Judith Broder felt ready to enter a new phase of her life in 2004. The Studio City resident had devoted more than 30 years to a private psychiatric and psychoanalytic practice, working primarily with teens and young adults. As a volunteer, she counseled teenage mothers and taught, trained and supervised analysts at the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies (LAISPS). Broder had begun cutting back on her practice and was looking forward to retirement.
But when she saw a play about the Iraq War’s emotional toll on soldiers’ lives, Broder shelved her retirement plans and embarked on a new mission: to create a network of psychological services for those affected by the trauma of combat.
Broder, who had no prior experience with the psychological effects of combat, said she was devastated as she watched the actors — some of whom were veterans — describe “horrible things that no one should have to see or participate in.”
In early 2005, Broder founded The Soldiers Project, a nonprofit that provides free, unlimited counseling to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, active-duty personnel, their families and loved ones. The project now includes more than 220 volunteers in Southern California alone, with more than 180 additional volunteers at satellite programs in Sacramento, Seattle, Chicago, Boston and New York.
Broder, now 69, earned a $100,000 Purpose Prize — awarded by Civic Ventures to social innovators over 60 — and an Excellence in Medicine: Pride in the Profession award from the American Medical Association for her work with The Soldiers Project.
The play that inspired Broder, “The Sand Storm: Stories From the Front,” was written by Sean Huze, at the time an active-duty Marine. Huze created 10 monologues based on the experiences of soldiers stationed with him in Fallujah, Iraq.
“The soldiers came back feeling they were not quite human, feeling there was something almost contagiously bad about them,” said Broder, adding that they were often afraid to talk to others “for fear of harming the people they tell.” But Broder was convinced that, given the opportunity to talk with trained counselors, many soldiers could “find their way back to feeling like normal human beings” and truly come home — not just physically, but also mentally.
Broder approached the Ernest S. Lawrence Trauma Center — a community outreach arm of LAISPS that provides free psychological services to at-risk populations — which agreed to help sponsor her project. She recruited 10 volunteers, set up a phone line and started a Web site. In a process that became the prototype for the project’s ongoing training, Broder and her volunteers together learned about military culture and mental-health issues related to combat stress.
“At least half of our calls come from people in distress about the disruption of relationships,” Broder said.
These problems are often by-products of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury, just three of the areas in which volunteers receive specialized training. All volunteers are licensed in their field — psychiatry, social work, nursing, psychology, marriage and family therapy — and must participate in ongoing training on topics such as deployment, homecoming, re-entry into civilian life, domestic violence and therapeutic approaches, to name just a few.
Recent studies underscore the need for these services. In 2008, the RAND Center for Military Health Policy reported that nearly 20 percent of veterans — 300,000 in all — who served in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 report symptoms of PTSD or major depression. And a 2009 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) study reports a threefold increase in depression and post-traumatic stress after repeat combat duty.
Although the military and VA also offer mental-health services, Broder said her goal in creating The Soldiers Project was to “establish a safety net for those who can’t or won’t make use of the services they might be entitled to.”
“There is an enormous stigma attached to getting psychological help,” especially in the military, Broder said. But, she added, “These people are not mentally ill — they are just reacting to extremely abnormal situations.”
The Soldiers Project’s services are confidential, eliminating concern that treatment would appear on military records and affect careers. The project also helps those who aren’t eligible for services through the military or VA, including extended family members as well as gay, lesbian and heterosexual unmarried partners.
Broder’s larger goal is to educate people about the effects of war.
“I’d rather not have lots of patients; I’d rather have people who can use their intelligence and their own resilience” to overcome the trauma of wartime experiences, Broder said. To that end, she and her volunteers speak to community groups — civic and political groups, churches and synagogues — to raise awareness of the psychological effects of war. Some of her volunteers also participate in a military program called Yellow Ribbon, through which they talk about psychological issues to active duty and reserve soldiers and their families, both pre- and post-deployment.
In addition, The Soldiers Project last year began partnering with veterans’ groups at community colleges, educating faculty and counselors about issues affecting classroom management and students’ academic performance.
Without the hundreds of volunteers, Broder said, “this organization could not exist.” To date, volunteers have provided more than 4,000 hours of pro bono service. That represents services to more than 400 clients in Southern California and another 150 in the combined satellites.
And, while Broder is understandably proud of these figures, she hopes to do much more: “to have a national organization with satellites in those cities with the highest percentage of military service members and their families,” such as North Carolina, Florida and Texas.
But her ultimate dream, Broder admits, is grander yet: “that there would be no more war and no more need for The Soldiers Project.”