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A Q&A with Dexter Egleston, Marine and Recent MSW Graduate

May 25, 2017

How can social work help veterans who are suffering from mental health issues? One USC MSW graduate seeks to answer that question.

As a Marine, Dexter Egleston, MSW ‘17, is intimately acquainted with the mental health needs of veterans. A recent graduate from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, he spoke with us about his journey to his Master of Social Work and his post-graduation ambitions.

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work: Tell us a bit about your military service. How old were you, how long did you serve, and in what capacity?

Dexter Egleston: I served in the military for about 12 years. I spent four years during my first full term, and then I got out and tried to live in the real world. I figured out pretty quickly that the environment I grew up in wasn’t for me, so I wound up going back into the military after a yearlong break.

I was 17 years old when I first joined the military—straight out of high school. I didn’t want to stay in the area where I grew up, which was a pretty rough area right outside of South Central Los Angeles. And I wanted to do something with a noble cause. It was an uncommon thing to do because most of my friends had already fallen victim to the street, either going to jail or getting hooked on drugs. Other friends were athletic and got scholarships to go to college—some of them even went to USC.

USC: What branch of the military did you serve in?

DE: I served in the United States Marine Corps. I had multiple roles in law enforcement in the military; I was a  correctional supervisor and a correctional counselor in the Marines. I served as a fugitive investigator, which most would know as a cross-country chaser—essentially a bounty hunter for the Marine Corps. I hunted down those who went UA (Unauthorized Absence), put out warrants and arranged for their arrest by local law enforcement. I would then set up a mission to fly out and transport the inmate either to a facility to serve his time, or back to his unit.

I also transported sentenced prisoners to whatever facility they were to do their time. I was stationed out of the Washington, D.C., Marine Corps headquarters, but I also worked out of the West Coast satellite office in San Diego. Finally, I served as a correctional counselor—basically a social worker position inside the prison.

USC: During your time in the military, did you observe any specific mental health or social needs that weren't being addressed among fellow soldiers?

DE: After being at war for four to five years, during the drawdown, I was working in the prison and saw our number of inmates skyrocket. I saw many instances of minor offenses like substance abuse and individuals getting into fights, to more serious offenses like assault, battery and domestic violence.

As a supervisor, I was the first stop for these inmates—I had to do the initial interview and assessment, and I began to notice a pattern. A lot of these individuals who were getting locked up were suffering from the same thing that I was suffering from; they were dealing with the fallout of war and how to cope with it.

PTSD is very dynamic, and if you don’t have a good understanding of what it is, you are kind of left without direction. Many of these individuals were sent to the brig when they actually needed help. The Marine Corps did a great job addressing this problem by creating a Wounded Warrior Battalion, where Marines could seek treatment as opposed to being locked up.

I saw a lot of younger Marines getting locked up for excessive drinking or using “spice” (a synthetic marijuana). Being in law enforcement, that was disheartening to me—I’m a helper by nature and this seemed to do more harm than help. We didn’t have the resources necessary to help these individuals regain their identities. Even when I transitioned to an investigator role, we still built relationships with the individuals in question and interviewed them about their circumstances. A lot of people had gone UA because they didn’t know how to deal with the traumas of war, and the majority of them went back home to their parents or other sources of support.

USC: Why did you embark on the MSW program at USC? What does your program entail?

DE: Social workers have a broader, system-based theory of working with people than do most clinicians. They not only focus on what happens between the ears, but how that relates to a person’s environment. They look at how you influence policy and how policy influences you. I think that social workers can be involved in shifting the cultural dynamic of the military, especially by making the social bonds stronger.

At the San Diego Academic Center, there were 60 clinicians and students in our two-year program. A quarter of my peer group were former service members devoted to serving the military population.

The faculty is extremely innovative in the way they deliver the material and with the different opportunities that they afford to us as students. For example, I went to Washington, D.C., for a military immersion trip, where we were exposed firsthand to military policy.

USC: What are your plans for after graduation?

DE: I would like to continue my education at USC. I just applied for the Doctor of Social Work program. In order to apply to the program, you have to specify one of the Grand Challenges in social work that you would like to contribute to. Mine is social isolation, focusing specifically on one of the symptoms of PTSD: avoidance. It’s one of the biggest factors I’ve observed that keeps our service members stuck. Continuing my education will enable me to learn new ways to approach this challenge in our military population.