Doing good for other military veterans

By Susan Maas

Scholarship winner | Josh Farley

There’s a 19th century oil painting at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) that captivates third-year medical student Josh Farley. Called Peace Concluded, the John Everett Millais work depicts a Crimean War officer — seemingly recovering, perhaps from a battle wound — at home with his young family. One daughter plays with four toy animals that represent the countries involved in the war: a lion (Britain), bear (Russia), rooster (France), and turkey (Ottoman Empire). The other child holds a dove, presumably meant to symbolize peace.

What’s harder to read are the faces of the officer and his wife, and the lingering impact the war might have on their family. They’re clearly materially affluent, and it’s mainly a picture of resolution and relief. But the viewer can’t help wondering: Are there scars? How deep?

Those are the kinds of questions Farley — a war veteran himself, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan — had occasion to ponder of patients he met in his recent psychiatry rotation at the VA Health Care System in Minneapolis. Farley believes the depth of compassion and empathy he gained through his own experience allowed him to make connections he otherwise might not have.

“I had one patient, a little older than me, with similar military experience to mine,” Farley says. “He’d had a hard time with employment — he had severe depression, PTSD, substance abuse.

“He came in for a suicide attempt … he just was not talking. I was reluctant to disclose my history, but I felt like in this case it might be helpful. And he opened up to me; I was able to convince him to get into more intensive treatment,” Farley says. “It really made me reflect on my own experience. With some of the younger veterans, I found I really could connect with them; I understood a lot of what they were going through. I realized this might really be something I wanted to do.”

He’s able to consider it thanks in part to the Hartig Family Endowed Scholarship. The award — along with other scholarships he’s received since starting medical school at the University of Minnesota, including the Hillard and Blanche Holm Fund; Rosen, Pflaum Rosen, and Hedwige V.W. Rosen Memorial Fund; and Christos and Gertrude Manolis Endowed Scholarship — allows Farley to focus on his studies without worrying about crushing debt.

“It’s difficult being a student who doesn’t have [other] external help,” Farley says. “That applies to all of my classmates who are nontraditional students. This really helps.”

Loss, injury, and progress

Farley’s first thoughts of working in health care came a decade ago, after a harrowing Army stint in Afghanistan. Then a sergeant and team leader, he became intimately acquainted with loss and suffering.

“We lost a lot of guys to IEDs and to firefights,” he recalls. “We had a couple guys who lost their legs, and I had one of my own soldiers get severely burned. It was horrible. Those guys, they wanted to die.”

But what he saw months later, when he met them again at the Army base in Vicenza, Italy, filled him with hope.

“They were doing better. They had prosthetics, and the guy who’d been burned had some skin grafts. I maybe hadn’t thought of medicine at that point, but I was amazed [by their progress].” Perhaps his calling lay in helping to foster that kind of healing.

Diffusing the ‘macho’ mindset

After getting out of the Army, the Pennsylvania-reared Farley took a few courses at Temple University, then applied as an undergraduate to the University of Minnesota. He was accepted, electing to study neuroscience with the goal of getting into medical school.

For a while, at least, his military experiences helped him put the stress of academic life into perspective. “For the first year or two, I was able to say to myself, well, at least I’m not getting shot at in Afghanistan,” Farley says with a laugh.

Unwinding with friends helps. A self-described “beer snob” who takes pride in his home brews, Farley also relaxes by working out, watching movies, and visiting art museums like the MIA, where he contemplates paintings such as Millais’ Peace Concluded.

Currently, he’s leaning toward a medical career in psychiatry or internal medicine, preferably working with other vets. The “macho” mindset that still pervades the military makes helping veterans a bit tougher, Farley says — but it’s a challenge he would relish.

“If you got injured in the military, you were looked upon as weak,” he says. “If you broke a bone in training, you were kind of looked down upon. You’re supposed to be tough, to be able to overcome any obstacle … and [the stigma] is even worse with depression or mental illness. You didn’t really want to talk about it when you got out, and you certainly didn’t want to talk about it while you were there.”

Patient by patient, Farley would like to help change that. “I really feel like I could do some good.”

Published on March 24, 2015