23June

Debra & Christian

How JF&CS counseling services helped a veteran and her son.


In 2009, Debra Johnson received orders to go to Iraq. Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR), with two months left in her contract, they orders took her by surprise.

“I had to go by myself, not with a unit, not with anyone I knew,” she said.

While on her tour, Johnson experienced a woman’s worst nightmare: sexual abuse. Medivacked home and suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she spent months in different therapies. Eventually, she started drinking heavily.

If not for Christian, the “little life saver” born in 2012, she might have taken a different path.
“Suffering with a baby was the hardest thing I ever dealt with,” she said. “He was only a toddler and started acting out like I was.”

Johnson didn’t know where to turn. But a stay at Family Warrior Weekend opened up a new hope. A retreat for active and retired service members and their families at Camp Twin Lakes, which partners with JF&CS, the weekend gave her the chance to open up with others — and to meet Molly Levine-Hunt, a social worker at JF&CS. Levine-Hunt introduced her to JF&CS colleague Sally Anderson, who specializes in substance abuse.  

“I only wanted to do it if Christian could come, too,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want him to grow up with same type of struggles.”

Between Counseling Services and Child & Adolescent Services, she and Christian could come in together. 

“Talking to Sally didn’t feel like therapy,” said Johnson. “We worked on small goals: Wake up. Brush my teeth. Take a shower. Take my meds. Eat breakfast. It’s like building a house, and she helped me build the foundation.”

Johnson never had any professional fighting for her the way Anderson did. “She would always ask how she could support me. I aspire to be a lot like her. I think it’s important to find strength in someone else that you want to carry with you.” 

At the same time, she felt Christian was “in amazing hands with” with Jessie Hallberlin, another JF&CS clinician. 

“When I first saw Christian, he was the most adorable thing I’d ever seen,” Hallberlin said. “He was very shy and bossy. He would throw things. Sometimes he would hit. But then he got to the point where he was excited to come in.” The two acted out different scenarios based on emotions, played various games and did yoga. He became less shy and stopped crying when Johnson wasn’t there.

“It’s very comforting as a mom to know you can get help and your kid can too,” she said. “He doesn’t know anything about anger, frustration, depression, PTSD. I just love watching him thrive.”

For Anderson, it’s a thrill seeing a client go from “just despair to light.”

“Sexual trauma is really underreported,” Anderson said. “When people are ready to reach out, it’s really important that there is a place for them to go.”

Despite the negative glare surrounding mental health issues, Anderson made Johnson feel comfortable and safe. 

“She’s one of those unforgettable people who took me out of the darkest hole I could possibly find. I’m not out; she’s helping me get out. I haven’t been this hopeful in a long time. I look at it as a fresh start. It’s not about my PTSD anymore. It’s about me and my family and all of our happiness. “

“A miserable mom is a miserable life,” she added with a grin. “So, we had to get mom right.”

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Posted in JF&CS - Hope and Opportunity Happen Here, Counseling Services