Turning pain into power: USAFA Prep School dean shares passion on veteran care, combat experiences

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
When the first female Air Force Academy Preparatory School dean graduated from the Academy in 1995, she never imagined that as an Air Force psychologist, she'd one day be dodging mortars and sweeping for improvised explosive devices while deployed.

After serving nearly 20 years, Lt. Col. Alicia Matteson said she knows the effects of war and believes it's a national imperative to take care of combat veterans and their families.

"We need to encourage veterans to seek treatment and stay in the fight," she said. "For every veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, hundreds are affected whether family members, friends or co-workers. It's key for veterans to continue to engage in life and find purpose in their experiences to heal."

In February, Matteson served as a volunteer psychologist at a Boulder Crest women's retreat in Bluemont, Va. Six female combat veterans from several service branches attended, ranging from 23-57 years old.

"These women all served in a combat zone," she said. "They all had varying levels of PTSD, depression, and one had a Traumatic Brain Injury," she said.

A common theme among the women was not having their combat experiences believed by others, Matteson said.

"One woman said I was the first to validate her experience, which is so sad to me," she said. "She had sought mental health treatment before. We still have so far to go to really understand how to help our veterans."

It's common for those struggling with depression and PTSD to numb themselves to survive, Matteson said.

"We literally don't pay attention to our own bodies and don't reflect inside ourselves," she said. "At the retreat, the women did activities such as yoga, meditation and hiking to pay better attention to their breathing and how they were feeling."

Matteson said what she observed during the six days at the retreat was meaningful.

"They created a sisterhood they'd never experienced before, even in the military," she said. "It was a free space without competition and worry about what anyone thought of them."

In 2010, Matteson deployed to Basra, Iraq, for six months, serving as a psychologist on the Combat Stress Control team. She said it was a joint-deployment with Army infantry units.

"We would go on missions to build rapport and trust and patrol out to different units," she said. "I told my troops that I wouldn't send them anywhere I wouldn't go. We were often mortared and would patrol for IEDs on foot."

Matteson said although she was frightened, she knew she had to stay focused on taking care of those around her.

"I had a medic bleed out and die after being hit by a mortar," she said. "Combat is a very complex, cultural experience. I saw what it did to our troops and Iraqi people in the area."

She said it was ironic trying to treat soldiers for disorders and injuries in an environment causing them.

"I remember meeting with a service member who had spent more days in Iraq than in the U.S. within the last eight years," she said. "He wanted to talk to me about some of his earlier experiences in combat. During the session, we had to stop and drop to the ground because of a mortar that hit close to us."

Throughout Matteson's career, she's been an aircraft maintenance officer, taught classes at the Academy, counseled cadets, run sexual assault services here and treated patients at the 10th Medical Group. She is also a certified Survival, Evasion, Rescue and Escape psychologist.

"I think a reason I've been able to build a rapport with a variety of people is because of my combat and Academy experiences," she said. "For me, it's always been about developing others and helping people connect to their potential. That's what I've done as a psychologist, when I was leading maintenance troops and absolutely what I do at the Prep School."

Col. Gerald Szybist, the Prep School's commander, said the Prep School cadet candidates are Matteson's number one priority.

"She is a huge advocate of building our cadet candidates' ability to handle stress and she is looking for ways to fully institutionalize resiliency into all of our programs" he said.

Whether veterans are dealing with a mental illness, sleep issues, guilt, anger, etc., it's important for them to connect with others and know they're not alone, Matteson said.

"Combat calls upon us to hurt other people," she said. "There is something in us as human beings that revolts against close contact killing of another person. Veterans want to know they served for a higher purpose and good."

Matteson said combat veterans can turn their pain into power.

"I think my experiences have built a bridge of rapport and credibility with other combat veterans," she said. "I think there are a lot of wounded healers out there--people who have been wounded and cope by doing good for others. I've also come to really admire the human spirit and our natural ability to heal."

Before her departure to Aviano Air Base, Italy, as a medical operations squadron commander in May, Matteson plans to speak to cadet candidates about combat and resiliency.  

"I want to be realistic so they understand what they're signing up for," she said. "I went into a career field that's not known for being 'boots on the ground' in combat. They need to know that combat is real no matter their specialty and is the reason why they're wearing the uniform."