Serving Behind the Scenes

Walter E. Penk, a three-time University of Houston graduate, changed the way we view post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans through his clinical research spanning more than 60 years.

By Walter E. Penk, Ph.D., as told to Carrie Kent.

Illustration of a portrait of Walter E. Penk, in black and white with textured paper background

Illustrations by Vincent Lucido

Illustrations by Vincent Lucido

Attempting to describe Walter E. Penk, (B.A. ’54, M.A. ’64, Ph.D. ’65) and his contributions to the field of clinical psychology is daunting. Consider his numerous accomplishments, the many letters after his name and his track record of being published in more than 100 industry publications. Then, set those aside, because Penk’s dedication to his life’s work, his grateful acknowledgment of mentors along the path to success and his quick wit helped guide his journey. As Penk says, “It’s not about me; it’s about the VA,” and the people who provided guidance and support along the way.


Born in Houston, Texas, in 1933, I earned a Bachelor of Arts in History and German at the University of Houston but felt a personal lack of focus in both disciplines. I changed course and pursued seminary studies at Concordia Seminary and then graduate courses in education at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where I stumbled upon psychology. The last course I took in my post-graduate studies was on mental health, and that really turned me around to studying psychology.

“There’s always more to do.”

I returned to UH to focus my education on psychology, and I encountered professors who were powerful, powerful teachers. Many were war veterans working to establish a connection between the University’s psychology department and the Houston office of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Their mission was securing psychological and therapeutic services for fellow service members returning from war and encouraging psychology department students to learn about a unique population with mental health disorders.

As I earned my master’s in Houston and worked toward a Ph.D., I participated in early training for a clinical psychology internship at the Houston VA, but I eventually accepted a position with the Dallas VA. They [the Dallas VA] never had any full-time internships, so that was attractive to me. I liked the challenge and became the first clinical psychology intern at the Dallas VA, with full support from my University of Houston mentors.

I continued work with the Dallas VA from 1963 to 1984, rising from the first-ever intern to staff member and then, research psychologist. I left Texas for the Boston VA after I met my late wife, Dolores Mae Little Penk, Ph.D. Dolores was also a psychologist, and we shared a commitment to the VA. We always worked in different VA medical centers in the Boston area, but we studied and published together before retiring to New Braunfels, Texas in 2003.


I am best known among clinical psychologists for development of psychosocial rehabilitation and the American Psychological Association’s formal recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a mental disorder. My early work with veterans at VA centers in Houston and Dallas influenced my research to develop a new concept: psychosocial rehabilitation, an approach particularly effective with veterans.

“I began to recognize that stress disorders often are the underlying cause of addiction, particularly for veterans.”

Generally speaking, psychosocial rehabilitation emphasizes techniques of intervention when treating people to become self-sufficient and self-regulating in their activities. The approach combines traditional treatment for veterans, such as addiction treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy, with added support for housing, education, employment, substance use disorders and family reintegration post-deployment. After publishing numerous articles on psychosocial rehabilitation studies with positive outcome-driven results, I identified a missing piece of the puzzle. I became interested in stress disorders.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, rehabilitation within the VA system primarily was focused on and funded for substance abuse, but I began to recognize that stress disorders often are the underlying cause of addiction, particularly for veterans. There’s a lot of self-treatment with addictive behaviors. PTSD is hidden among people who drink heavily or abuse other substances. A challenge in professional treatment is overcoming avoidance, a major characteristic of those with PTSD. They tend to avoid memories of trauma and remain hidden.

A sketch illustration of a seal for the Spirit of Hope award, featuring a likeness of Bob Hope speaking into a microphone.

Penk is a recipient of the U.S. Department of Defense Spirit of Hope Award, which honors those who epitomize the spirit of Bob Hope, who entertained U.S. troops for decades.

Penk is a recipient of the U.S. Department of Defense Spirit of Hope Award, which honors those who epitomize the spirit of Bob Hope, who entertained U.S. troops for decades.


I was intrigued by stress disorders both as researcher and clini- cian, but found no available guidance in traditional literature, including the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM). So, I began my independent research by focusing on Vietnam veterans through my work with the VA. In October 1981, I published the first formal validation study of PTSD to appear in a journal published by the American Psychological Association. Also in 1981, the APA published the DSM-III, identifying PTSD as a mental health disorder, although I take no credit for the timing.

I’m proud and honored by the numerous commendations for my work during 60-plus years of service to this country, its veterans and their families. In September 2023, I received the U.S. Department of Defense Spirit of Hope Award.


Currently, I consult with the DOD focusing on active-duty service members, but I’m also taking more time to enjoy my family. Among my many children and grandchildren, all have interesting careers, ranging from park service to cancer research to digital media to law enforcement. Some are Aggies like my wife. But I am totally University of Houston!

One son is working in geriatric psychiatry for the VA. Whenever he visits me, I have to listen on how to live because I’m now very old. But I did renew my license as a psychologist in August 2023.

There’s always more to do.