Alumnus Recounts Harsh Realities of War, PTSD
By Bethany Fitts
“When I was in the Army… getting help for mental health wasn’t an option. I mean, it was an option. But I didn’t want to believe that something was wrong ‘upstairs,’” said Dr. Raheem Lay (BSW 01), reflecting on his early years in the Army.
“If you see a body get blown up or something like that, you want to try to psych yourself out and think, ‘Oh this comes along with the territory. I’m used to this.’ But you know you’ve never seen a body get blown up before…They never told us that this was going to be normal. They made us believe that, if you are affected, something’s wrong with you. And that was not the case.”
Lay, an Air Force medical officer, said it is this stigmatization of mental illness and the consequential lack of preventive treatment that can lead a war veteran to be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“PTSD is literally the difficulty of making sense of something that has happened,” Lay said. “We’re humans. Anything we suppress is going to come out in behavior.”
The diagnosis was initially reserved for sexual abuse survivors until researchers noticed that the same treatments were effective for war veterans. Still, despite their interrelationality, PTSD and the military have had a complicated relationship because, for a long time, mental illness was not a legitimate health concern; rather, it was simply ignored or seen as weakness on a soldier’s part. The stigmatization continued to grow until the symptoms became unignorable.
“We saw suicide rates jump in the military,” Lay said. “And people were just like, ‘What is going on?’”
Part of the problem, Lay said, is the extended state of hyperarousal that soldiers must live in. They can travel from a warzone to home within a matter of days, and this leaves no time for mental recovery. Moreover, even when at home, military members must always be ready to leave again.
“We’ve been at war for over 15 years. There’s no way you can live in that state and not have some type of adverse reaction.”
Lay said that mental health awareness should not just be applied to the military but to police officers as well because police officers who work in stressful environments for extended periods of time live in similar states of hyperarousal.
“I’ve got cousins who are cops,” Lay said. “You’ve been told for years that this is what your enemy looks like. You’re drawing a gun on a profile, and the same thing is done in the military.” He continued, “You can’t live in that level of hyperarousal for years and carry a gun on your waist.”
Attitudes toward mental health treatment in the military are shifting, though; and Lay, himself, has played an important role in this process. During his fourth deployment, he and several others decided to talk with the U.S. Air Force mental health provider after they lost two men. Talking with the health specialist helped tremendously, and once Lay realized that their education backgrounds were similar, he decided to change his career path.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is what you do for a living?’”
Lay, recently promoted to the rank of major, serves as an Air Force medical officer specializing in behavioral health. He has worked primarily with PTSD and traumatic brain injury military members for the past eight years, and has formed several community outreach programs to meet military needs. Recently, he formulated a childcare program for women who are dealing with domestic violence.
“In the military we still have that old American, if you will, dream. A lot of our military spouses are stay-at-home moms which is really because we move from base to base, and it’s hard to keep a job like that,” Lay said. “A lot of [these moms] don’t seek treatment because they have their kids, and a lot of therapy doesn’t allow you to bring, you know, a two year-old.”
The program provides childcare with licensed childcare providers, and since the program’s start, treatment for survivors has grown from 12 to 95 percent participation. Lay also proposed a Dad Bootcamp program for fathers with infants or who are expecting. It is a three-tier program that teaches fathers how to care for babies for the first time, and it is meant to boost men’s confidence while preventing accidental child abuse with children under the age of two. The program has been a success so far, selling out every class.
Lay’s interest in social work began where he grew up in north New Jersey. One of his mentors was a community activist who ensured that the local children always had planned activities available. Programs in their community were dissolving because of low funding, so Lay and his mentor had to get creative in order to keep the children’s minds on something positive rather than negative. When Lay learned that his mentor’s background was in social work, he decided to attend the University of Mississippi on a track and field scholarship in order to earn a degree in social work.
“The [track and field] coaches really seemed to be more about, you know, ‘Hey come to college and participate in the sport, discipline yourself–but more than that get an education.’ That was their vision for their athletes, and it really took a lot of weight off my shoulders,” Lay said.
Attending Ole Miss was a big achievement, because he was the first in his family to attend a four-year college. Lay didn’t know it at the time, but his time at the university would continue to impact his family in years to come.
“I have seven cousins who were all young when I left for school, and they used to see me in the summer and ask, ‘Man, where have you been all year?’ and I was like ‘I’m away at college,’ and I thought nothing of it. Fast forward: all seven have graduated from college now.” Lay said. “It [is] such a reward.”
During his junior year, Lay had a surprising run-in, with one of the university’s most well-known alumni: James Meredith (BA 63).
“I’m in Kinard Hall, and I get the call from the library saying, ‘James Meredith wants to see you.’ I thought it was a joke, but I get up there and there’s a camera. It was really intimidating.”
Meredith wanted to speak with him in response to a paper Lay wrote for his African-American studies class. Lay said the class gave him a platform not just to understand institutional racism but racism in general.
“Ole Miss at that time was less than 1 percent African-American,” Lay said. “It’s probably bigger now, but back then it wasn’t, and so the class was maybe a hundred students, but I can count on one hand the number of African-American students there were, myself included. The class forced me to listen to things that I did not agree with, but that I had to understand.”
“I’m from the East Coast and we dealt with a lot of institutional racism there, so it was not in your face. I didn’t see a confederate flag – I didn’t know what the confederate flag was. I thought it was a Dukes of Hazzard thing. Nonetheless, I knew of institutional racism, but I didn’t know about the South.”
Lay took all he had learned in New Jersey and Mississippi to his paper and asked himself, “How do we fix this? What do we do?” One answer, he thinks, is respect.
“We first have to respect each other before we can listen to each other. The concept of getting better has to be promoted. How do we get better as a university?”
Lay truly loves the university despite its faults, and he and his wife want to visit once the military keeps them less busy.
“I’m a life member of the Alumni Association because I truly believe in the school despite its adversities,” Lay said.