Thursday, 4:30 PM
Soldier does double duty as counselor
By Andrew Ryan, GLOBE CORRESPONDENT
In his year in Iraq, Carlos V. Silva rushed onto smoldering battlefields to counsel soldiers too traumatized to climb back into the gunnery turrets of Humvees.
Now, a month after his return, the US Army Reserve major is working again at a South End school advising troubled teens who struggle to balance school with acute emotional problems.
Silva has the same goal at McKinley South End Academy as he did on the battlefield. He wants to help others recognize the root of their problems and work through their fears.
Silva, 43, won a Bronze Star for his work with the 883rd Medical Company Combat Stress Control Unit, leading a four-member team that counseled some 2,000 soldiers stationed near the Iranian border. He performed a role that began gaining prominence during the 1990s in Desert Storm.
He recalled speaking for hours in Iraq with a young medic overwhelmed by the rush of life-and-death decisions in a war zone. His aim was to bolster confidence and get soldiers back in the field where they could support other troops.
"Itís like the kid here who is struggling in school," Silva said Tuesday during an interview at McKinley. "The goal is to get him back into the classroom."
At the school, he engages students and builds their trust with the same affable smile and disarming humor he used with soldiers.
"When Iím in a bad mood and I donít want to be around nobody, he comes around cracking his little jokes and lifting my spirits," said Cosme, 19, a 10th grader from Jamaica Plain.
For Silva, the seemingly incongruous roles of soldier and social worker have somehow meshed. He blends rigid military discipline with the probing of a therapist, to try to bring some order to chaotic worlds.
The Stoughton native had his masterís of social work program at Boston College interrupted when his unit was activated for Desert Storm, although he never made it overseas. Outside the military, he had been counseling prisoners until he got an idea in graduate school.
"Somebody suggested, 'Why not work with kids before they end up in prison,'" Silva recalled. "Thatís how I ended up here."
He is one of four social workers serving 97 students in one of the four schools housed at McKinley Academy. When Silva patrols the boisterous hallways, his muscular military physique bulges beneath his shirt and tie.
He spends much of his time listening, working to head off trouble before it starts. Tuesday at McKinley, a 16-year-old student greeted him as "Major" and casually mentioned the name of his new foster parent.
"When I left, you werenít in a foster home," said Silva, who explained later that the teen had been having trouble with his father. "Remember, youíve got to let me know when things change."
Silva used a similar tact in Iraq, where many of the soldiers were only a few years older than McKinley students. He tried to talk about stages of grief before a unit suffered a casualty and would initiate conversations about how normal it was for troops overseas to have trouble sleeping.
At McKinley, Silvaís students deal with complicated lives at home.
Cosme said the last year, with Silva away in Iraq, was his worst in school. He needed the presence of Silva at the front door, ready to persuade him to return to class.
"I prayed to God weíd see him again," Cosme said.
When word came to McKinley that Silva was coming home, students and faculty raised $270 to have a white banner made. A month after he returned, the sign hangs outside of the school, welcoming the major back each time he pulls into the parking lot.
"The students are very used to people who go away and donít come back," said McKinley headmaster Bonnie Miller of Silvaís homecoming. "It was very heartwarming. These kids are worth coming back to."