For many medically released veterans, leadership was a key factor in the development of their OSIs. There is a vast literature on military leadership and special schools dedicated to training and honing the management skills and abilities of future leaders. The performance evaluation and promotion systems are geared at identifying the best of the best - built around competition with one’s peers, standing out, and also engendering the right relationships with key people – likeability by the right people is an important asset for career-minded people. In all organized workplaces, however, individual values, desires, and motivations can create problems for formal systems. Among the serving and released memberships, leadership is usually divided into two distinct groups: The first group are those people deemed to be self-interested ‘ladder climbers’, preoccupied with promoting themselves – from taking their subordinates work as their own, withholding information from superiors, or blaming subordinates for their own faults. Veterans describe these people as the looking up group who are often seen as incompetent but protected by a ‘godfather’ system of promotion. Then there is the second group - looking down - who place priority on protecting the welfare of their subordinates; the ones more likely to challenge poor decisions that could adversely affect their subordinates. They are often well-liked and respected by their subordinates, even though they may be deemed to be too familiar with their troops by the upper chain – sometimes deemed to be weak leaders, passed over for promotions or desired postings, or in some cases these leaders may refuse promotions to stay with their guys.
Does the formal system ensure that the best competencies and personal traits are represented among the leadership or is it a ‘popularity contest’? The guys I know would say that it depends on who you ask. Senior leadership often want those people who can handle problems and get things done without ‘push-back’ or creating other unnecessary headaches for them – the team players. The rank and file members want leaders who are competent and also willing to go to bat on their behalf. Of course, leaders do not exist in black-white categories; they are various mixes of ‘self’ and ‘other interested’ people, otherwise, the system would grind to a halt. We do need people who can make tough decisions regardless of whether they are liked and we also need leaders who look out for the welfare of all of their troops. It would be instructive to understand the distribution of leader types within the military from the viewpoint of subordinates and whether rates of OSIs within particular units are related to particular leaders. To me, this would be an important step in unraveling the context of operational trauma.
Programs in mental health focus on correcting symptoms that are designed by academic experts and imported for use with various populations. These can be very helpful but they do not deal with the context where ‘mental health problems’ develop in the first place. If we were to ask soldiers to design the types of things that would help them, there are a number of things that might be designed differently. Topping the list would be an emphasis on forums where they could safely talk about the things that happened to them within their units before, during, and after their deployments along with peers where they can unload the things that bother them without running the risk of being embarrassed or outed as a ‘head case.’ They might also want to know what they can do within the system to address issues like harassment or administrative hiccups that may be undermining them. Some would want to know the steps in holding specific people accountable for operational events or mistreatment that are at the root of their issues. They would want assurances that senior leadership has their backs without singling them out as troublemakers or broken toys.
They would want access to the subject matter experts on military mental health and know that anything that they say has been heard before and that the expert knows what to do about it. They would want to be as prepared as possible before engaging and they would want a variety of scenarios broken down by the numbers into understandable steps. Before engaging, they would want a mapped layout of the ground and a clear understanding of their fall-back positions where they can regroup and resupply and from there decide whether to re-engage or to withdraw to safety. They would want clear reasons for courses of action and concrete goals along the way to keep their bearings.
They would want choices about alternative courses of action and they would want a say in changes to their employment status. They would want more control over the pace and the type of treatments being offered to them without being tagged as non-compliant or faking. They would also want someone they trust take an oversight role to watch their backs when they enter unknown territory – that someone is looking out for them. They would want to know that the people they are being asked to trust, truly understand military culture and they would want to know upfront the risks to their careers if they step forward to ask for help. They would ask for a drastic reduction in medical jargon including the tag of mentally illness. Instead, they would want to deal with their issues within the context of their training, units, and their military careers. With these things in place, they might be open to taking the leap, if needed, to talk to strangers about their stuff.
