Connection as Prevention
Today I received a call from a close friend, who has recently been touched by suicide. She asked, “What are we doing about veteran suicide?” After a short talk, I sat down to begin a paper on the subject. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from my husband containing the monthly newsletter from his battalion. As I scrolled through the document I typically discard without attention, reading over candied flyers about peer mentorships and holiday parties – my thoughts were reaffirmed. We are missing the point. I’d like to explore what is happening for many, some current procedures and approaches, and ways we could grow and adjust to better serve our fellow Americans.
The current phenomena of “22 Kill” or “22 a Day” is, in my opinion, not productive. We are sensationalizing something that does not need a glamorous slogan – it needs compassionate action at the lowest level. National campaigns and fundraisers will not keep the darkness at bay for a 34 year man alone in his room at 2am. We need to change our perspective, and we need to do it from the inside out, beginning with recruit training, following through to deployment engagement and post deployment reconnection, to transition assistance and lifelong sponsorship, which I will explain further in the coming paragraphs. The indoctrination to alienation begins at the recruit training level. We are taught to band together, to support each other, to lift each other up, and succeed. What about the one that can’t cut it? That is too weak, too slow, too fat, or too clumsy to succeed with the team? We cut them away, and shame them. We are taught that the winners succeed, and the rest are simply part of natural selection. This is life, and this is also the beginning of the end for some people. Fast forward to deployments. Nowhere in America can one experience the type of emotional disconnection and isolation that a service member experiences, regardless of job specialty, age, or service; while on deployment. A person is quite literally living in an alternate reality; often times without any real connection to another human for months at a time. Emails from home may come daily for some, not at all for others, and laughs and crude jokes, and sometimes even tears will be shared with unit members. All of this, however, while appearing to satisfy the checklist for socialization, is missing the mark entirely. People aren’t connecting, they are surviving side by side, and keeping their loved ones at home at arm’s distance with emails and Skype chats filled with ‘I’m fine’s”, and “nothing new around here, so tell me about what the kids are up to”, etcetera, etcetera. The pressure to ‘talk about’ the reality they are experiencing is typically half hearted at best, because that conversation is uncomfortable, and the families and loved ones on the other side are often left not knowing what to say; making the person living the hell all the more self conscious of their alienation.
We take you, we train you, we school you, we equip you with the newest and brightest technology, and we send you to the saddest, sometimes most dangerous places on the planet for six or so months, and then, just after you’ve passed your breaking point several times due to family tensions, financial concerns at home, and the daily strain of being in an area of the world where the general consensus seems to be that you’re unwanted, it’s time to come home. First though, we’ll need you to stop for a few days and sit in another unfamiliar location, void of incentive to open up about experiences, void of one the basic human needs. Connection. Human experience experts from Maslow to Tony Robbins have spoken on every person’s need to experience connection, significance, contribution, and self actualization (i.e; reaching ones potential) as well as the more known physical needs of shelter, food, and water, and the end of the conversation is always the same – if you are missing out on one, the entire balance is thrown off. Depression and addictions become more likely, and one by one the remaining human needs begin to suffer as well. In the words of Tony Robbins, “If you are not growing, you are dying.”. Currently, so many service members are hovering between emotional life and death on a daily basis; and sadly, these aren’t even the ones that make the most final of choices, to end their own life. These are the men and women that you see in the parking lot at school drop off, in the checkout line, and pumping gas. Seemingly ‘fine’, but drowning in stagnant emotional waters, because they haven’t been given the tools and opportunity to grow as spiritual, emotionally significant individuals.
