South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)
VA Social Work Highlight: Lee Torres
In March, across the Nation, we celebrated the social worker during National Social Work Month. Nowhere is a social worker more critical than our social workers at the South Texas VA like Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Lillian (Lee) Torres.
Torres works in the Stepping Stones Program. Stepping Stones assists Veterans with severe mental health issues including substance abuse to build coping skills, and integrate those into successful daily living. She has managed the program since her arrival at the VA in 2008.
She feels at home with the toughest infantry or grunt because she herself began her military career turning wrenches on a Japanese flight line at Kadena, Air Base, Japan. She started taking classes at the education center there where she happened to stumble across her future career.
“I took courses at the University of Maryland, and one of those was introduction to social work,” Torres said. “At that time, I thought social workers were the ones who gave out food stamps.”
She added that initial course opened her eyes to the wide-range of things social workers did, and it drove her interest and focus enough to pursue a career in it. After she completed her master’s degree and licensure, she would soon find out the level of support social workers provide their Veteran communities.
After being recruited specifically by an Air Force social worker, she landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. A day later, she got her first case.
I was at the transitional living facility with the pager they gave me, and I got beeped to come to the emergency room,” Torres explained. She had to assist a mother and baby who had acid thrown on it. She said she frequently worked closely with law enforcement, because many of her early cases dealt with spousal and child abuse, but the tough cases were welcomed by Torres.
“I dealt with a lot very early on in my career, but it was all very fascinating,” she said. She added that she took the job that no one else wanted.
Torres was used to adversity. Rolling into the Aircraft Generation Equipment shop, she was the only female out of 70 Airmen. The lack of diversity meant less training opportunities for her because no one wanted to take the time to train her.
Overcoming those types of barriers has built her a reputation in the social work community that has her supervisor singing her praises. “Ms. Torres consistently builds the trust of the Veterans in our program [Stepping Stones],” said Dr. Allyson Ruha, Clinical Internship Training Director, and Torres’ supervisor. “Her work ethic and leadership are unquestionable.”
Social work wasn’t only a new career for Torres; it also sparked her commitment to the Air Force. Her bad experiences early on the flight line left a bad taste in her mouth. After getting out of the service, she never thought she would wear the uniform again. After seeing the great opportunities she had in the Air Force, she signed up again and was commissioned. She completed 26 years of service, and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
She knew she wanted to remain working with Veterans, so her transition from Brooks Medical Center, to the South Texas VA was a natural fit. She was drawn to Stepping Stones because of patient care. “It was not a job where I had to go to training,” Torres said. I did therapy, I did group. Everything I do here, I already did in the Air Force.”
The common bond of service is one of the things that make Torres successful. Instead of simply listening, she brings common experiences to the relationship. “I think the draw for our program is that we are Veterans,” stated Torres. “We get them, so when they say things like, ‘this happened to me in basic training,’ we get that.”
She plays off of a Veteran’s service to build them up, using basic training as an example, and citing the small percentage of Americans that have successfully completed it. She reminds them that learning to become a team member and giving up autonomy is a skillset of its own.
After laying the foundation, and building a trusting relationship, she helps deal with the now, such as substance abuse, unemployment and housing issues.
Torres also builds positivity into her program by frequently inviting back program graduates who had severe mental health issues, but are now functioning at a very high level.
Her dedication to Veterans is one reason that the program is always very active. “She truly has a heart for Veteran care,” Ruha said. “This comes across in every interaction with Veterans, their families, staff and trainees.
So what you do for the South Texas Veterans Ms. Torres, we salute you.