By: Sandra Massey Buckley
Karen White: Serving Our Military
Men and Women and Their Families
Life is full of highs and lows, both rewarding and challenging. And with the ups and downs and in-betweens it throws us, occasionally we need the guidance and compassion from trained professionals such as therapists or counselors.
Karen White, a Jackson native, heeded a calling into the field of psychology and is following a lifelong desire to help people navigate life’s issues. Now, she practices as a licensed professional counselor for Lifeworks Counseling in Madison, a Christian-based practice where she counsels couples, individuals, adolescents, and families in coping with various issues such as relationship struggles, parenting dilemmas, school concerns, as well as trauma, grief, and addiction.
In her pre-teen years, Karen noticed she had a desire and knack for listening to her friends’ problems and wanting to help. “Looking back, my journey into the psychology/therapy field probably began when I was in junior high school; although, of course, I didn’t recognize it at the time,” she says. “My friends used to tell me that I was really good at helping them deal with problems and that I was a good listener.”
Later while at Mississippi State University, she occasionally wavered on her psychology major. “I would try to ‘get away’ from it, but I kept going back,” she says. “I was intrigued by the way our brains work, by the classes I was taking on theories of personality and abnormal psychology, and especially family dynamics. Looking back now, I can see how God planted that desire in my heart way back, and how He has used different events and relationships in my life to strengthen it and bring me to it.”
Early in her career, in 2008, she worked for Summit Counseling at First Baptist Church Jackson, where she heard of an opportunity to work at a camp for children of military families. Intrigued, she followed the lead and then found herself at Fort Campbell in Kentucky filling a two-week position. “I fell in love with the work immediately,” she says, “as well as experiencing the military culture and interacting daily with the people who were risking their lives for mine.”
When Karen returned to Jackson, a colleague and friend greeted her with, “You look different— in a good way. I don’t know what you were doing while you were there, but you need to find a way to keep doing it!”
Feeling that sentiment in her heart too, Karen prayed about and researched pursuing a full-time career traveling as a Military Family Life Counselor. Deciding to take the chance, in 2009 she accepted a 30-day assignment that eventually led to 6-month and then yearlong assignments where she would counsel and work with military men and women and their families.
This new adventure quickly turned into her passion, and Karen has since spent the last eight years traveling with the U.S. Military across the United States, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, and Spain.
“When I was embedded with a battalion, I pretty much did everything with the troops – from hanging out at the motor pools and the hangars to doing PT, attending Family Readiness Group meetings, and going in the field with them as they trained for upcoming deployments.”
Being a part of their day-to-day lives, and often their families too, Karen could better understand the demands, expectations, fears, and goals from each perspective, and that provided a profound source of insight. “Our military men and women and their families deal with and experience things that most of us will never have to,” she says, “and sometimes can’t even relate to.”
While Karen was not allowed to openly share her Christian faith with the people she counseled unless specifically asked, she tried to live her life as an example of Christ and by attending chapel services, Bible studies, and prayer breakfasts when available. She also relied on the power of prayer. “I prayed often that God would put me where I needed to be on a given day,” she says. “I prayed for the people I counseled, and I prayed that God would use me to help bring healing and hope.”
Knowing God planted this seed in her heart for compassionate serving, she trusted Him for the direction and words to help those she counseled. “I know that my relationship with Christ has changed my life and has given me hope—not just in my own life and struggles, but in others’ too,” she adds. “So when I counsel people, military or not, I try to view them and whatever issues they’re struggling with the way that God sees them, and empathize and work with them through those things. The way that God has loved me and shown mercy and grace to me has given me the ability to love others and show compassion and understanding.”
Karen counseled on a variety of topics, many unique to service men and women, with the most common being family and marital issues, work-related stress, and feeling alone due to separation from family and support systems. More specifically, these issues often included working through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, grief over loss of comrades or family members, suicidal ideation, overcoming injury, depression, and anxiety.