In response to the amount of stress related incidents happening upon return from deployments, the DoD introduced the Third Location Decompression program, TLD for short. TLD has been wildly unpopular with service members themselves since its conception. This program is designed to do 2 things: first, give service members an opportunity to reintegrate themselves into the ‘real world’ at a third party location (most often another foreign country) via hotel stays, sponsored activities, and to be transparent and realistic, for most just a few days of immersing themselves in local bar culture and sleeping it off in between. The second initiative is to provide opportunities to connect with mental health and wellness practitioners to ensure that a) service members are ‘prepared’ for reintegration, and b) service members are aware of the programs and individuals available to them once they return. While appropriate, this is a fruitless effort. During my husband’s last deployment, the TLD site was in beautiful Spain, which was a wonderful thought, however the logistics involved then prevented there from being any structure to the waves of personnel incoming and outgoing, leaving some people with 72 hours on the ground, some with 12. During this time, each individual was provided a 15 minute appointment with each of three professionals; a chaplain, a psychologist, and a physical therapist. During this mandatory appointment, the individual was required to attend, but not required to engage. If the individual wanted to request follow up time, they could do that at their discretion, however in this particular situation, the practitioners, were not necessarily members of the individual’s parent command, but support initiatives not accessible upon return home. Checks were placed in boxes, names forgotten, and people put on planes back to their ‘real’ lives. In a conversation with my husband, we observed that this ‘decompressing’ situation likely compounded efforts for so many people; particularly service members with families at home. While the intention of ‘mental health briefings’ and providing tools for coping and relationship management may sound effective in a white paper, I would lean toward the reality that a wife who has been at home alone with her small children for six months is less than keen on the notion of having to wait yet another week to have her family reunited because her husband has to stop off for a few days of fun in the sun in Spain. One can say what they like about the smallness of that perspective, but it is real; and that is the reality that everyone has to live in after the 15 minute mental health counseling has been checked off. Relationship strategies aren’t taught through powerpoint presentations and handouts, nor are they awarded with a PhD. They are learned through experiential trial and error, through true connection with others sharing similar goals and values. Coping strategies have a cumulative effectiveness of zero when the only one read in on such strategies is the person having the breakdown, and those strategies cannot be learned through cold discussions in sanitary offices with individuals that have never experienced that level of disconnection. In short, these tools and learnings must come from a place that is both authentic to the situation, and most importantly, to the service member. They must come from a place that is safe, that is familiar, and that challenges them to grow into their potential; not a briefing that provides them the top twelve ways to manage their spouse’s expectations upon their return.
Some time later, the tour then ends, and the end of service (EAS) or retirement date looms. There are countless ‘transition’ programs and classes listed to attend, and yet we are still missing the mark of creating meaningful, lasting connections and support groups amongst our service members, their families, and the community. We have placed a HUGE burden on communities to embrace and include transitioning and prior service members, without providing any tools or true insight into HOW to include people whose life experiences are so far from their own. It is my belief that the civilian sector sincerely wants to embrace its veteran population, but they are stuck without a progressive way ahead. The only ways to support this community are defunct and archaic, through flashy, flag waving organizations that highlight only a person’s service – further affirming that they have little else to offer but their military specialty and the use of their body as a quota met. So the individuals trudge on, some showing up in the spirit of pure toughness, dragging themselves though commitment after commitment to church, to family obligations, to social calendars, staring into face after face appearing calm and ‘normal’ on the surface, but with a strangled, dying spirit. The truth is, we are living in a time that places a hard stigma on ‘truth’. We want the truth, but only if it inspires us, if it lifts us to be better, and helps us on our way. The truth that stops our progress is not welcomed, it is shameful; because progress is everything. If we are not moving forward, we are failing. If we are failing, we are unworthy, and if we are unworthy, we are just taking up space that someone else could be occupying. And so on.
All of this is described in a largely generalized way drawn from personal experiences. Each person’s account will always be a bit different, but the vast majority land on the same space at the end of the game; and that is the space of disconnection. Disconnection with self, with loved ones, with their communities, and with the ‘real world’ that they’ve been forced to come back and live in. There is an epidemic, particularly amongst men in the Special Operations community – of addiction. Addiction to deployment, and in between deployments, addiction to anything that can fill that painful void and dull the rage until the next go round. We honor men and women who do deployment after deployment, calling them selfless heroes, and that they are. They are also lonely. Lost. Empty. Angry. Depressed. Despairing. Searching. That is where we can make a difference.
