A mind that made a difference
February 25, 2011
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - While servicesmembers were charging the beaches in the Pacific Rim with M1 Garand, and M1 Carbine rifles during World War II, one Marine was starting a lifelong journey which would eventually help thousands of people worldwide cope with post traumatic stress disorder.
Since his service during World War II, Harold Dickman has conducted extensive research on post traumatic stress disorder, and worked as the chief of psychology at multiple Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals. He also co-authored a manual on group therapy for those afflicted with PTSD, but it was the insight he gained from his time in the Marine Corps that would eventually serve as his life's guide.
"I enlisted into the Marine Corps in April 1945 and reported to basic training in San Diego," Dickman said. "Honestly, I joined because I had a bad case of the John Wayne syndrome and wanted to be a hero."
In September, after basic training, Harold was sent back to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for more training.
"I was told to come back to Camp Pendleton for infantry training in preparation for the invasion of Japan," Dickman said.
However, Dickman never saw the pacific as a Marine, because of an event that changed the dynamic of the war.
"What changed (during World War II) was the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki" the Corvallis, Ore., native said. "A lot of things changed. They were originally going to send me to infantry school, but after that happened, my orders sent to Sea School."
During his time at the nearby Sea School, Dickman was assigned to a ship and learned how to fire various weapons.
"We learned how to fire 20mm to 40mm weapons and prepared to ship out," Dickman said. "I was sent to the rehabilitation and research center, which was a clearing house for Marines coming back. The purpose of this facility was to get their record books in order and reassign them to another duty after they returned from war."
Seeing the returning veterans allowed him to observe the effects of PTSD from a distance.
After his time at Sea School, Dickman wrote an article which was published in reader digest's humor in uniform section about an episode that occurred with returning Marines.
"While I was working for the rest and recuperation center, I was tasked to pick up a few Marines who were coming back to San Diego," Dickman said. "They disembarked where the ships docked and the crew dumped a ship load of their sea bags. These were big piles and everyone was fishing around for their own bag. One guy walked out of the group, looked at his watch, and then looked up as an alarm clock sounded. He walked calmly over to the pile grabbed his bag. He had timed the arrival of the ship to coincide with an alarm inside of his bag."
Throughout his time in the Marine Corps, Dickman had his wife of 63 years, Ruth, to support him. One memory in particular of her stands out in Dickman mind.
"I was home on leave and had to return back to base," he said. "Before the train departed from the station a bunch of other Marines saw my girlfriend waving at me through the train window. They lifted me up and let me out the window head down to kiss her."
As time passed, their bond became stronger and they fell in love. Dickman worked shifts at a bowling alley until he had earned enough money to buy an engagement ring. They married shortly after, and she was instrumental in helping Dickman finish his education, he said.
Change of mind
As a home-maker, Ruth watched her husband make the transition from Marine to student, student to father, and father to psychologist.
"His tenacity helped because it wasn't easy going to school since we had our first child when he was a freshman," Ruth said. "He used his GI Bill (of Rights), drove a school bus, and did pretty much anything he could to help support us. We were poor going through graduate school, but he kept climbing and eventually landed a research assistantship."
The GI Bill paid for some of his post-Marine Corps education, but he had to work in the summer and took out a loan from his wife's parents to complete his schooling, Dickman said.
"The GI Bill seemed like a great idea, because it was either farming or college," he said. "I didn't want to be a farmer like my father. Initially I was going for electrical engineering, until I discovered I wasn't any good at it."
Dickman began his studies at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., in 1947, and after shifting his focus to the science of behavior and the mind, now holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kansas.
One of his professors there swayed him into pursuing a different field that would change his path, and eventual help a multitude of servicemembers.
"What really tipped the balance was my psychology teacher Bob Boyd," Dickman said. "He encouraged me and wrote some very nice letters to the department where I applied."
Dickman's interest in the field of psychology dates back to when he was a kid working on his father's farm.
"I was interested in mental illness from a very early age," Dickman said. "State hospitals had patients that they would send out to work on the farms. They would bail straw and do whatever work details we had for them. They fascinated me."
During graduate school, Dickman took a research assistantship through the VA's training program for students of psychology which help veterans transition from school to work.
Making a difference through the V.A.
"I worked most of my career in mental hospitals," Dickman said. "I worked in the central office in Washington, D.C., for four years. My job there was the chief of psychology for the VA throughout the country. Today they are all integrated, but during my time, I oversaw 40 different psychology programs."
After his time in Washington, D.C., Dickman transferred to a VA hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., and became their division chief.
"I did some work on prisoners of war and started a group therapy for POWs," Dickman said. "My wife's brother was a POW in Corregidor Island, Philippines. The POWs of the Japanese were treated very badly, and he weighed 115 pounds after he was released."
Because of his brother-in-law and his own research, Dickman would eventually leave the VA to open a private practice.
"During the Vietnam War, I started a private practice to see Vietnam vets and the Veterans Center Program became a prominent thing," Dickman said. "I had a contract with the veterans association and was referred to for many health reasons. Many had post traumatic stress disorder and I did that from 1985 to 1992 in Corvallis, (Ore.)"
"PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder," said Jackie Jones-Alexander, a psychologist at the Fayetteville North Carolina Veterans Association Medical Center. "People have to have experienced a traumatic event, such as a car accident or combat. The foundation of PTSD is a feeling of fear and helplessness."
Although PTSD may not be a new subject for servicemembers, there are more symptoms than some may be aware.
"Typically, when people think of PTSD they think of flashbacks and intense psychological events," said the Fayetteville native, whose main focus is helping servicemembers returning from war. "There are also physiological effects such as a racing heart, and being hot, sweaty or being unable to breathe."
Dickman conducted countless hours of research on PTSD, and co-authored a manual on group therapy with his colleagues, Lue Almack, the chief psychologist at Roseburg and Abe Luchins, a professor at the University of Oregon.
"At the request of the VA central office, I had it sent to all of the VA hospitals," Harold said.
Countless hours of research went into the creation of the manual on group therapy.
Dickman personally interviewed people about their experiences to determine who possessed the symptoms of PTSD. He concluded that the occurrence of PTSD among POWs of World War II was one in three in Japanese prison camps, but only one in four in the German prison camps, he said.
The research Dickman and other psychologist conducted has paved the way for current Department of Defense PTSD care and practices.
"Major treatments include initial medication to shut-out the nightmares, help with sleep or anxiety," Jones-Alexander said. "Cognitive behavioral approaches include having them write about the events they experienced and how it affects their life now. Another treatment is prolonged exposure therapy, which involves trying to have them experience some of the emotion of the event to eventual dull them to the emotion."
During a recent article in the American Psychologist, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. Army chief of staff, explains the importance of the newly launched Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which enables Soldiers to become not only physically resilient, but mentally as well.
"The suicide rate among our Soldiers is at an all-time high," Casey said. "We recognize that we must do more to prepare the force for the psychological demands that come with fighting a protracted, decades-long conflict."
(Editor's note: For services available for veterans with PTSD please visit, http://www.ptsd.va.gov.)