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Bipolar Disorder

My Bipolar Life: Service, Crisis, and Recovery

A former U.S. general shares his journey to new life after bipolar diagnosis.

 Photo by Sergeant 1st Class Daniel Hinton/Courtesy of Department of Defense
Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin speaks with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey in June of 2014.
Source: Photo by Sergeant 1st Class Daniel Hinton/Courtesy of Department of Defense

This is Part 1 of a four-part series telling the story of a general’s service and success, followed by mental health disaster and recovery, then new life. The purpose is to raise understanding, build hope, and help abolish the stigma.

Part 1: A career in crisis

“You’ve done an amazing job…Resign, or you’re fired. You need to go get a mental health exam.”

It was mid-July 2014. I was 58 years old, and after more than three decades in the Army, I was a two-star general and President of the National Defense University (NDU), the nation’s highest military educational institution, located in Washington, D.C. The NDU fell under the supervision of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the country’s top-ranking military officer. And the Chairman had just ordered me to report to his office at the Pentagon the next day.

Something was up. Until very recently, my job performance had been rated as exemplary, and I had received extremely positive feedback. Had the Chairman approved my request for a three-year extension as President of the university? Did he want to reinforce what a great job I was doing and give me guidance for my upcoming third year at the helm? Was he unhappy with me and about to terminate my presidency? Or was it something else? I would soon find out.

The Chairman, General Martin E. Dempsey, was a brilliant, inspirational, and friendly man. He had been a fabulous boss, as well as a colleague, mentor, and friend for nearly 20 years. When I walked into his office, I noticed his lawyer was in the room, which was not a good sign. I saluted the Chairman, and he walked over and gave me a hug.

“Gregg, I love you like a brother,” he said. “You’ve done an amazing job…but your time at NDU is done. You have until 17:00 today to submit your letter of resignation to me, or I will fire you. Is that clear?”

Had I been in a normal state of mind, with a healthy brain, I probably would have been stunned, upset, or disappointed. But I was in a state of acute mania, and I had none of those feelings or reactions. I was already anticipating my next grandiose mission from God.

“A lot of people think you have serious mental health problems. I’m ordering you to get a command-directed psychiatric health exam at Walter Reed. You need to go this week.”

Indeed, my behavior had become erratic and disruptive to the mission. I had lost the confidence of much of the staff and faculty of NDU. I resigned that afternoon. My 35-year military career would end sooner than anticipated.

To be clear, I was not wronged. The Chairman made the right decision. He was taking care of my own health and welfare, as well as his university’s welfare and mission success. Had I been in his shoes, I would have made the same decision. I do not dispute any decision, medical or administrative. Furthermore, I am not a medical doctor, and I believe that the clinicians at Walter Reed are professionals who did their best.

But consider this: One week before I was asked to resign, two medical doctors—my general practitioner and a psychiatrist—had evaluated me and given me a clean bill of health.

“It is my professional opinion that [Major General] Martin is physically and mentally fit for duty,” wrote one. The psychiatrist wrote: “I do not find evidence of psychiatric illness. Specifically, he does not have depression, mania, or psychosis… he is psychiatrically fit for duty.”

The reason I say this is not to criticize but to emphasize how devilishly difficult it is even for medical professionals to recognize and correctly diagnose bipolar disorder, even when it is in an acute state. (Although I do not believe that the two parties—the Chairman’s office and the clinicians at Walter Reed—ever exchanged information or had any kind of discussion, a serious shortcoming in the evaluations.)

That day in the Chairman’s office, it never crossed my mind that I was mentally ill. I felt terrific and was full of energy, drive, and ideas. There was important work to be done. In fact, the week after I had resigned, I was given yet another unremarkable medical examination: “fit for duty.”

Yet the truth is that for more than a decade, I had unknowingly served as a senior leader in the U.S. Army with unknown, undetected, and undiagnosed bipolar disorder. According to medical authorities, my latent genetic predisposition for bipolar disorder was “triggered” in 2003 when I was serving as a colonel and brigade commander of thousands of soldiers during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It grew worse for nearly a decade, and between 2012 and the summer of 2014, my mania became “acute.” At last, in late 2014, four months after my resignation from the NDU, I spiraled, then crashed, into hopeless, terrifying depression and psychosis. From late 2014 through 2016, I was in a battle for my life.

Had there been warning signs and indications? How did I myself miss them? How did my family, friends, and colleagues miss them? How did the institution I worked for, for so long, miss them? If there were warnings, what were they?

A version of this post was also published in “Task & Purpose.”

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