How to Support Those Who Protect Us
What I've learned from my unique role of service to warfighters
Posted Jun 13, 2020
June is designated PTSD Awareness Month. As such, we can anticipate a number of articles focused on the needs of Veterans with PTSD. In a perfect example of many articles in the current news cycle, the author claims "that experiences from combat and related health issues are the primary causes of PTSD in veterans, particularly those of today after nearly 20 years of war fighting in the Middle East." While that may be the case of his own lived experience, the assertion is not consistent with a huge data set showing that combat deployment is not highly associated with PTSD.
For the past decade, I've worked on developing a better understanding of how to support our nation’s military service members, veterans and their families. My role in the military community is unique. To be frank, I am an outsider who has become a trusted advisor to a vast network of warfighters and their families, who know me as Doc Springer. The best way to describe my role is to say that it's like the character that Robert Duvall played in The Godfather — not a blood member of the "family," but a trusted consigliere (which is not to say that groups of warfighters are like the mob).
Here's some of of things I've learned about veterans, as drawn from the intoduction to my new book, WARRIOR: How to Support Those Who Protect Us, based on a decade of insights, many of which starkly oppose what many of us think we understand about warriors.
We Love Our Warriors But We Do We Really Understand Them?
Every year, we donate hundreds of millions of dollars to causes that support service members, veterans, and first responders. We allow our military service members to board airplanes before we do. We honor them at ballgames. We have an insatiable appetite for movies like American Sniper, books written by Navy SEALs, and warrior stories on television like Jack Ryan, The Unit, and SEAL Team. The preview for the remake of Top Gun instantly went viral. All of this suggests that we are interested in the experiences of our nation’s warriors, and we care about the well-being of those who risk it all to protect us.
And yet, despite all the thanking veterans for their service, today’s veterans tell me that they feel no better understood by society than our Vietnam veterans did. They tell me that they often feel invisible, like ghosts trying to navigate through a culture that has values that are completely different than their values.
Many people in society—including a fairly large number of therapists—seem to think that veterans come back traumatized by what they see and do in combat. Through public and private funding, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop effective treatments for post-traumatic stress, and to diagnose and better understand traumatic brain injury. We are told that these are the “invisible wounds of war.” We have trained thousands of clinicians across the VA to deliver empirically supported treatments for the “trauma of being exposed to war.”
And yet, the idea that veterans die by suicide because they deploy to war zones is a misconception: A 2015 study of nearly four million U.S. service members and veterans found that deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan is not associated with an increased risk of suicide.[i]
There are some injuries that are even more invisible, more insidious, and more lethal than the “invisible wounds of war” that we have focused so much time and money to address. For many of my patients, the hidden pain they carried came from other sources. For instance, five very common sources were childhood traumas; moral injuries; past experiences of social rejection upon entering treatment settings; feelings of alienation from their closest family members and civilians in general; and the helpless rage and overwhelming grief of losing fellow veterans to suicide after military discharge.
How Can Warriors Be “Heroes” and “Broken” at the Same Time?
My most recent book, Beyond the Military: A Leader’s Handbook for Warrior Reintegration, was written to shift the paradigm of transition. Instead of seeing veterans as “broken” and needing help to go from a sitting position to a standing position, Beyond the Military provides a roadmap to help warriors fulfill their full potential in life after military service.
Our nation’s warriors have an abundance of grit, but they are not superhuman. They are humans—just like us—with a clarity of purpose, and bonds of love and trust, that allow them to accomplish superhuman feats. It is necessary to focus targeted attention on the challenges faced by some of our strongest and bravest citizens if we are to better understand them. But as Sgt. Eddie Wright expressed, this is not a book that perpetuates the myth that warriors are “broken.”
Armed with the right insights, warriors can and will heal and go on to become stronger than they have ever been. Traumas don’t just break us down; they are defining moments that can show us how strong we really are. They are moments that help us see our deeper purpose and the values that guide a meaningful life.
And strength takes on different forms in different contexts. In battle, it might mean suppressing our natural human emotions in the heat of a firefight to stay laser focused on our objective. In mental warfare, it might mean taking the harder path—acknowledging our struggles with those we trust and drawing from the strength of our tribe to overcome these struggles.
Who Is a Healer, Really?
A doctor, with many years of formal education and training, may or may not be a healer. In some cases, the way a doctor practices is the reason why a veteran drops out of treatment, never to return. But a “Doc,” someone who builds the kind of deep trust veterans had in the service with their medics—that person is a healer.
A wife or a parent who recognizes and helps carry the grief of their military loved one—these are healers.
A husband who listens with love and empathy to his warrior wife—he becomes essential in bringing her all the way home.
Fellow students in classrooms who respectfully integrate veterans into their college communities—they become healers.
Even actors who turn down roles that perpetuate one-dimensional myths of veterans as either heroes or broken gear, who instead pursue roles that portray veterans as multifaceted human beings (like all of us)—they become healers.
What is a healer? It is all of us, or none of us, depending on what we understand and how this moves us to act in support of those who protect us.
The Surprise Gift
We can learn much about our own condition by understanding those who protect us—their struggles, their triumphs, their bonds with each other. In the vein of Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, there are indescribably beautiful aspects to the connection that military brothers and sisters share. Like Junger’s Tribe, my book is a true crossover, knitting together the worlds of the warrior and those they protect in thought-provoking ways.
Additionally, rather than applying solely to those who serve in the military, and those who care for them, Warrior seeks to develop psychological insight and meaningful personal growth for a broad readership through close observation of how hidden pain, courage, and love show up in the stories of some of the bravest men and women in our society.
Warrior gives thoughtful consideration to subjects that have not been well explored as yet, for example, moral injury; how to approach conversations about firearm safety; the links between shame, grief, and suicidal ideation; the ways that current suicide prevention approaches may be failing us; the trust gap between warriors and civilian treatment providers, and the bond between veterans and their trusted healers. The subjects in the book are not only undeveloped as yet, but they are also critical and very timely. Finally, a unique feature of the book is that insights are paired with exercises and questions for further reflection.
I have walked on sacred ground with many of our nation’s service members, veterans, and first responders. As we have walked together, I have learned a great deal from them. They have taught me about different kinds of courage and bonds of love with a power greater than despair. I hope that what I write helps us to better support those who risk it all to protect us, and to better support each other as well.
[i] M. A. Reger, D. J. Smolenski, N. A. Skopp, M. J. Metzger-Abamukang, H. K. Kang, T, A. Bullman, S. Perdue, and G. A. Gahm. “Risk of Suicide Among US Military Service Members Following Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom Deployment and Separation From the US Military,” JAMA Psychiatry, 72 (2015): 561–569.