Mental health week is winding down in Canada, so why is it that I feel a bit nutty. I have to admit that I am not sure what mental health week is all about. While we use the term mental health, I think we are actually referring to the opposite: encouraging those people with ‘mental health issues’ to come forward for help and starting broader discussions of things like depression, trauma, or addiction - efforts towards destigmatizing mental disorders. All good things. However, good mental health is not just the absence of a diagnosis – it involves much more than convincing individual people to look for care. In the case of first responders, if we were to take their concerns seriously, we could end up challenging the structures of our social institutions and the usual way of doing business. If we ended up with conclusions that what is being asked of soldiers, police, or paramedics is too much to ask of them, then where would this leave the rest of us? I think we have to get away from the idea that there are acceptable mental casualty rates and look seriously at organizational structures, group expectations, and engrained codes around invincibility that may foster mental distress.
When young men and women enter organizations like the military and other para-military organizations they begin the process of adopting a different identity almost from day one. They learn by watching and doing. Core training is meant to toughen them up and continually test them under pressure, with an eye to ferreting out weak members. Alongside these over-riding mandates, lectures on mental health may be thrown in here and there but they are peripheral to the central value system and the focus of training. Nobody wants to tamper with the way that young recruits are indoctrinated; after all we have been doing it this way for well over 100 years. Fear of standing out, of being seen as weak, and the continual need to belong usually outstrips a member’s thoughts that they might be depressed or so anxious that they cannot focus. So, they have to learn early on how to push away fears, anxieties, and self-doubts and how to dig down and work harder to overcome any mental or physical weakness. At the same time, they are being asked to become ‘mindful’ about signs of mental distress and to engage in steps opposite to their training (e.g., slowing down or talking about their emotional reactions). It is a real conundrum, I think, because they are in a Catch 22 – you have to toughen up, compete, and overcome obstacles and at the same time admit to flaws requiring help from others.
It is blasphemous to suggest tinkering with the fabric of training out of fears of eroding discipline and creating sub-standard soldiers. To change the structure of training where groups of men and women come together in respectful discussions and exercises to decompress pressures as they are mounting and to be taught skills right in the training regimen by the leadership might go a long way in normalizing stress reactions. For example, imagine something like a group Yoga session or an open discussion with leaders on a Friday morning and you have some idea of the challenges to the usual ways of training people. They might receive practical understanding that everybody has a breaking point and be taught how to communicate and how to lower their guard with other members. If we were to consider things like this, I think it would need to be ‘hands on’ and practiced repeatedly just like rifle drills. Lectures alone will never mark a marksman! To my way of thinking, it could bolster unit cohesion and morale, not under-cut it or produce sub-standard soldiers.
For newer members to see more senior personnel take off their ‘work faces’ and become human at the end of a training segment or an operation would be nothing short of transformational. And yes, some members might conclude that they are not up to the challenges that come with this way of life. Just because we have done things one way for a long time is not a reason in itself to continue doing them this way. Is a zero OSI casualty rate an unreasonable goal to aim towards?
Over the past several days, like many other people I have been distrubed by the news conference and the review of Mme. Deschamp's report on sexual harassment - sexual assault within the military. I have also read her report and have folllowed some of the discussions on social media. It is an emotional topic with people taking strident stances on one side of the issue or the other. Those people who are rightly proud of their service and who did not witness these things cannot believe it and voice their belief that the report is unrepresentative of our military. On the other side, are those people who did witness and experience these things directly and live with the consequences, years and decades later. I truly wish I could have the relative innocence of the first group, that these things do not happen. I know otherwise. Over the years, the vast majority of military women and some men I have seen for PTSD or chronic depression were related to unrelenting sexual harassment and sexual trauma during their service years. Among these people, the most enduring legacy is betrayal: either because their reports were not taken seriously or because their supervisors were the perpetrators. Their relationships and marriages are often in tatters, they are afraid to go out in public, and they often blame themselves for not doing more or wondering if they brought it on themselves. Even so, many of them do not want the label of victim because it simply re-enforces shame and powerlessness; survivor status at least gives them some hope. For their sakes, I hope that the attention to this subject and the contents of the report can provide some validation or even vindication for the things they may have expereinced in uniform. For those who want to defend the system and there are many of us, defend your own service but leave open the possiblity that these things can happen, often behind closed doors and out of our immediate awareness.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.