Staff Perspective: Reflections on Pearl Harbor and a Career as a Military Psychologist

Staff Perspective: Reflections on Pearl Harbor and a Career as a Military Psychologist

Dr. Libby Parins

This past December 7th marked the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a young psychologist, just out of internship in the Navy, I visited the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. This was before September 11, 2001 and I was hopeful that we were facing an extended period of peace in our country. Before entering the USS Arizona Memorial, I had thought of it as a historical war memorial from my grandparents’ generation. But that day, standing before the marble wall towering over me, listing the names of those who died, I was transformed. As I looked out over the watery grave of some 900 sailors, with the ship’s oil still staining the water, I realized the direct line between me and those who died. We were sailors. We were Service members.

Since that moment, every December 7th, I am once again struck by the magnitude of the impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Reading the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address to the nation on December 8, 1941, the magnitude is amplified as he reveals there were also attacks against Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Wake Island and Midway Island, all on that “day that will live in infamy.” The scope of those losses have always been difficult for me to fully comprehend. During the attack 2,403 American sailors, soldiers, and civilians lost their lives. The nation mourned, and I think of all of the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and the spouses, sweethearts, and children struck so deeply with grief. And what memories and traumas those who survived had to live with.

Less than 2% of Pearl Harbor survivors are alive today. Six of those survivors, all 99-years-old or older, gathered this month in Hawaii for the 80th anniversary. They told NBC’s Kerry Sanders of how they could vividly recall the ships burning and sinking in the harbor, and one described questioning why he had survived when others had died. All these decades later the psychological toll of war was still evident among these men. Watching their interview made me think of the day I was on the Arizona Memorial and how connected I felt to those who died on the ghost ship just, under the water below me. They were young, hopeful, and vital, but they had given their lives in service to the nation. Experiences connect us, and we had all agreed to serve in the military and to risk our lives to defend our democracy. I have dedicated my career to caring for the mental health of our nation’s service men and women. For anyone, it is no small commitment to wear the Navy uniform. I left the memorial that day feeling awed by my predecessors and prouder than ever to wear the uniform of a naval officer, and I continue to feel honored to serve them and to have served with them.

If you are interested in exploring a career as a psychologist in the military, consider applying for The Summer Institute. The Summer Institute is a five-day course that was established to raise doctoral students’ awareness of what it would be like to serve as a psychologist in the Armed Forces and to increase their competitiveness for a military internship. The course is offered at no cost and provides lodging for accepted applicants (students are required to pay for their own travel, meals, and incidentals). The program is hosted at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences located in Bethesda, MD and is intended for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year doctoral students in clinical or counseling psychology.

Course content is aimed at students seriously considering applying for military internships at one of the ten training programs located throughout the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force. This is an intensive program which will strengthen trainees’ backgrounds in military behavioral health as they gain first-hand knowledge of military culture, the work of psychologists serving in uniform, and evidence-based strategies to treat active-duty service members. The Summer Institute has a competitive process for applications given the limited number of seats for this generously funded program. If you are interested in learning more about The Summer Institute and a career in the military, visit

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Libby Parins, Psy.D., is the Chief of Staff at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP). Dr. Parins has worked at CDP since 2007, serving in many different capacities including as a faculty member on APA-accredited psychology internship programs, and as a project developer and trainer in military and civilian programs. She began her professional career as a Naval Officer where she served in San Diego, California and Bremerton, Washington as a psychologist