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Retiring 'father' of psychology at MacDill reflects on 40 years

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt Staff Writer

A short time after 32-year-old Dr. Rafael Barreda began work as a civilian psychiatrist at MacDill in the spring of 1963, he was faced with what was a time of great fear and anxiety on base, calling on all his professional skills. Of course, Barreda admits he had plenty of his own anxiety during the Cuban missile crisis, as MacDill was put on the highest alert in preparation for nuclear war.

"I remember there were so many F-4s lined up on the flight line you couldn't see the ground and each had its own tent with a pilot and co-pilot and mechanics, ready to go," recalled Barreda. "It was a very scary time for everyone."

It was a roller coaster start to a 40-year MacDill career for the Cuban-born doctor, who called it quits recently to begin the next chapter of his life, retired and enjoying his family in Tampa.

Some affectionately call Barreda the "father" of MacDill's psychiatric clinic. Lt. Col. Joseph Maiden, Life Skills Support Group flight commander, refers to him as an "icon of sorts," dedicated and a wonderful person. Those feelings and more will be expressed in a farewell ceremony to Barreda Jan. 24 at the Officers Club.

"He never refused a patient," said Maiden, "and the patients certainly have expressed their sadness at his leaving. He's just a wonderful person."

Barreda, relaxing at his Bayshore condo with Dahlia, his wife of 45 years, said he is not sad at leaving, but is having to deal with the adjustment.

"It's a strange feeling," said Barreda, who for so many years made the trip to the base. "I think it is just a matter of getting used to it."

Reflecting on his years at MacDill, Barreda's life in psychiatry spans four decades of American history, each period bearing its own psychological signature and each with its own challenges for professionals in his field. Barreda had a front-row seat for the drug culture of the 1960s and the many psychological problems that stemmed from the Vietnam War.

While all war has a deep impact on soldiers and society, he recalled the Vietnam conflict was unique in that it was more "political" and confusing for those fighting. Anti war sentiment ran high and there was a perceived lack of support by the government and its commitment to winning. That combined to create an unusual amount of anxiety among those in the military, and Barreda helped many a battle-stressed soldier through rough times.

He recalled the many drug issues with patients during a period when the military was operating under what he recalls was a more "relaxed" attitude about drug use.

"Later the military realized it was a bigger problem and adopted (tougher) policies and zero tolerance," said Barreda.

During the 1970s and into the early '80s, Barreda said, anxiety of global war may have been receding from the consciousness of America, but was replaced by the stress of a country on a fast track and full of achievers, suffering from the frantic pace of trying to get ahead.

Depression cases were many, and much of his practice was dedicated to treating the blues. Tensions were raised again in the early 1990s when the Gulf War began and once again Barreda's services were in high demand, as military personnel and their families struggled to deal with deployments and the fears of the time.

As his career neared its end, Barreda was witness to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Once again, he saw how tragedy and uncertainty affected people, particularly those in the military.

"All these things affect people and sometimes profoundly," said Barreda, who noted the number one psychological problem today remains depression. With the new terrorist threat, people have more to worry about, but Barreda quickly pointed out that depression has been a universal problem exclusive to no country or culture.

Barreda said it is being able to help people through such problems that made his years at MacDill so rewarding. He also enjoyed the wide variety of patients he was able to see, from adolescents to seniors. If he had to do it all over again, Barreda said, he would not change anything.

That comes from a man who said the last thing he was seeking was a job on a military base.

A graduate of the University of Havana Medical School in 1955, Barreda came to the U.S. to finish post-graduate studies as an intern at Alexian Brother's Hospital in Elizabeth, N. J. He married in 1957. His first year of residency was at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, but his wife's Tampa roots brought him to the doorstep of MacDill.

Barreda had a cousin whom Mrs. Barreda helped get an interview for a physician's job at MacDill's hospital. While there, she was shown the psychiatric department, but was told the hospital had no psychiatrist.

"She (Barreda's wife) said, 'I have a psychiatrist at home' and that's how I came to MacDill," recalled Barreda, who originally had thought he might become a psychiatrist for the Veterans Administration.

Barreda conceded he could have gone into private practice and made more money but, he said, he was treated so well by the Air Force and at the hospital, that there never was a thought about leaving.

During his time at MacDill, Barreda was instrumental in starting several programs, including alcohol treatment shortly after he arrived.

It was at a time when little attention was being given to the problem and years ahead of other such programs in the military.

Barreda particularly is proud of the physicians' assistant training program he conducted over the years. His job was to give assistants a good grounding in psychology as part of their overall training.

"We had a lot of very fine people go through that program," said Barreda, who added that many of the physicians' assistants in the private sector got their training in the military.

Barreda said, now that he is retired, he will be spending more time with his grandchildren, who live nearby. "It's a time for me to enjoy my family," said Barreda.

It is clear he has a deep affection for the Air Force, even though he never wore the uniform.

"I always told them I wore the uniform on the inside," said Barreda. "And I always will."

 

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