Swift Warrior, Healing Heart: Hand2Hand Contact's Alison Lighthall Presents at the 11th Annual Force Health Protection Conference
This is a long, long delayed post on an extraordinary individual, doing heartfelt and much-needed work to bring the public's attention to combat PTSD. My greatest appreciation for her and her work, and apologies this took so long to get online.
Beginning tomorrow in Albuquerque, New Mexico, attendees of the 11th Annual Force Health Protection Conference (free conference to military and civilian alike) will be in for a great treat. Alison Lighthall, founder of Hand2Hand Contact, presents "10 Things You Can Do If You Only Have 10 Minutes: Healing Interventions That Can Be Done With Veterans Anytime, Anywhere."
In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.
In December, Lighthall wrote in an Army Times op-ed piece:
It has become abundantly clear this year that our military medical system is not equipped to provide all the physical and psychological care that returning veterans need. Our country needs to step up and help combat veterans and their families in tangible ways.
And we, as military personnel, need to accept their help.
I know it’s hard for warriors to accept help from anyone, much less a civilian or civilian group with little understanding of our world. But for this nation to remain strong, we must do everything we can to recover from wounds visible and invisible.
Like so much of America, many civilian health care professionals are disconnected from the impact the war is having on our combat vets. The bridge between the veteran and the civilian medical provider is in serious disrepair. Two things have to happen for that bridge to be rebuilt.
First, civilians need to come closer to our world. They need to read stories written by veterans who have been there and watch documentaries about the war. Civilians need to learn more about the heart and soul of a warrior. They need to stop asking, “What was the hardest part about being over there?” and start asking, “What’s the hardest part about being home?”
They need to start thinking about the reality of a seriously wounded vet and the impact those wounds have on each person in that veteran’s life. But most of all, they need to find ways to reach out within their communities to embrace their returning service members and welcome them back.
Military personnel must be willing to meet those civilians halfway. We have to be willing to accept their help and teach them about our experiences.
Bridge builders like Lighthall will help to make that happen.
Get to know the special spirit that is Alison, who says "as long as there is love, there is hope," in a recent PBS Chicago Sunday Evening Club segment called "30 Good Minutes." She explains what propels her work, something called Tikkun Olam, or “repairing the world” in Judaism. The video clip of her thoughful interview is available online.
I've included an original profile piece on this force of light and change written last year in extended, and I'd highly recommend visiting Hand2Hand Contact's "Stuff You Should Know" page for a wealth of informational resources.
Swift Warrior, Healing Heart
Everything about former Army Nurse Corps Captain Alison Lighthall points to speed. Her unfussy brown hair is cropped short, framing an inviting face that doesn’t have time or need to stop for an extensive makeup pit-stop on the way out the door.
Sitting down for an interview, in fact, she doesn’t actually sit for the first 10 minutes. Instead, she’s busy cracking open her laptop and walking and talking her audience-of-one excitedly through the PowerPoint presentation she likely delivers with equal gusto to area high school students she visits with.
“I’ve always been exuberant,” says Lighthall. “I travel at a very high speed.”
But speed for this self-described pushing-50, street-savvy lady, doesn’t mean leaving everyone in her dust. It’s quite the opposite. Lighthall is the embodiment of the Warrior Ethos, the guiding principle of which is leaving no man or woman behind. It propels every ounce of her work and life.
“If every single person had that as their ethos, their personal ethos, it would erase half the problems on the planet,” she says.
Proving that actions speak louder than words in her world, well into her 40’s and with her nation conducting combat operations on two fronts, Lighthall joined the Army Reserves. Not wanting to watch another Vietnam happen, she threw herself into the fight.
“I felt very mission-driven having grown up during the Vietnam era,” says the 25-year registered nurse. “I really couldn’t with a good conscience sit back and do nothing.” Baxter engineer and best friend Larry Backes has seen this Lighthall trait in action.
