Shelter coordinator returns from Iraq duty - Catholic Courier

Shelter coordinator returns from Iraq duty

Dawn Brewer works daily with the homeless, so seeing people in stressful situations is nothing new to her. However, she encountered a whole new level of stress while assisting United States soldiers stationed in Iraq.

Brewer serves as coordinator of the homeless shelter at Second Place East, a ministry of Catholic Charities of Chemung County. She is also a longtime member of the U.S. Army Reserve and recently ended a 13-month deployment that included nearly a year in Baghdad, the war-torn Iraqi capital.

For most of 2005 Brewer served as a staff sergeant with the Army’s 55th Medical Company, as part of a Combat Stress Control Team. She said her main responsibility in Baghdad was to train and assist soldiers, U.S. embassy personnel and some civilians in handling the stresses of being in a combat atmosphere. She gave help with coping skills, stress and anger management, conflict resolution, and handling anxiety and depression.

“Our big purpose was to help them understand that what they experience are not normal circumstances — and if they need to talk to someone, they’re not weak,” Brewer said. “You’d let them know they don’t have to suck it up, that they can talk about it with people.”

Brewer ministered to the soldiers within the Green Zone, also known as the International Zone. This four-mile area in central Baghdad serves as the main base for coalition officials in Iraq. Though she was generally not in the line of fire, Brewer gained a vivid appreciation of the violent atmosphere through her dealings with troops. Many times she counseled people who had witnessed a death or serious injury — “those who were there at the scene and involved when the people were injured or killed,” she said, adding that such situations occurred “more than I’d like them to have.”

“There were some difficult times. You’re talking with people who have lost their buddies — you talk to them one day, they’re having a good time. And a week or two later, they’re not sure if they’re going to make it,” she remarked.

Hearing some of these tales was potentially draining for her as well, but “in order for us to be effective, we have to separate our personal feelings.”

She also keeps her feelings to herself when political discussion of the Iraq war arises.

“I don’t disclose,” she said.

Brewer, who will turn 36 on March 26, attended Horseheads High School and joined the Army Reserve in 1990 while attending SUNY College at Fredonia. She was a reservist from 1990-98, mostly in personnel capacities.

She began working for Second Place East in 2000. The Elmira-based homeless ministry, formerly headed by the Economic Opportunity Program Inc., became a part of Catholic Charities in 2003.

That same year, Brewer re-entered the Army Reserve with a special concentration in mental health. In October 2004, Brewer was mobilized for her first-ever tour of duty as a reservist. She spent approximately 10{1/2} months in Iraq before arriving back in Chemung County this past November.

Brewer can potentially be called back into active duty before her contract with the Army Reserve expires in 2009. Though she’s not eager for this to happen — “It was good to be back home,” she said — she considers her time in Baghdad to have been quite worthwhile.

“I think it was a very valuable experience for me,” she said. “I don’t have any regrets.”

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