Things probably should have turned out differently for Samantha Schilling.
The stories she tells have dark beginnings and could have had, under different circumstances, dark endings -- as so many stories for those in the military do.
Schilling, now 31, served in the U.S. Navy from 1999 to 2003. She was never deployed but worked as an information systems technician at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.
Several of her friends were killed during the 2000 al Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, which left 17 dead and at least 37 injured. Some of the injured were transferred to her base in Norfolk.
Many of the survivors suffered from mental trauma after the bombing. One of them, a man who had been aboard the ship, attacked Schilling and attempted to rape her.
That assault drove home the impact that active duty had on her colleagues' mental state.
"I experienced military sexual trauma, and that just inspired me," she said. "Coming back into civilian life, you're not the same person you were in the military. ... You carry with you all these burdens, all these stressors."
Schilling was released from service with an honorable medical discharge in 2003. Since that time, she has taken on a personal mission to help others who need counseling after military service. She's nearly completed a masters in a joint military psychology and neuropsychology program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago and plans to finish her doctorate degree in 2015.
"I'm determined to be able to be helpful to others," she said. "Helping others helps me. ... I think therapy can help people adapt to civilian life again instead of maladapt. People who have PTSD and other (issues) can maladapt and cause trouble in the civilian world."
It's no secret the U.S. military has struggled to adequately support its troops after they leave active duty.
A large number of service members suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). An estimated 11% to 20% of veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from the condition, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
That's between 220,000 and 400,000 of the 2 million troops deployed since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
A new study (PDF) shows that only about half of U.S. service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan diagnosed with PTSD received any treatment for it.
And statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs show that about 18 veterans commit suicide every day.
The VA has stepped up efforts to expand care and recently announced plans to hire 1,600 more mental health professionals and 300 support staff members to help meet the increasing demand for services.
But some former active-duty service members aren't waiting for help to arrive.
Veterans have turned to psychology to become mental health professionals, and they're filling in gaps in veteran care that government and civilian efforts have left open. And while they are still rare, programs to train them are slowly emerging at universities and nonprofit organizations around the United States.
"It's just going to increase and increase"
Born a year ago with funding from the Department of Veteran Services in Massachusetts, a program through the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology called Train Vets to Treat Vets has recently picked up steam. It has several goals: mentoring new veterans, providing services to at-risk and homeless veterans, and educating the public about ways they can help.
"As the stigma (of seeking professional mental health treatment) breaks down more and more, and more veterans are willing to come into treatment, (the need) is just going to increase and increase," said Robert Chester, 25, who served in the National Guard for six years and became a student at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology.
"That's why we want to get more veterans into mental health, both to break down the stigma and get more clinicians out there."
Chester is now an admissions assistant at Train Vets to Treat Vets.
Starting the program was a joint effort between the Massachusetts Department of Veterans' Services and veterans (Chester and colleagues Greg Matos and Norman Tippens) who are also students at at the school.
"We, as the veteran students, wanted to see that we could create more of a military cohort at our school," Chester said. "We really wanted to put something together where we can help our fellow veterans by providing mental health services in that specific way."
Since the program's start, Chester has fielded e-mails every day from veterans who want to get involved. Six will enroll in the school's fall class.