By Samantha Stainburn“I believe that people have the potential and capacity to change, and I have faith that the process will ultimately yield a positive result.”—Alice Psirakis Diacosavvas B.S. ’98
In 2004, Alice Psirakis Diacosavvas B.S. ’98 had a job she loved—working with low-income women at MIC Women’s Health Services, a family planning and prenatal program in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. But that summer, her career took an unexpected detour—a turn that would ultimately lead her to a whole new area of social work.
Ms. Diacosavvas had earned a bachlor’s degree in social work, with a minor in Spanish, from Adelphi (in the Honors College) in 1998 and an M.S.W. from Columbia University in 1999. In her multifaceted job, she counseled women, often in Spanish, about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, helped pregnant teenagers prepare for the arrival of their children while continuing with school, and visited schools and shelters to teach women and girls about STD prevention and birth control. “A lot of them were vulnerable, and I felt like I was able to help them and connect with them on this intimate level,” she recalls. The job also reinforced her commitment to the core social worker values of being empathetic and nonjudgmental. “There are very few people who are more despised than a pregnant teenager,” she says. “I’m traditional. I think it’s best if you get married and are financially stable, then have a baby, not the other way around. But I got to understand that pregnancy was sometimes the most attention these teenagers had ever gotten in their whole lives.”
Ms. Diacosavvas had also been a member of the Army Reserve since graduate school. In June 2004, the Army notified her that it was putting her on active duty to support troops being deployed to and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. She was ordered to leave her job and report to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to run the base’s mental health clinic, supervising a small team of military and civilian personnel—two mental health assistants, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, another social worker, and an administrative assistant.
The daughter of Greek immigrants who ran a shoe repair business in Manhattan, Ms. Diacosavvas had joined the Reserves almost on a whim in 1999, intrigued by the flyers that regularly arrived at her Queens home. “The idea of being a woman in that man’s world fascinated me; I knew it would be a physical and psychological challenge,” she says. “So I walked into a recruiter’s office and said, ‘I’m a social worker. What can I do?’” The Army Reserves assigned her to its medical services corps, which includes social workers as well as doctors and nurses. After surviving a two-week boot camp, Ms. Diacosavvas became a first lieutenant and part of a 300-person medical unit attached to the 344th Combat Support Hospital in Fort Totten, Queens. She enjoyed her one-weekenda-month, two-weeks-a-year commitment. “I loved the camaraderie and being part of a big and prestigious institution,” she says. “And it was a way of giving back for all the freedom we have in this country.”
But living on a military base during the week and being the fulltime director of its mental health clinic was a huge change. For one, she was now working with mostly men. And they had psychological issues that she hadn’t dealt with before. “Not everyone who comes back from war has post-traumatic stress disorder, but everyone has some sort of adjustment issues,” she says. “When you’re not in war, you move forward, in your jobs and relationships. Time stands still for people who are in a combat zone. Then they come back and everyone else has moved forward, and that’s hard to adjust to. Sometimes they’re having a spiritual crisis. The core tenant of humanity is ‘don’t kill.’ You’ve maybe had to kill or you’ve witnessed atrocities, and it doesn’t make sense.”
But the job grew on Ms. Diacosavvas. “The soldiers mourn the loss of their old selves because their perspective on life changed, and they didn’t want it to,” Ms. Diacosavvas says. “But that change can be positive as well as negative. One of the things I worked on was identifying the positive things that wartime experience taught them: maturity, pride, knowing how to make good decisions quickly, being appreciative of what you have.” And Ms. Diacosavvas came to believe that this work was essential. “The two wars we’ve been involved in for the past 10 years have been fought by half a percent of the American population,” she notes. “It made me angry and sad that the American public was totally unaware of the impact the war was having on these veterans and their families.” After three years on active duty, and a total of eight years in the Reserves, Ms. Diacosavvas was discharged from the Army as a captain in 2007. But she realized she couldn’t return to the women’s health center. She had a new calling now—helping veterans move beyond their trauma. “These soldiers are way too young to have their lives messed up, and if we can get to them quickly enough, they won’t have chronic, long-term psychological issues,” she says.
After spending a year developing a veterans’ mental health program for the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services, she joined the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2009 as a social worker at the Nassau Vet Center, an outpatient mental health clinic in Hicksville, New York. These days, she counsels veterans from the Vietnam War and other eras and their families who are struggling with post-war life. She displays a photo of herself in uniform and a plaque with her rank on it in her office to encourage returned soldiers to open up to her. “They have huge trust issues,” she says. “A lot of them don’t talk to their spouse or children about their war experiences because they feel they wouldn’t understand. The picture of me in uniform lets them know I get military culture.” It takes years to change behavior, and Ms. Diacosavvas doesn’t always see results from her work, but, she says, “I believe that people have the potential and capacity to change, and I have faith that the process will ultimately yield a positive result.”
Ms. Diacosavvas is keenly aware that she would have missed out on her new career, which also includes teaching an introductory social work course at St. John’s University and a graduate-level elective on veterans’ issues at the New York University School of Social Work, if she had ignored the feeling in her gut. “I took a risk by not returning to my stable job at the women’s health center,” she says. “But you’re never going to know if this is something that’s going to nurture your soul if you don’t try it out. What’s the worst that can happen? You can always go back to doing what you were doing before.”