“Lots of military people experience guilt over choosing a career that keeps them away from family at times,” she explains. “And oftentimes, soldiers come home to find that their spouses left them or cheated on them—or both. Or, they would come home to their loved ones who had seemingly done well without them, thus feeling unwanted or unneeded. And for the single parents, adjusting to being separated by oceans and many miles from their children is a significant source of stress and pain.”
In light of these struggles, Karen and others in counseling roles understand their efforts are crucial to the emotional wellbeing of those who are sacrificing their lives for our freedom and country.
Family members of deployed troops also face ongoing transitions, loss and grief, and shouldering extra responsibilities. “Lots of spouses are forced to give up or put on hold their careers or education when the military spouse has to move – and especially if that move is overseas,” Karen explains. “And then some are forced into a caregiving role if the military member is injured.”
Another essential component to Karen’s role was her work with children and helping them learn to cope with a parent (or both) being gone for an extended period as well as balancing fears associated with knowing their parent may be in danger. She also counseled children and teens as they changed schools’ multiple times, which statistically is six to nine moves between kindergarten and twelfth grade.
Then, she found being a part of the welcome home and deployment ceremonies were extremely special, impactful, and emotional. “These scenes at these welcome home ceremonies were always breathtaking,” she said. “Children reuniting with parents they hadn’t seen in over a year, daddies meeting their new babies for the first time, spouses choking back tears as they reconnected after so many months of being consumed with worry, and parents beaming with pride as they hugged their brave sons’ and daughters’ necks. I felt honored to be a part of it. I hugged and high-fived and let soldiers use my phone to call family and friends back home. I took pictures and held babies while families reconnected.”
When troops left for deployments, though, the scene was very different. “These were much more somber and quiet,” Karen added, recalling handing out bottles of water, pats on the back, and wishes for safety and quick returns.
“For me, being at those ceremonies was a sacred experience,” she says. “I ached for my family and friends, and for all Americans, to witness these as well because I fear that for most of us, an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality applies to our military, their families, and the war.”
This journey for Karen has strengthened her faith and love of country, and by supporting the emotional needs of those fighting for our freedom she was, in turn, honoring their service and sacrifices.
“Our military men and women work so hard and sacrifice so much for us,” she says. “And it’s not easy. It all takes a toll. As civilians who have never gone to war, there’s no way we can understand what that’s like. But, I hope we can try to comprehend the magnitude of what they have and continue to do for us.’”
This experience also taught Karen that the life of a traveling professional can be lonely. Missing holidays and time with family and friends, the comfort of home, and the familiar creates a vulnerability – and this is where she found herself on the receiving end of compassion, gaining beautiful lifelong friendships and professional mentors into her life.
“I learned so much from these spouses, military children, and military members themselves,” she says. “Some of the military personnel took me under their wings, welcomed me into their battalions and squadrons, and taught me so much about being and working in the military. I have been richly blessed by this work and these relationships. My life is definitely changed for the better because of these experiences and people.”
Having come full circle on her eight-year professional journey that took her around the world, she was ready to come back home to Mississippi in 2016. Experiencing life with soldiers and military personnel and their families shaped her life, outlook, and future goals. “It has been the honor of my life to serve alongside our military men and women and their families,” she says. “They let me into their world, and working with them has profoundly changed my life and my perspective.”
Settling back into life in Mississippi and her job with Lifeworks Counseling, Karen is also working once a month for Anchored4Life, a program of the U.S. Navy for military children facing transitions such as making friends, healthy choices, fears, divorce, and grief. She also serves as the community outreach coordinator with the Jackson chapter of Team Red, White, and Blue, a national organization connecting veterans with their local community through physical and social activities.
Sandra Buckley is marketing director for a statewide economic development organization and also a freelance writer who, between these two roles, loves to promote the inspiring people, places, and potential of Mississippi. She and her husband, Bryan, live in Madison and are members of Madison United Methodist Church.