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Newsworthy

Becoming “Doc Springer”: My Work With Veterans
by Shauna Howarth Springer ’93

I didn’t intend to get adopted in my late thirties but it happened nonetheless. Over the past decade, as I have worked with hundreds of veteran patients, I have been adopted into a fierce and beautiful Tribe of warfighters. 

Hunter Temple, who was both Head of School and our cross-country coach between 1990–1993, was fond of saying, “make a difference.” As my life has unfolded, I have seen how depth of meaning and purpose are things more precious than material wealth. And in this way, I have been uniquely blessed to find such purpose in working with veterans. 

About a decade ago, I entered the VA system as “Dr. Springer,” a term which immediately conveys that I have spent a large chunk of my adult life in school. It doesn’t tell you whether I am good at what I do (or not), and it doesn’t tell you whether my patients trust me to walk with them through the valleys in their lives (or not). Over my time at the VA, I became not “Dr. Springer” but instead “Doc Springer,” a term used in the military to indicate a trusted combat medic. I’m not a medical doctor, but the translation to navigating the emotional terrain of Veterans’ lives is very meaningful to me. As I became their “Doc,” my Veteran patients trained me and helped me understand how to walk with them. 

I’m not a medical doctor, but the translation to navigating the emotional terrain of Veterans’ lives is very meaningful to me.

A year ago, I resigned my position at the VA in order to expand the impact of my mission to serve those who have served in the military. I accepted a job at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a field-leading non-profit that supports those grieving a military loved one. Within TAPS, I am the Senior Director of TAPS Red Team (www.taps.org/redteam), a new division of TAPS that provides training and consultation on suicide prevention, intervention and postvention. We just launched the TAPS Institute at TAPS’ new Headquarters in Arlington VA, and are currently seeking funding to officially launch this year. During the past ten months (our “soft launch”), we have been asked to provide hundreds of consultations to active duty units, veteran service organizations, health care entities, business organizations, and special forces convenings. In addition, we recently offered a targeted suicide prevention program to a group of Marines in a unit that has been highly impacted by suicide and other losses. We also ran point on an arm of the mental health response for the recent tragedy at the Veterans home in Yountville, CA. 

In addition to my work at TAPS, I serve as the lead subject matter expert for a monthly live television program called Veterans Voices (www.co.contra-costa.ca.us/5163/Veterans-Voices). We have put out a number of innovative programs on topics like suicide prevention, high-dose caffeine use in the Veteran population (I drank a Red Bull on live TV, broke out in ugly red splotches, fought the urge to cuss people out for the rest of the show, and stayed highly alert for 48 hours), moral injury, traumatic brain injury, and collaboration between veteran service organizations. As a part of this work, I had the opportunity to interview some fascinating people, like former pro wrestler and traumatic brain injury expert Chris Nowinksi and Karl Marlantes, best-selling author of Matterhorn and What it is Like to Go to War, two books that, in my opinion, are national treasures. 

Another line of work is a collaboration with Marine Corps Veteran Brian Vargas. Together, we have developed some innovative suicide prevention strategies and our work has been featured on KCBS radio and television (NBC nightly news). Our partnership to help save lives and the story of The Warrior Box Project (www.warriorcode.org) led to an interview for the NPR podcast Snap Judgement framed around the question, “If someone decides in an impulsive moment to end their life, is there anything that has the power to stop them?” 

Finally, as someone who now feels called to serve Veterans, I also volunteer for a wonderful organization called Team Rubicon (www.teamrubiconusa.org). Team Rubicon deploys teams of veterans and civilians on disaster response operations. California has seen more than its share of natural disasters in the past year, and I have been deployed to assist with the recovery for both the San Jose floods and the fires in Northern California. I credit these experiences as profoundly helpful in shifting the way I view and work with Veterans. 

Brentwood School’s partnership with the VA is a powerful opportunity to work with members of a Tribe who have pledged to serve our country. If you remember just one thing from my story, it would be this: to make a difference, you need to take some risks and get into the trenches along side those whom you are hoping to walk with into the light. 

Shauna Howarth Springer, Ph.D., earned her undergraduate degree in English Literature from Harvard University and her doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of Florida. 

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