Getting out of bed every morning was a challenge for James Loehr. Depression, panic attacks and feelings of anger blanketed his existence and made it difficult for him to hold down a job and engage with people.
He’d returned home after serving in the Army for eight years, with the last one spent in Iraq. He’d been working in special operations for civilian affairs, where he helped rebuild the area’s infrastructure. The Netflix film, “Sand Castle,” written by one of Loehr’s fellow unit members, Chris Roessner, depicts the team’s experience in Iraq. Loehr’s time in the military made it nearly impossible for him to return to normal life.
“It’s hard to be in the world and not sense danger from everywhere even though I knew I was in America,” Loehr says. “I didn’t live on base. I lived in the population. It was 12 of us and 40,000 Iraqis. I think if I lived on base, it would have been an easier transition. I felt that everyone around me could attack me at any time.”
Through therapy and hard personal work, he managed to put himself back together and improve his mental health. After the military, he took on a series of unfulfilling jobs until eventually becoming the executive director of a local church. As part of his duties, he provided counseling.
He realized he enjoyed helping people navigate personal crises and could relate from his own traumatic experiences, which led him to being diagnosed with PTSD.
After working at the church, Loehr became a peer support specialist with the Department of Veteran Affairs, where he counseled veterans who were also struggling to re-enter civilian life. He felt his lived experience prepared him well for the role, unlike the counselors he’d worked with previously who could not fully relate to his ordeal. He then moved to Phoenix and continued working with the Department of Veteran Affairs, this time assisting homeless veterans.
This work gave Loehr direction that grounded him, so he decided to pursue it professionally, a decision fortified by the support he received from his mentor and supervisor, Penny Miller, in the Phoenix VA. He’d earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri– Columbia and decided to pursue a master’s in social work, enrolling in the University of Missouri–St. Louis School of Social Work in the spring of 2021. It proved to be the right place for him.
“The way the curriculum is constructed, in my opinion, is phenomenal,” Loehr says. “They are not only building the history of social work and the tools and practices, but the faculty comes from a background of social work. Hearing from professors with real life experience is outstanding.”
With arduous and dedicated work, Loehr’s life has turned a bright corner. He has new purpose as a husband and new dad, and is poised to help other veterans climb out of the dark. He’s grateful for the shift and wants other veterans to have the same opportunity.
“Because of my background,” he says, “I can help combat veterans. I’m proof that we are able to achieve so much after we get out of uniform.”