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Sarah Oury Wood’s easygoing smile proves there’s potent healing power in veterans helping veterans.
The retired Army captain who survived a harrowing tour of duty in Afghanistan—and the post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression it triggered afterward—has embarked on a brand-new mission in life. She’s one of a growing number of peer support specialists who work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in the newest and perhaps most promising strategy to help veterans struggling with the mental fallout of war. Peer support specialists offer a unique approach because they are the only VA health care specialists who use their own life experiences to help their fellow veterans.
“I absolutely love what I do,” says the 37-year-old wife and mother of a newborn baby girl and two stepsons who lives in the greater San Diego area. But this blessing came wrapped inside one of her life’s darkest hours.
Wood earned a private pilot’s license and a bachelor’s degree in aviation flight management before joining the Army in 2000. She had hoped that military service would be a lifelong career—until a combat tour in Afghanistan in 2004, when she handled grisly duties as a logistics captain working in mortuary affairs. She spent countless sleepless nights followed by long days chasing improvised explosive device (IED) attacks and helicopter wrecks across Afghanistan, recording details of nightmarish scenes and asking distraught comrades difficult questions.
“I had exactly 24 hours to write a death certificate, plan a funeral ceremony and transport the deceased to his or her family,” Oury says. “I felt numb and showed no emotion for an entire year—it was the only way to get the job done.” To remain steely strong, she was careful to not remember fallen heroes’ names or learn details of their personal lives.
But she couldn’t hold back the tears forever. During a month-long leave in July 2005, all the raw emotions of documenting the horrors of war started pouring out when she least expected it. Just the sound of Independence Day fireworks caused her to huddle in a corner, crying and scared for her life. “I wasn’t sleeping or eating, and I had a lot of hair loss because of the stress.”
Before Wood got out of the Army in 2006, she was in counseling. She’ll never forget her first appointment, when she walked into a counselor’s office wearing civilian clothes and a baseball cap to hide her face. “I didn’t want anyone to know I was an officer,” she says. “I was embarrassed to go to a counselor at all. I didn’t believe in it.” She even doubted depression was real—until she experienced it firsthand. “I started crying uncontrollably during the day. I had zero control. It always happened at the most inconvenient times, and that really freaked me out because I had been conditioned in the military to never cry.”
Through counseling, she rediscovered hope in her life—and learned tools she wanted to share with others. While keeping her full-time job, she earned her Master of Science in Counseling in Marriage, Family and Child Therapy* at University of Phoenix. “I met people who became lifelong friends, mentors and career confidence builders,” she says. “It was good for my self-esteem because I had never done well in school, and I left there with a 3.91 GPA. I didn’t think it was possible.”
Through her teammates’ support and encouragement, she landed an internship as a readjustment marriage and family therapist (MFT) for the San Marcos Veterans Center in San Marcos, California.
The internship paved the way for her current role as a peer support specialist with the VA San Diego Healthcare System. Wood is one of approximately 800 VA peer support specialists nationwide. They encourage veterans struggling with mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction and military sexual trauma, to seek the care they need. Peer support specialists also help veterans navigate the VA health care system, serve as role models, work to eliminate the stigma of having a mental illness and share their own stories of recovery.
Every day, Wood witnesses the extraordinary healing power of veterans helping veterans through a deep understanding that can only come from a shared experience. The broad smile on Wood’s face is a sign of hope for veterans who know that she, too, had once been mired in war-related mental health issues—and found a way out.
“I support and defend a team of heroes who carry a condition unknown to those who have not seen or experienced the horrors of war,” she says. “In me, they see a person they can confide in, a fellow veteran who is committed to helping better their lives.”
*This program is only available in select locations in California, Colorado and Nevada, please check with a University representative for further information.