- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) — Clinical social worker Vicki Johnson has written an advice column for Fort Campbell’s military newspaper for nearly two years, giving soldiers and their families an outlet for sharing their problems anonymously.

It has become so popular that Mrs. Johnson is hoping to syndicate her advice to readers at other military installations, focusing on the problems common to military life: long deployments, loneliness, stress, injuries, raising children and marital strains.

“The military lifestyle is just a microcosm of society,” said Mrs. Johnson, who spent nearly three years counseling soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division through their second deployment to Iraq. “Just because our lives are structured, that doesn’t mean that you’re not facing divorce, child problems, like everyone else.”

Mrs. Johnson started the weekly column in the Fort Campbell Courier to encourage more soldiers to take advantage of therapy and counseling resources on base.

“They want to go in for help, but it’s perceived as a sign of weakness and some people think it can have punitive repercussions for their careers,” she said.

She started finding letters on her car, and people would stop her on base or in town to ask for advice. “After that first month, people who knew me asked if the letters were real,” Mrs. Johnson said.

One recent Dear Ms. Vicki letter from “Help Needed” read: “My husband spent a year in Iraq when his guard unit was activated. He has been home two years this month and he is struggling as is our marriage. I believe he has [post-traumatic stress disorder] and is handling it with beer.”

Advice columns such as Dear Abby have long been common features in newspapers, but the sometimes shockingly candid letters triggered by Mrs. Johnson’s column initially concerned the base’s commanders. They were worried that the newspaper was airing soldiers’ “dirty laundry” right on the front page, editor Kelli Bland said.

“We decided it was a great line of two-way communication that we hadn’t thought of before, and we didn’t want to inhibit the soldiers,” Miss Bland said. “It gave our commanders insight into how their soldiers were thinking.”

The problems range from severe to mundane, and Mrs. Johnson draws on her own experiences as the wife of a career soldier, the mother of three boys and a cancer survivor.

“My advice is, ‘Don’t make the problem worse than it is,” ‘ Mrs. Johnson said. “I do think I keep it real. I try to tell people the truth.”

The response has been overwhelming and positive.

“I am writing to you today as an Army wife of 22-plus years. I have been through five different deployments into combat with my spouse and coming up on a sixth this year,” one recent letter said. “I love your column. I love that you answer questions the military family has.”

Soldiers, like police officers and firefighters, risk their lives every day, but they can’t cope with the extreme pressure if they act like victims, Mrs. Johnson said.

“I’m not saying deployment is easy. It is tough,” she said. “But I don’t think we deserve special-victim status because of that.”

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