“Alison has always been one that when she gets an idea, she runs with it,” he says. “And it always has a really interesting and incredible outcome.” Nothing bears this out more than the counseling work his friend performed for troops heading into and returning from the combat zone, and the homecoming work that she’s wrapped her energy around since being honorably-discharged from the Army in May 2007.
Now a behavioral clinical team leader at Deerfield’s Focused Health Solutions during the day, Lighthall moonlights as co-founder of a Chicago-area nonprofit called Hand2Hand Contact. The active woman who recharges her energy reserves by hiking and biking in the woods and spending time with her kids has talked with the Easter Seals about developing returning veteran reintegration camps across the country.
According to Backes, Lighthall has been talking about setting up such camps for years. He is excited but not surprised to hear of her recent successes, the latest being her return from Washington, D.C., where she pitched her ideas to the Chief Psychiatry Consultant to the Army's Surgeon General.
“She’s not intimidated by anyone or anything,” Backes says.
All of this activity would make anyone of lesser oomph sputter and wilt, but Lighthall is clearly empowered. Yet there’s another side to this confident and accomplished female warrior, and refreshingly she doesn’t hide it or deride it a bit.
“When you travel at a high speed,” Lighthall says, “you’re going to have a lot of crashes.” And those crashes, or traumas, have led her to a more intense understanding of people and things, an essential component of being a good psychiatric nurse. But, before arriving at her present strength and fitness, she’s had a lot of ground to cover.
“I know I look put together and I look competent,” laughs Lighthall. “But I have to tell you the sheer number of hours I’ve spent crying and writhing in pain, you wouldn’t believe.”
Backes confirms this, saying, “She does have a very tough veneer where people don’t realize how hurt she actually was by an event.” The friend Lighthall says knows her better than anyone else, adds, “Through [her processing] effort, it becomes energy.”
Saying she has a very high radar screen about the way people behave, Lighthall points to her painful experiences, like growing up as a child in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood where she was frequently accosted by gangs of kids and regularly beaten up, as curiously strengthening events.
“It taught me how to be extremely, unusually aware of human behavior at a very early age,” she says. And, she notes, after leaving Hyde Park, she was never assaulted again. On the way up from being knocked down, Lighthall cultivated a real empathy for people. She calls this being “deeply affiliated” or other-centered.
“Meaning transforms trauma into it being tolerable,” says Lighthall. “If you can bring meaning to your trauma, the healing is three-quarters of the way done.” And so, early trauma metamorphosed into a lifetime of reaching out to others to ease their pain, Lighthall creating something positive in her life and in other people’s lives as well.
Her rabbi is credited with helping the divorced mother of two through the worst of her spiritual and soul crises, touches upon this exuberant spirit that infuses Lighthall.
“Alison is an extraordinarily dynamic and passionate person whose empathy motivates her to fix a part of the world that she sees as broken,” her rabbi says. “[Her] work and her life’s mission has become the urgency of healing spirits that are broken.”
Backes adds, “Where this driving force is coming from is spiritual in nature.” Friends for two decades running, he sees Lighthall as a very spiritual – not overly religious, per se, though she is that as well – individual. “She is very, very savvy when it comes to how the world works,” he says.
As Lighthall talks about her time with the Army and her plans for helping her former battle buddies return home, you witness that she is in her element as a soldier. The Warrior Ethos lives on in her. Losing the chance to continue serving in the field due to heat-related health complications has dealt yet another blow to a life marked by far too many.
But, again, just as she did in Hyde Park, Lighthall picks herself up and dives in yet another new direction. Wherever she winds up, helping others will be part of her journey.
“If I had pixie dust and a magic wand,” Lighthall says, “I would be heading up, creating and overseeing programming for [reintegration] camps where I was in those camps often, traveling from camp-to-camp overseeing the care, the psycho-education, the nourishment and healing of military personnel and their families.”
“That to me is nirvana,” says the fierce warrior with the kindhearted spirit.