Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


July 7, 2012

Healing powers

Harkless sees her job more as a healer than therapist

BLUEFIELD, Va. — Centuries ago, a Prussian soldier brought over to America to fight for England made a momentous decision — defect to General George Washington’s army and spend a brutal winter in Valley Forge. Like his fellow soldiers, he had to cope with terrible conditions and carry those memories with him. Now one of his descendants works to help other people cope with the trauma life has dealt them.

Mary Harkless, a licensed clinical social worker in Virginia, recently accompanied some West Virginia veterans to Washington, D.C., so they could see the new World War II Memorial and memorials to veterans of the Vietnam War and Korean War. Harkless said her family has a long history that started during the Revolutionary War

“We have papers from my — I don’t know how many times — great, great grandfather who was at Valley Forge with Washington. He was a defector from the Prussian mercenaries who came over with [British General] Cornwallis. Somebody in our family has been in every military action since then. When I was in graduate school, my brother was in Vietnam.  I have three first cousins who grew up with me on the same farm. They were in Vietnam at the same time. My father was in World War II,” Harkless said.

Today Harkless works with Psychiatric Associates in Bluefield, Va. Her office, which resembles a comfortable living room more than a workplace, is filled with books, crystals, horse statuettes and other collectibles. Visitors are greeted by her four-legged colleague, Carly, who likes being scratched and getting a tummy rub.

“She’s a rescue, part Pomeranian, and the rest is beyond me,” Harkless said as she sat down. “People see their last favorite dog in her, I think. That’s one of the advantages of being a mutt.”

Harkless recalled one session with a troubled teen. The boy arrived angry and paced the room, sometimes beating on the walls. Carly was soon running around the room and banging against the walls, too. When the boy saw these antics, he started to laugh. Soon he was sitting with Carly in his lap.

The journey to becoming a clinical social worker —Harkless said she thought of herself more as a healer than a therapist — started in a late 1960s classroom at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Hartford County, Md.

“I was a teacher. I saw so many kids who were having really serious problems like drug abuse and alcoholism in the family and things like that,” she recalled.

“I was the new teacher in the school and I got the kids nobody else wanted, and it was really not possible to teach those kids without first dealing with their social and emotional issues, and I got involved doing that. The vice principal said, ‘you’re pretty good at this. Why don’t you think about doing social work? And a year later, I was in graduate school.”

Harkless worked at the Department of Social Services in Cecil County, Md., before going to graduate school. While attending the University of Maryland School of Social Work and Community Planning in Baltimore, she saw the burned buildings while driving to class. It was the time of the civil rights movement and a lot of anger. Anger is one of the chief issues she addresses today.

“I think anger is probably one of the biggest things I feel drawn to work with,” she said. “Anger comes for the most part from feeling unheard or unable to speak, to express yourself.”

In the military, new recruits are taught to suppress their feelings so they won’t become overwhelmed and “freeze up” in combat, Harkless said.

“That’s what it takes to take a nice farm boy from West Virginia or Virginia and turn him into someone willing to kill anything that moves,” she said.

 This can have consequences in civilian life.

“The guys are discharged back to the streets and they’re left with this baggage — not to talk about their feelings, not to admit there’s anything wrong,” Harkless said.

The trauma that can induce post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been with humanity for centuries. The term PTSD was coined during the Vietnam War era to help explain what was happening to veterans coming home, but the symptoms and issues can be recognized in classic literature. One psychologist pointed this out in a book called “Achilles in Vietnam,” Harkless said. In many cases, Vietnam veterans and their Trojan War counterparts in Homer’s epic poem, “The Iliad” describe the same problems. Both ancient and modern soldiers — and other people — have to deal with trauma.

“Trauma is defined as something above and beyond the realm of normal human experience. If you have survived  trauma, then you have developed coping skills that are above and beyond the realm of normal human experience,” Harkless said.

“And we need to focus on that part of the veterans’ experiences or even the child who experienced abuse at home. Those people who survive that really have amazing coping skills if we can help them connect with that.”

Many problems some veterans and other people who endure traumatic events face could be addressed if they receive treatment, Harkless said. Instead, they get caught up in a bureaucratic maze and end up as a dependent needing disability payments. She saw how her mother and father avoided this cycle of dependency.

Harkless said her parents demonstrated these coping skills and passed them on to her. Her mother was orphaned at the age of 4 and her father, who also served in World War II,  grew up in an alcoholic family.

“My mother never stopped talking about wanting to be the kind of mother she never had, and you know what, she did it,” Harkless said.

Her father never talked about his war experiences, but both he and his wife taught their children how to deal with disappointment and setbacks.

“Anytime a disappointment came, my mother would ask, ‘what did you learn from this?” Harkless recalled.

The lessons included learning from whatever happened, dealing with it and moving on. The focus of the lessons was learning to be a contributor to the world and mankind.

— Contact Greg Jordan at

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