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NEWS | May 31, 2020

Behavioral health team supports University Hospital

By (Courtesy article) 3d Medical Command (Deployment Support)

Maj. Paul Joseph Harrigan from Buffalo, N.Y., is an Army psychologist with UAMTF 332-1. Here is his COVID-19 support experience, in his words.

For background, I didn’t begin my career as a psychologist or even in the Army. At 17, I joined the Marine Corps and served four years active duty, deploying to war torn Liberia, with an expeditionary force, providing security and evacuation and deploying as part of the first Gulf War.

When I left the Marines, I decided to dedicate my life to helping others and psychology became the perfect avenue for me. I transferred to Niagara University, where I became student leader, volunteering in areas helping the homeless and those with mental illness along with developing a veterans club for fellow vets. This is where I had my first clinical experience helping Vietnam War vets in my community. Volunteering was extremely rewarding as these vets let me in to their stories; all I had to do was genuinely care and listen. Some of the vets were dads of some of my friends, and growing up they were not the type to share their war experiences. After graduating from Niagara, I went to Columbia University earning my master's in counseling and later the University of Miami, earning my PhD.

I started my career with the VA doing what I love, caring for those who gave, and continue to give so much for all of us. My career has focused on caring for psychological trauma, particularly war related, sexual trauma, and bereavement for families of the fallen. 

When I joined the Army in 2010, after an almost 20-year break, I was so grateful to be back in service. In my Army career I am able to bring all I learned from war veterans at VA to the care I provide at home, on deployment to Iraq, and now as part of a UAMTF. I always tell my Vets they are my best teachers, and we are always learning together "what works" and what "does not!"   

In Iraq, I pushed as far forward as I could go just to say hi. Over time, through regular "walkabouts" to Soldiers, service members, contractors and Iraqis, they came to know me, and would be happy to see me. Although, half-a-world away, this habit would prove similar benefits in the COVID-19 fight.

I was working at the VA in Buffalo on March 30 when I got a message from the first sergeant saying, "You need to be in Nashville tomorrow; you have been activated." 

That was all we knew at the time. Not knowing the exact mission, nor for how long is tough to swallow, but it made me remember the WWII troops deployed indefinitely. This was something I never could have imagined would occur and now I’m a part of. I am familiar with the flu of 1918, but to experience this, now, I was as shocked as many around the world.  But, as a Soldier, even citizen, when your country is going through a crisis, you WANT to be on the front line, you want to be somewhere to help. 

When we arrived at University Hospital in New Jersey, there was no other spot as far forward in the COVID fight.  First arriving, you are excited and scared at the same time, but you adapt, find your job focus and get the job done.  

We quickly learned, no one Soldier or civilian could do it alone.

I was the officer In charge (OIC) for our behavioral health team.  The BH team worked out of several areas at the hospital: emergency psychiatric, inpatient psychiatry, and chaplains office. I worked out of the chaplains office and with nurse manager we provided psychological support for the Hospital staff, who have gone through so much. The team and I also worked closely with the associate director for nursing on development and implementation of a staff resilience program.

Our team didn’t shy away from anything, we went right into the COVID patient’s rooms to help and volunteer wherever or for whatever was needed. In the hospital, my team provided support services to hospital staff at their work areas, "walkabouts" in the hospital, just like I did in Iraq. 

The members of the behavioral health all leaned on each other as a team, and made ourselves available to the troops as much as possible at the hospital and hotel. The BH team checked on our Soldiers at the hotel, hosting education classes on safe coping, sleep, and just about everything we can do to support them.

Our days turned to weeks and months, but after two months there was enough progress to where we were not needed anymore, but our connection with the hospital staff remains strong.   

As Reservists, we moved our separate ways back home, but we are bonded through social media to remain in touch. I had my troops to save my phone number and they can call me 24/7 for life. You learn and say to yourself, never take anything for granted, especially here at home, complacency can be dangerous.

In conclusion, the most valuable lesson I learned or remember is to keep loved ones close and never go to bed angry at them. I am simply humbled and honored to have this opportunity to make such a positive difference!