By Marianne McCarthy
Rebecca Porter entered military service for much the same reason many young people did in the 70s—to help pay for their education.
“As it turned out I was not eligible for a scholarship because I had really bad eyes. But I was already enrolled, and I liked it, and so I stuck with it,” said Porter, now a colonel in the US Army with 20 years of service.
After her ROTC program, she was assigned to the Military Police Corps, but her real interests lie in psychology. So, she transferred to the Army Reserve and started on her master’s degree in counseling. That’s when she and a fellow student learned about Fielding’s doctoral program in clinical psychology.
This was back in ’91—before the prevalence of the Internet. She was pregnant with her first child, and her husband had just been deployed to Desert Storm. But Fielding’s distributed learning model made it all doable.
“With my husband being on active duty, I didn’t know how long we would be at any one location,” said Porter who re-entered active duty herself and applied for the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship. She joined the Reno cluster and graduated four years and three months later.
After his tour of duty, Porter’s husband was transferred to Hawaii, and she began her internship at Tripler Army Medical Center. Immediately following, she directed the chronic pain program there. Later she returned for a postdoctoral fellowship and then directed the fellowship program. (Porter is shown below in Hawaii with her mentor, Jerry Nims, PhD, JD, several years after her graduation.)
Like many in the military, Porter’s career in the Army is characterized by a series of shifting assignments that span the country. When in the Army, you go where they tell you to.
For Porter, it was the Pentagon. She was first called to the Office of the Chief of Legislative Liaison where she received a different kind of education.
“It was an exciting job and so educational to see how Capitol Hill and the Pentagon work together, sometimes in a point-counter-point way but also in a complementary way,” said Porter.
In her second position in the Pentagon, Porter became a special assistant for the Well Being of the Army where she advised the Army senior leadership on things like how your work environment impacts your affinity to the Army.
“In that role I got another phenomenal education about how the senior leadership of the Army functions—how the processes work to fund programs, to look at evidence and look at the data to inform whether or not to keep a program,” she said.
Porter later went on to be the Chief of Behavioral Health for the Army Surgeon General and Director of Psychological Health for the Army. In that job she was a leader in Behavioral Health policy for the Army and testified before Congress on various healthcare matters.
Today Porter is Commander of Dunham US Army Health Clinic in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The facility provides primary health care for approximately 12,000 students at the US Army War College and other beneficiaries in the area. She is the first psychologist in the Army to be appointed to head a medical treatment facility, and she’s found her background essential.
“I have relied, almost daily, on my background as a clinical psychologist in doing this job,” said Porter. “I have addressed personnel and morale issues in the clinic through the use of some of what I know about attitude formation, attitude change, and confirmation bias. I’ve set up programs to try to shift peoples’ attention to positive things, rather than negative things.
“I have always felt like I had the right academic background and interpersonal background to be able to do what I’m doing now.”
This past January, Porter came to Winter Session in Santa Barbara and spoke candidly about military psychology and how policy on post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) has changed since the 1980s. For example, you can stay on active duty with PTSD as long as you can complete your duty.
"PTSD affects the entire family," said Porter, which is why it's important to put counselors in the schools with children of military parents.