Counseling Combat Vets

Vol. 42 No. 2

Nicole Israel, a 3L at New York Law School, is student editor of Student Lawyer.

The past decade saw the greatest number of young combat veterans in a generation. The difficulties Iraq and Afghanistan veterans experience reintegrating into civil society have been widely publicized. Some of the problems plaguing these veterans include inadequate access to counseling and a higher incidence of both suicide and unemployment. SEAN DENNIS, a 3L at Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, helps veterans cope with these problems.

Dennis is no stranger to such stressors. He served as an Army chaplain twice. He served in Iraq in 2007 and in Afghanistan in 2010. Now, he serves his fellow veterans by providing counseling to those struggling. “Reintegration is a daunting reality for all combat veterans, even if they won’t acknowledge it as such,” said Dennis. “Principally, it takes time to adjust to life that is no longer a war zone, and that means being patient with oneself and others.”

When faced with law school stress, Sean Dennis knows how to put things in perspective.

“The urgency is not the same. No one dies here today—no matter how bad.” He takes that attitude to heart. Dennis makes himself available, even if it may negatively impact himself. “Providing counsel and encouragement takes priority over the affairs of law school,” Dennis continued. “Twice within the past year, I’ve been studying in the final hours before exams only to have my final preparation interrupted with phone calls from fellow veterans who find themselves in crises. A quiet place to study quickly becomes a quiet place to help provide direction and support.”

In 2002, Dennis graduated from the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. He said he always felt the need to serve his country. After graduation, he pursued his Master of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He then went to serve in the Middle East twice as a military chaplain and cared for about 800 soldiers.

“I knew the services we were providing were bringing true relief to souls who were beaten down, and for them to lift their heads and find hope in hopeless situations, to find courage in situations where there were a great many reasons to be afraid . . . their heart was truly anchored.”

Dennis was glad to have served as a chaplain. He jokes with veterans “that it’s no longer ‘Chaplain Dennis,’ it’s just ‘Sean’ now.” He wasn’t interested in pursuing higher rank. Instead, he sought an opportunity to use his education and military experience to help veterans. As Sean the law student, he does that.

“Veterans provide a great wealth of life experience,” Dennis said. “I would think those of us who have served our country in that capacity really do bring an outside perspective. I would think that the vet who has wartime experience is uniquely available to law school to provide a different lens looking at the world.”

As a law student, Dennis fills his innate role as a leader as the president of the school’s Christian Law Society, and he works part-time as a legal research clerk for the county’s attorney’s office in Jefferson County. Finally, Dennis aspires to make an impact in the justice system, using his military background as inspiration.

“We were trained in the military to ask what got you here, who’s your role model—and in the legal community we need to expand the way we look at people and not just see them as problems.” n

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