Emerging from the Darkness

October 21, 2013

Counseling alumna gives hope to veterans with PTSD

by Sarah Wardell


Fear. Anger.
Depression. Powerlessness.

These were the feelings felt daily by Taylor Swan, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the United States Navy. Swan wasn’t truly aware he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“I had awful dreams, and sometimes that dream state would revisit me during the day,” said Swan. “I’d hear or smell things that weren’t actually going on in that time and space. It was very disturbing.”

For veterans specifically, PTSD can carry painful symptoms such as depression, nightmares, intrusive thoughts and, in some cases, it can lead to suicide.

Many describe it as a living hell.

“Intrusive thoughts are common to those suffering from PTSD,” said Elaine Tripi, a graduate of Michigan State University. “It’s like a video that plays over and over, and it becomes torture for some.”

Tripi has spent the past 20 years helping multitudes of veterans and their spouses cope with PTSD-related issues. She became a certified rehabilitation counselor in 1976, and received a PhD in counseling from the College of Education in 1989. Tripi then went on to become a licensed psychologist in 1991.

Eleven years later, she met Taylor Swan.

The life effects of PTSD

Returning to San Francisco from a nine-month tour in Vietnam, Swan felt discouraged by the public opinion of veterans in the late ’60s.

“I had never seen a hippie because I’d been gone a long time,” he said. “I was very proud. The protests were intense … and I realized I couldn’t stay in America.”

Discontented, Swan enlisted in the Merchant Marines and went back to Vietnam, where he faced extreme danger on cargo ships that were frequent targets of enemy attacks.

Swan, in his 30s at the time, again returned to the United States, desiring normalcy—a wife, a home, a job—but instead he found himself homeless and addicted.

“If I’d hear flyovers, like an airshow, or guns going off, or firecrackers or people shouting, it would trigger it for me,” Swan said. “Eventually, I couldn’t work anymore because having a life got in the way of staying high. I had to stay high because of the pain.”

Swan spiraled into a deep depression. His journey ultimately led him to Michigan in 2001, where he discovered sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous after checking himself into a Veterans Affairs facility in Battle Creek.

“I came to know Dr. Tripi after a referral from a therapist that was growing increasingly impatient with me at the VA,” Swan admits.

Through her practice based in Brighton, Mich., Tripi has served as a strong advocate locally as well as nationally for veteran’s rights. She has helped many veterans in obtaining long-overdue benefits.

“Many who suffer from PTSD become extremely productive, to push their memories away,” said Tripi. “But as victims age, the memories flood back. Basically, if you don’t deal with them, they eventually deal with you.”

An evolution of healing

When Elaine Tripi transplanted to Michigan from Rochester, N.Y. in 1968, she never thought she’d be doing what she is today.

“I was working for the first private sector rehabilitation company, handling workman’s compensation claims—in a very male-dominated workplace,” Tripi said.

Through the course of her early career, Tripi came to see victims of severe auto accidents or work injuries as more than numbers.

She developed a passion for people.

While continuing to build on her career experience through the ’70s and early ’80s, Tripi chose to go back to school to pursue a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Wayne State University.

During this time, her interest in assisting those with disabilities grew.

“Helping people has become a real passion for me, which has developed over time as I’ve seen the struggles people are dealing with,” Tripi added. “For me, it’s not about money—I do a lot of pro bono work. It’s about helping people.”

Tripi then chose to pursue her doctorate at MSU, while simultaneously starting her own company through which she performed vocational assessments. Tripi said she found much support at MSU; support which was necessary at the time, as she had roles as a student, single mom and business owner.

A unique piece of the puzzle

Fast forward to today, and one sees that what was once a pipe dream for Tripi and her daughter, Gina Coopersmith, has become reality.

Also an MSU alumna, Coopersmith (BA ’97, Psychology) has built her clinical career as a child and family therapist. For the past two and a half years, Coopersmith and Tripi have shared the practice in Brighton where they work in tandem counseling families.

“Since I chose this field, we always kind of talked about, ‘Wouldn’t it be great someday if that would happen?’” said Coopersmith. “I had finished my licensing and everything kind of worked together for it to happen.”

And it’s no accident her chosen profession is similar to her mother’s.

“I watched her throughout my life … the care she has for people is inspiring,” said Coopersmith. “She’s just an amazing person.”

As for the future, Tripi admits she doesn’t plan to continue her work with veterans full time for much longer. She speaks frequently and affectionately about spending time with her young grandchildren, but she will continue fighting for veteran’s benefits on behalf of those victimized by PTSD.

“I really wish that our politicians would understand that the real price of war isn’t in the bombs and airplanes and ships,” she said. “But it’s in the cost of what happens to many people when they come back from war.”

Tripi has worked with veterans whose service ranges from World War II to the most recent conflicts in the Middle East. In the 40-plus years since Vietnam, Tripi said she still gets calls weekly from those who aren’t sure why they’re suffering from PTSD after so much time has passed.

In the case of Swan, he and Tripi developed a strong rapport, and she considers him an outstanding client—one who has been willing to work hard and do what is necessary to get well. During their time together, Tripi has connected Swan with a men’s support group specifically for veterans, as well as other resources that have helped him recover.

And when Tripi suggested Swan go to Chicago for an intensive outpatient program? He went without hesitation. Now 12 years sober and active in serving others within the recovery community, Swan said he plans to continue working with Tripi as long as possible.

“All of it began with me trusting this woman … she was able to help me put aside my fears enough to tell her what was really going on,” he said, as his eyes welled with tears. “She has been an anchor. And I know she has been in a lot of men’s lives.”

Rehabilitation Counseling at MSU

Est. in 1956

The master’s program has awarded more than 1,300 degrees, which lead to a variety of employment options:

Cardiac rehabilitation / Higher education resource centers for persons with disabilities / Community mental health / Independent living services / Businesses who employ those with disabilities

90% of those graduates are employed at graduation.

175 doctoral graduates have gone on to key leadership positions and made notable contributions to the field.

Michigan State University is one of nation’s top two institutions for graduate study in rehabilitation counseling, according to U.S. News & World Report.