Kimberly Brown always considered herself too tough for therapy.
Growing up in the Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods of Brooklyn during the 1980s crack epidemic, the 39-year-old lived beside gang members, drug addicts and dealers.
“I saw how everything was going in my area and I thought, I have to get out of here; if I don’t leave I’ll get swallowed by these projects,” Brown said.
Six months after graduating high school, she enlisted in the United States Navy and was stationed in Norfolk, Va. before discovering a passion and talent for culinary arts and spending the next 18 years traveling throughout the U.S. as a Navy cook.
But life in the Navy wasn’t all smooth sailing. The first of two crucial life lessons Brown would learn came about during basic training, when she was repeatedly screamed at by a petite female officer.
“It was hard to take orders from this little woman yelling at me to do push-ups,” Brown laughed, adding that kind of verbal admonishment would never fly in Bed-Stuy. “During my first four years, I was not the easiest sailor — I was still sassy. But I learned to conform to the military, and when you conform you get ranked.”
Scoldings, rigorous training and even deployment to Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina didn’t prepare Brown for what would prove her second and most life-changing experience: volunteering to serve her country in Iraq.
The sailor worked as one of few female correctional guards helping to oversee as many as 1,000 detainees in Camp Bucca, an internment facility, which has since been shut, located on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border. Prisoners often rioted, attacked one another and threatened to cut off Brown’s head. Mortars would go off constantly, night and day, landing a few hundred feet away from where the sailor tried to sleep.
She watched some of her fellow sailors escape the day’s atrocities by drinking themselves into a slumber or huffing chemical vapors from aerosol cans. She, herself, found what inner peace she could by voraciously consuming books — volumes and stacks of them that were donated to the Navy.
“After awhile, I didn’t even jump up or blink an eye,” she said of the constant firing. “You become hardened to it.”
But Brown’s callous attitude didn’t translate well when she returned to the U.S. One year after retiring from active duty, she paced the floors of her Brooklyn home at night, depressed, unable to sleep and battling nightmares on the rare occasion she was actually able to get some shut-eye. She felt like an observer in her own world, she said, and was no longer the girl who was quick to party and get along with everybody.
Diagnosed with post-tramautic stress disorder, Brown resisted therapy at first, believing she was tough enough to get through anything on her own. After an incident at work, in which she said she “snapped” and spent the night in a hospital, Brown succumbed to therapy. But she was disappointed. Few psychologists could relate to the torment she had witnessed overseas.
Then Brown discovered the Outreach Training Institute, an 11-month Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor diploma program that helps veterans struggling with chemical dependency, and realized her personal road to healing required more than searching within herself.
“When you’re trying to help someone with substance abuse issues, you find yourself asking questions of yourself,” Brown said. “You don’t beat yourself up so much.”
OTI, which has campuses in Richmond Hill and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, provides nearly 2,000 individuals and families care and treatment through several diverse programs. Approximately 300 students participate in professional training each year, and lessons range from learning about how spirituality can aid in recovery to treating adolescents with problems. Students are also required to work as interns during the last half of their training, which allows them to gain hands-on work experience.
Many of OTI’s students are former substance abuse patients, but the institute is eager to meet more veterans like Brown, who understand what drives fellow veterans to escape through drugs and alcohol.
Out of approximately 300,000 veterans nationwide who sought help from a Veterans Affairs medical center between 2002 and 2008, 10 percent had alcohol and drug problems, according to the American Journal of Public Health website. Those who had mental issues and other personal issues such as domestic violence, unemployment and homelessness — complications that could eventually lead to substance abuse problems — comprised 43 percent.
“If a vet can help a vet, that relationship becomes much stronger,” said David Greenburg, director of the Veteran’s Program at OTI. “Kimberly has seen a lot, has seen combat, and has great empathy for individuals who need her services — she’s a perfect representation of what we’re trying to do.”
Brown, who is halfway through the program and working as an intern, said she handles her clients with an “unjaundiced eye” and that nothing shocks her anymore. She said the program can help anyone, even those men and women — like herself — who are taught to be warriors.
“When you have a vet understanding where you’re coming from, it goes a long way,” she said.
OTI offers scholarships to its Veterans Program. For more information, visit opiny.org.