployment is easy. It is tough,” she said. “But I don’t think we deserve special victim status because of that.”
Some of the most common letters she’s received are ones from soldiers who stepped off the plane after yearlong deployments to find no one waiting with flowers or hugs.
“Like many others, I came home to an empty house that was trashed, and I never even heard a word from my wife or even knew this was coming,” wrote “Dumped But Okay.”
Johnson often helps families find on-base resources such as a Family Readiness Group, free childcare programs and financial planning. But sometimes all people need is reassurance.
“Many people feel like they’re not supposed to have or talk about these problems,” Johnson said. “The military can give this perception that it is a closed society.”
Master Sgt. Shaun Herron, chief of Army newspapers, said Johnson’s credibility among military communities and the anonymity of the column encourages her readers to ask for help where they might not otherwise.
“You are not singled out,” Herron said. “No one has to know who you are to talk about these things.”
After hearing about the popularity of the column at Fort Campbell, other military newspapers are considering similar approaches to improve communication between soldiers and the base leaders, Herron said.