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Alumni & Friends

Helping Soldiers Find Solace

A photograph of Bridget C. CantrellBridget C. Cantrell, founder and president/CEO of Hearts
Toward Home International.

Bridget C. Cantrell (B.A., '92) sees the warning signs nearly every day. Aloofness. Problems getting along with loved ones. Boozing, drugs and fast motorcycles -- the high-risk behaviors that give returned soldiers "that adrenalin rush that makes them feel alive."

Cantrell followed her SF State degree in psychology with a doctorate from the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology. In the years since, she has become one of America's leading authorities on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the invisible wounds of war that are as real and painful as those that are evident to the eye.

Her expertise is in high demand these days. Nearly one in five soldiers returned from Iraq and Afghanistan reports symptoms of PTSD or depression, according to a RAND Corporation study. With more than 2 million soldiers deployed -- some as many as four times -- since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, PTSD is on the rise.

"We've never seen this level of back-to-back deployments. They're very, very trying on warriors and families," says Cantrell. "Hopefully, what we have learned from our Vietnam vets is we cannot leave these soldiers on their own."

Cantrell is co-author of three highly regarded paperbacks on PTSD. One million copies are in print of her best-known work, "Down Range: To Iraq and Back." Soldiers haul around dog-eared copies in military backpacks. Family members pore through them for insights into why their soldiers are distant and uncommunicative.

"Warriors put up what I refer to as a perimeter wire. It's a big wall that lets them harden themselves so that the pain of leaving their families doesn't impact their ability to do their jobs. It's very difficult for families to understand this, and it certainly impacts relationships."

When she's not writing, Cantrell crisscrosses the country lecturing and leading workshops on PTSD. She maintains a clinical practice in Bellingham, Wash. for veterans and their families. If a soldier has a buddy in crisis, he's apt to say: "We've got to get you to see Doc Cantrell."

"I'll go to talk to soldiers in bowling alleys, people's houses, VA hospitals -- wherever I'm needed. I always give them my cell phone number. They're very vulnerable and I don't want them to feel alone."

Cantrell became interested in veterans mental health issues while pursuing her doctorate, but the seeds for her future career were planted at SF State. She was in her 30s, with a young child, when she arrived on campus, eager to immerse herself in university life.

"I was so excited to be learning, I was like a sponge," she says. "What I found was that I really enjoyed the clinical aspects of psychology, so State was very pivotal in forming my career.".


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