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Psy.D. Student Aids Fellow Veterans Returning to Civilian Life

Rich Blake followed an unlikely path to Loyola's doctoral program in psychology. Blake, a native of Akron, Ohio, joined the Marines in 1999, two years after he graduated from high school. Initially stationed at California's Camp Pendleton, Blake, then a sergeant, deployed to Iraq in 2003, where he led a unit assigned to fire rocket launchers during the initial invasion.

"When I came home from Iraq, I got a job in Florida with the Transportation Security Administration and began working toward an undergraduate degree in psychology," Blake said. "I started seeing my buddies come back, and some of them were really having difficult transitions. I decided I wanted to devote my life to helping fellow veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), so I began to look at Psy.D. programs."

Blake focused on schools whose faculty had the most experience with PTSD. "Loyola was far above and beyond the others," he said. "I turned down a full ride at another university to have the chance to work with Dr. Jeffrey Lating at Loyola." Psychology professor Lating is a national expert on trauma and crisis debriefing.

Currently completing an externship at Baltimore's Veterans Administration hospital, Blake hopes to secure support from the military's Health Professions Scholarship Program. In return for financial assistance in completing his degree, Blake will return to active duty as a psychologist in one of the branches of the United States armed forces.

Blake isn't waiting to complete his degree to begin showing his personal support for his fellow veterans. In May 2010, he and a few other veterans founded The 6th Branch, a non-profit organization that supports the reintegration of veterans into civilian society. It sponsors community service initiatives such as participation in fundraisers for autism, visits to Ronald McDonald Houses, park cleanups, and other activities. The 6th Branch has formed an official partnership with the Veteran Artist Program, which pairs professional artists with aspiring artist veterans to help the veterans advance their artistic work.

Blake and his co-founders first began getting together on their own to perform community service, and found the experience so rewarding they decided to offer it to as many other veterans as they could.

"When you're in the military, it's the most intense experience imaginable," said Blake. "Civilian life can feel uneventful by comparison, and that's how veterans can get involved in riskier behaviors. We want to give veterans something meaningful to do out of uniform."

Blake and The 6th Branch have also attracted the support of some of his colleagues in Loyola's psychology programs. Tony Bonadio, a clinical thesis master's student, serves as chief operating officer, Doug Girard, a Psy.D. student, built the organization's website, and Natalie Rallis, also a Psy.D. student, helped organize a recent fundraiser for autism research.

To hear a recent interview with Blake about The 6th Branch, visit the WYPR website.