And social justice for all
Air Force Major Laura Johnson, Psy.D., isn’t built to twiddle her thumbs. She earned her undergraduate degree in three years, went straight to graduate school, and became a doctor of psychology by the age of 25.
Her first practicum at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology was working as an extern at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in 2004, and the final step in her doctorate was her full-time internship in 2007 at the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial VA Hospital. After earning her Psy.D., she became a full-time employee there for a total of six years. During that time, she served as a clinical psychologist, the LGBTQ Special Emphasis program manager, Clinical Director of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Team, and the director of Diversity Services.
While working with veterans in both Illinois and Massachusetts, she saw that there was no support for LGBTQ veterans. During her internship in 2007, Maj. Johnson began to put a new plan into action to fix that.
“I think at that time there was only one other VA doing anything systematically for transgender veterans,” Maj. Johnson says. “But there had previously been nothing like that at my hospital. One of my first projects was to build a transgender therapy group with one of the postdocs. It wasn’t without controversy, and we had to take steps to protect the time and location of the group for the privacy of the attendees. But ultimately it was successful and brought many transgender veterans together for both therapy and support from each other.”
For the next several years, Maj. Johnson built on the success of the first prototype program—creating a joint project between the VA and the Fenway Community Health Center in Boston, which resulted in an LGBTQ veterans group in their Trauma Recovery Program.
“I hosted a full-day training for all hospital staff on LGBTQ affirmative health care,” she says. “I also secured funding for a full-time postdoctoral fellow to work specifically with LGBTQ veterans.”
“I was never assigned any of this work,” Maj. Johnson says. “This was all me pushing to get people to listen and pay attention. Ultimately, the LGBTQ community is my community, my family, and every step I took for them in the VA system was my way of professionally giving back. Given what psychology has unfortunately done to pathologize our very identities in the LGBTQ community in the past, it was an important debt for me to begin to repay.”
Maj. Johnson had worked with veterans for eight years as a psychologist. In 2014, particularly after treating Vietnam veterans who had PTSD decades later, she decided it was time to show her support in a more permanent way. She joined the Air Force.
“I’m not from a military family,” she says. “But I was so impressed by the veterans I worked with, by everything that they had been through in their lives. For many patients—including those experiencing PTSD from combat or military sexual trauma—you can do a lot to help them live their best lives,” she says. “But let’s just say this veteran is 70 years old. And for the last 40 years, he’s dealt with divorces, substance abuse, lost jobs, and untreated PTSD. That’s a lot of years lost because mental health care was not immediately available.”
Maj. Johnson was motivated to join the Air Force in order to “get to them sooner, to get them better, and work with them before they had lost all those years.”
After enlisting, she became a staff psychologist at the Travis Air Force Base mental health clinic in northern California.
There, Maj. Johnson was elected to serve as the president of the LGBT Alliance, an organization on base for LGBT service members and allies. She pushed for recognition of LGBT Health Care Week at the hospital (David Grant Medical Center). When Department of Defense policy changed to allow for open service for transgender service members, she worked on trainings at military bases in California and Colorado to help military mental health professionals and primary care physicians prepare to serve these patients in a culturally competent and gender affirming way.
Working toward her other passion, she also co-founded Operation Combat PTSD (now known as Operation Invisible Wounds), a grassroots organization designed to build an understanding of trauma into everything that happens on base.
“One of the real issues in military mental health is stigma,” Maj. Johnson says. “People are afraid to get the services they need and won’t admit that they have PTSD because they’re afraid it will end their military career. A psychiatrist, an airman living with PTSD, and I got together to create Operation Invisible Wounds to shift the culture and help people let go of stigma in the military. What really destroys careers is to have mental health concerns and leave them untreated. We work toward trauma-informed leadership, health care, and partnership.”
While working within the psychology field and with veterans has provided a plethora of necessary skills, one of the most surprising lessons she learned was just not being afraid to advocate for social justice, whether for veterans’ rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, or the like.
“Spend more time pushing for things you believe in,” she says. “I didn’t expect any of the results that came from working with the VA nationwide or getting clinicians ready to do work for the LGBTQ community. That was all a nice surprise. By pushing what I could do through research, policy, clinical work, and publishing, people elsewhere in the VA noticed and were able to get a lot more done. If you want to make a ding in the culture, you have to be passionate about it and willing to put in the time.”
Nowadays, Maj. Johnson is using her passion and time in Okinawa, Japan, where she will be stationed for three years as a Substance Abuse Program Manager. In addition to her “go get ’em” attitude, she is especially appreciative of her Psy.D. degree for getting her there.
“Having that doctor in front of your name, or in the military having that officer rank on your collar, gets you in the room,” she says. “And if there is a cause you believe in, you cannot advocate without being in the room. People may politely listen to you, but when they realize that you actually know what you’re talking about, that’s when change can happen.”
Shamontiel L. Vaughn
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