LTC Geraci leads the fight against home-front enemies

Enterprise File Photo -- Noah Zweifel

Portrait of LTC Joseph Geraci, PhD in front of a mural that includes Henry Johnson, a black soldier who earned hero status in WWI.

ALBANY — “OK, we’re gonna do one of my favorite exercises,” said Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Geraci, Ph.D., to a room in the Stratton Veteran Administration Hospital, full of nurses, human resources officers, and veterans, all grouped around slightly less than a dozen circular tables.

“There’s a big piece of paper on your table there, and you’re gonna recreate the chart that’s up there on the projector.”

The chart in question was simple: Along the left side was a column labeled “Positive Attributes,” while on the right side was a column labeled “Negative Attributes.” Stamped above both columns were the words, “Veterans are …” 

“Just let it flow,” said Geraci.

A nearby table jumped right into the positives. Brave. Loyal. Strong.

In a few minutes, negatives started to bubble up from the cloister, barely audible.

As Geraci walked past, he couldn’t help but listen in. Impressed, he said quietly, “See, the other groups are taking it easy on the negatives.” Then he turned to the rest of the room. 

“Negatives!” he shouted, using a drill-sergeant voice that would get a lot of play in the next two hours. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. One minute!” 

When he called time, Geraci asked each group, or “squad,” to share their top answers for the positives. Leaders. Disciplined. Hard-working. 

“Now put on your HR hat,” said Geraci. “You have someone in your office: resilient, detail-oriented, they demonstrate leadership in high-stress situations; they are adaptive and strong and disciplined and honorable. Why would anyone not want to hire that individual?

“Well, we’re about to get there,” he said. “Sixth squad, go.”

Crazy. Explosive. Impatient.

“I love it,” said Geraci. “Let’s go, let ’em rip. Fifth squad, go.”

Rigid, compartmentalized, alcoholic — the lists went on.

“You wanna know why you don’t hire that individual?” asked Geraci. “You wanna know why a veteran leaves you after 2.5 treatment sessions?”

“Because this is how you see them. And they can sense it,” he said.

LTC Joseph Geraci, PhD, LMHC

Joseph Geraci went to war in 1998, after graduating from the United States Military Academy as an infantry officer. During his time in the Army, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, and earned a Bronze Star, Air Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, Senior Parachutist Badge, Expert Infantryman’s Badge, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and the Ranger tab. 

When he left, he went back to school, earning three masters’ degrees and a doctoral degree from the Teachers College at Columbia University, where he now serves as the co-founder and director of Military Relations for the Resilience Center for Veterans and Families.

Now, his war is against the home-front enemies veterans face when they return — loneliness, unemployment, disenfranchisement, to name a few — which threaten their ability to live healthy and stable lives.

In this program, operating in its fourth year, Geraci is attempting to teach professionals in management and human resources how to interact with veterans in a way that yields more from their capabilities, which can often be disguised in civilian environments. 

“There’s two big issues that I see,” Geraci told The Enterprise before his presentation. “The first is mental-health providers. Veterans only stay for 2.5 sessions of mental-health counseling. So they get over the stigma to go with the treatment, but then they only stay for so long.” 

Geraci says this is because the majority of mental-health counselors aren’t veterans themselves, and don’t understand the unique approach they need to take to connect with veterans, leaving the veterans feeling “disconnected, misunderstood, and discouraged.” 

“The other issue is the unemployment rate,” Geraci said, explaining that, although veterans may have had important duties and achievements in the military, without the necessary education and support, “they can’t make a lateral move into the civilian world.” 

A large part of Geraci’s strategy in teaching counseling and human-resource professionals how to interact with veterans is using his unique combination of psychological expertise and insight into life as a veteran. He recounted a time when an intern in his charge called a veteran and cordially reminded him of an upcoming therapy appointment. The veteran could be heard yelling into the receiver before hanging up.

