A specialty certificate program in massage therapy for military veterans became available in 2016 for massage therapists licensed in New York state.

A specialty certificate program in massage therapy for military veterans became available in 2016 for massage therapists licensed in New York state.

The program has proven successful for both veterans and massage therapists, which means that potentially soon, non-New York-licensed massage therapists may be able to get the certificate.

“We are trying to expand our program,” said Nicole Miller, LMT, the massage therapy program coordinator for Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, New York. Crouse Hospital is partnering with the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB) to offer the 80-hour Massage for Veterans specialty certificate program.

Miller has begun traveling to other states to see about making the program available outside New York. Currently massage therapists licensed in other states are welcome to take the program’s classes but can’t do the clinical training, Miller said. She is trying to arrange collaborations with partners outside New York that will allow massage therapists to do the class work in New York and the clinical work in their home locations.

Massage Therapy for Military Veterans Is in Demand

The reason for wanting to expand the program is twofold: Veterans and the organizations that support them are embracing the physical and emotional benefits of massage therapy, and the program helps massage therapists with their own businesses.

Since its inception, the program has been a “phenomenal” experience for everyone, Miller said.

How the Program Works

During the clinicals, massage therapists take pain and stress measurements before and after the massage. The therapists ask their clients to rate their pain and stress on a scale of one to 10. Average drops of more than two points have been reported in veteran clients’ pain and stress levels, Miller said.

In addition to less stress, anxiety and physical pain, other benefits include improved sleep and improvements in veterans’ sense of well-being.

Finding New Recruits

When the program began, its trainers had to recruit volunteers from the staff at Clear Path for Veterans, a Chittenango, New York-based nonprofit where the military massage program does its clinical work. Today, they have a waiting list for participants; it didn’t take long for word to spread.

“The veteran community is tight,” Miller said.

A staff member at Clear Path for Veterans, Venecia DeRoose, was one of those early recruits. The 37-year-old Navy veteran had received massage before, but felt that she had a different experience through the specialized massage therapy for military veterans program.

“You feel connected because the room that we have at Clear Path is a shared space, which I’m used to in the military,” she said.

Massage tables are set up in one room but screened off to offer clients privacy so there’s no discomfort sharing that space, she said. Sitting in the waiting room with other veterans is relaxing in and of itself, she added, because you’re with people you can relate to.

Cindy Hawks, a licensed massage therapist who helps mentor the clinical portion of the certificate program at Crouse Hospital.

Cindy Hawks, a licensed massage therapist who helps mentor the clinical portion of the certificate program at Crouse Hospital.
Photo Credit:
Courtesy of Crouse Hospital

Among Friends

Assuring veterans that they are among people who understand them is a big part of what the military massage program focuses on, said Miller. “The program is really focused on developing cultural competency for the massage therapists by allowing them to experience a veteran’s arena, so to speak,” she said.

Therapists come from all backgrounds—some have been in the military themselves or are from military families, while some have no experience with military life at all. “I think training is critical,” Miller said. “This is a very specific population.”

Class presentations range from how to do paperwork for the Veterans Administration to addressing service wounds, which can be both physical and psychological.

“We see anything and everything,” she said. “We have to be prepared for all experiences.”

Rob Williams, LMT, a 30-year-old program graduate, believed he had a deep understanding of military culture; both of his parents served in the U.S. Marine Corps. But even he was surprised by what he learned.

Williams used to give his mother a hard time about not identifying as a military veteran even though she served four years in the Marines. Besides not self-identifying as a veteran, Williams’ mother gained a lot of weight and suffered bouts of depression after she left the service, he said. These symptoms, he learned during one of the program’s classes, are common for women who experienced sexual trauma while in the military.

When Williams heard that, he sat in class, stunned. He called his mother immediately after the class, asking her if she’d been traumatized while in the service. She said she experienced verbal trauma every day, which was something he hadn’t known about her years as a Marine.

The Massage Therapist’s Role

Besides gaining a better understanding of his mother, the specialty certificate program in massage therapy for military veterans helped him better understand his own role—and the limitations of that role—as a massage therapist providing a service to those who have served.

“With this class, I know I’m not going to cure someone with PTSD, but I can help remind them what it means to feel happiness,” he said. “To me, that’s the biggest part of the program … just reminding a veteran that they can be happy again.”

Williams said what he’s learned about working with veterans also has helped him be more mindful of his non-veteran clients.

For example, he’s changed his intake process so that instead of sitting on his massage table, placing him above his clients, he sits down on a chair across from them so they’re facing each other. Instead of telling his clients to remove their clothes and get under the sheet face up, he lets them decide how much clothing to remove and what position to start the massage in.

Understanding Invisible Wounds

The program’s class on invisible service wounds, in particular, is useful for massage therapists with their non-veteran clients, said Miller, because it’s really a class about trauma; that content can be useful for massage therapists when they work with clients who have suffered any type of trauma.

In the military, it’s estimated that one in four women are victims of sexual assault, Miller noted. (In the general population, it’s one in six, she said.) Given that the majority of massage clients are women, massage therapists can assume some clients will have been victims of sexual trauma.

Given the potential for encountering veteran clients suffering from trauma of various types, an important part of the program is therapist self-care, Miller said.

For instance, it is not unheard of for a veteran to share with a therapist his or her thoughts about committing suicide, so they’ve developed a support plan in conjunction with the VA in Syracuse, New York. This plan helps massage therapists who work with veterans know who to contact if a client reports feeling suicidal, and who to turn to themselves for support as they try to cope with the emotions that come up.

The program also works with the Syracuse VA to refer veterans from the VA to massage therapists who have gone through the military massage program and earned a certificate, Miller said, so having this specialty training can open up a new line of business for therapists. The program offers training on how to become a VA contractor and how to manage the paperwork the VA requires.

For more information on the NCBTMB’s Specialty Certificate in Military Veteran Massage, visit ncbtmb.org.

About the Author

Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor based on the coast of Maine. She frequently reports news and features for MASSAGE Magazine; her articles include “Targeted Supplements Could Make Your Self-Care Routine More Effective” (July 27) and “Prevent Lyme Disease When There’s a Tick in the Session Room” (July 11).

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