The current operational tempo has begun to slow compared to the deployment schedules of a decade ago. The world has, again, changed. With that change however, has come a scrambling of commanders and policy makers to ‘fill the void’ with more training, more short deployments, more schooling, when what we need to focus on is more CONNECTION. Connection is the root of it all, and teaching service members how to connect is, in my opinion, what will change the tide. How do we do that? We look to the ones facing the same types of problems, and we learn from their models. Alcoholics Anonymous. When you are an alcoholic, you don’t go to a meeting in a building with a huge sign out front and banners and flags lining the driveway. You don’t receive flowery newsletters about the Peer Mentor network that doesn’t actually exist or have other member’s wives showing up in your home with food to look at you with pitying eyes for being alone at the holidays. No, when you are an addict those things aren’t the way. You stand in a room, with others just like you, and you tell the truth. You are assigned a sponsor. Someone exactly like you, struggling with the same things, that’s just farther along in the program. And you connect, the hard way. Through uncomfortable, real conversation about the things that are difficult, the rage that seems uncontrollable, and the sadness that keeps you in the dark. Your sponsor is available to you, night and day, because they want to be; not because someone told them they have to be to meet a quota. This makes all the difference.
I propose restructuring our decompression and mentoring programs through the Military Preservation of the Force and Family (MPOTFF) to build off of these ideas. Replace mandatory appointments with civilian and military psychologists with peer connection engagements with voluntary participants. Develop a sponsorship program within commands, entirely unlike the ineffective peer mentor programs currently in place, and provide training and engagement for both sponsors and sponsored alike around connection, speaking truths, and meaningful communication; training provided by experts in the human experience, not Northrop Grumman or the next lowest bidder in the contracting process. The world and its technology are changing so quickly, and we are more capable than ever before of utilizing the resource of human empowerment to teach and grow. The DoD is no longer tethered to the outside training and education restrictions it was in the 80’s. Provide gatherings void of military structure, which traditionally discourages truth speaking and encourages shame, and make the gathering information accessible and allow attendees to do so anonymously if they so desire. The stigma that remains around mental health and truth telling is crippling to service members, and must be met head on with person to person connection and compassion. These gatherings can take place both on military installations and off, to be accessible for both current service members and those that have transitioned, and sponsorship, unlike the current peer programs, would not end with an enlistment or retirement; in fact it would then begin to engage at an entirely new level as a fresh set of challenges and obstacles face the transitioning individual. This sponsorship would not end with the service member however, the program would extend to families and spouses, many of whom are left holding all of the guilt when an individual loses their fight with depression, anxiety, or anger and makes the choice of suicide as their best option. The DoD has poured an immense amount of resources into its prevention and wellness programs over the last 5 years, but those programs continue to exist on a level that is both inaccessible, and irrelevant to the average active duty or reserve individual and their family. Just today, I looked up veteran suicide. I was directed to several larger government program websites, all which showed their strides in prevention awareness and their many accolades for outreach — and two even offered confidential online chat. When I clicked on that ‘chat now’ button, it directed me to a terms of service page, where I was prompted to click ‘I Accept’ to a lengthy list of ways that my chat would be monitored and my data recorded. If we don’t see the problem with that, than we are in fact, the problem. Where is the ‘Connect with a Sponsor’ button, or the “Find a Meeting Now” button? Short answer, there isn’t one, because those ways of connecting don’t currently exist.
I am a Marine veteran that deployed in support of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. I am the wife of a 20+ year veteran to the Special Operations community. I am a mother, a business owner, a community member, a sister, and a daughter. I pay my bills, I grocery shop, I’m involved with my son’s school, and am a successful entrepreneur. All of those things would suggest that I am well adjusted, yet every day I struggle with inferiority. With inadequacy. With a sense of non-belonging. My husband and I, together 15 years, struggle with his anger management and depression and my discontentment and depression that comes from my sense of non-belonging. We are lucky, because we have both experienced, felt, and seen similar things. We have each other as sponsors….and still, we both seek progressive, outside connection to maintain our growth and balance. We stay up late talking about the things we have felt, and the ways we are working through those things in the daylight now. It isn’t always beautiful. In fact, it’s often quite ugly, but we tell each other the truth. It is the truth that a man can have killed someone at arm’s distance and still be a brilliant father, a husband, a business owner, an influencer, and yet still need someone to talk to about his darkness. It is also true that a woman can be intelligent and strong and experience the same feelings and battles as her male counterparts yet continue to be a mother, a daughter, a sister, an entrepreneur, a friend, and an influencer; and still need someone to talk to about her darkness. This experience isn’t a black and white one, and there is never a day that you are healed, and receive your gold star and move on. The experience and effort of lifelong interpersonal connection is just that, a lifelong commitment; and one we need to be making to our service members, and to each other.
For more information on this article contact Heather Gallaher at firstname.lastname@example.org