Geraci, who better understands the mindset of someone who’s spent years in a system that relies on a rigid hierarchy of authority, decided to take over.

“I was like ‘Give me the f-ckin phone,” Geraci said to a laughing room. “[I called the veteran] and was, like, ‘Yeah, hey, how ya doin’, you’re gonna be here tomorrow at zero-nine.’ And the veteran was there at zero-nine.”

But, Geraci said, that isn’t necessarily a burden civilians are required to carry.

“As a commander, I didn’t have a lot of dialogue,” he told the audience. “I told people what to do. With civilians, I have to explain what I want them to do … and be OK with them asking questions. It involves me being more willing to explain myself.”

A woman who had been standing along the side of the conference room spoke up. “I grew up in a military family — Army father,” she said, explaining that her life was filled with orders and regiments. “I never knew why my life was like that until now … It was because of his army training. It was his way.”

Mics off

At one point in the conference, Geraci put a chair on top of one of the tables. He donned his military jacket and clambered up to take a seat in the chair, giving himself the dynamic of someone proud and in command, while emphasizing the vulnerability inherent in that isolated position.

On the projector, he showed pictures of three friends he had in the service. All three were killed in combat after Geraci left the service or was on leave. He explained the guilt he felt for not being there to help them. 

Then, he switched to a picture of his own Facebook profile page. The cover photo was of Geraci and a man about his age holding up an American flag. 

“This is Thomas,” Geraci said, referring to the second man in the photo. “He was my roommate at West Point.”

After Thomas left the military, he killed himself. Geraci announced that soldiers who’ve enlisted after 9/11 are 12 times more likely to die by suicide than by enemy combatants. 

“His death stings so much deeper than the others,” Geraci said. 

With difficulty, he talked about how he feels like a failure for not being able to support Thomas’s children through college by getting the proper paperwork submitted. And how angry he still feels that Thomas refused to get mental-health treatment.

Then, he asked the audience to share their feelings about what he just said. 

As a woman started to speak and an aid came rushing over with a microphone, Geraci interrupted.

“We’re going to turn the microphones off for this,”Geraci said. “We’re just gonna share this space together.”

“I can relate to that,” the woman, who was a veteran, intimated to Geraci. “I’ve lost people, too.”

Geraci, still seated in the chair on the table, listened in silence while she shared her story.

“Thank you,” he said when she finished. “This is difficult. But this is where we have to go.”

Talking to veterans

The point of vulnerability in the conference is two-fold. For the veterans in the audience, it’s an example of how to communicate their feelings with counselors. For the counselors and human-resource reps, it provides an insight into the life and psychology of a veteran. 

“A big problem are these mis-timed questions,” Geraci told the audience. “I remember I was in a counseling session [as a patient] and the person asked me if I had PTSD. I nearly threw the chair and walked out of the room. But I made it clear that we were never going to use the term PTSD in a session.”

After Geraci shared his guilt and sadness about the death of his friends, and allowed other veterans in the room to do the same, he gave the professionals in the room a chance to test how they would approach someone in his situation.

“Ask me questions like we’re in your office,” Geraci instructed.

The first woman to volunteer asked, “What are the factors in your life that are keeping you safe and keeping you here?”

“I don’t feel like we’re connecting,” Geraci responded. “I just shared my heart with you and you just medicalized it.”

He brought up a chart, later, that listed the important elements in developing rapport: attention, questioning, and listening. 

Geraci said eye contact should be made for at least 90 percent of every conversation, or else a feeling of disconnect will grow. And, periodically, listeners should paraphrase responses to show they’ve heard what’s been said and double-check their understanding. Questioning, he said, should be a mix of open- and close-ended inquiries.

“‘Are you going to kill yourself’ is the most important question to ask,” Geraci explained. “Don’t say ‘I’m afraid you’re gonna hurt yourself’ or ‘Are you going to do anything?’ Be direct.”

“It might save a life,” he said.


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