Principal Investigator: Dr. Preston B. Cline – email@example.com
Version: V.4 Monday, April 20, 2020
You are not broken. You are not a victim. You are not a survivor. You have chosen the hard path—a path full of extreme experiences, both good and bad, which leave memories. These memories, in turn, leave a residue within you, which if processed can serve as the fuel that moves us to wisdom and joy. If unprocessed, however, it will begin to build up, to harden, until you can no longer move or breathe, until all you know is pain and sorrow.
This paper is based on the rejection of the idea that Operators, in Medicine, Fire, Law Enforcement and Military, must sacrifice their lives and souls, in exchange for living a life of service. That together, as a community of Operators and academics, we can find ways to help them process their extreme experiences into the fuel that grows their wisdom, not the poison that fuels their sorrow
This project is about finding better ways to process that residue.
In the fall of 2018, I had a serendipitous interaction with the actor Tom Hardy, who shared his approach to residue with me. The idea is that after deeply inhabiting a character, there will come a time when an actor must move on and embrace the next character they will play. In some cases, an acting role may leave a residue that must be processed in order to add to, and not distract from, the next role.
With help from actors Tom Hardy, Scott Glenn and Denis Leary, along with hundreds of Operators, this paper explores the idea that we can help Operators process the residue of their experiences in a way that moves them toward their potential, rather than toward their sorrow.
This strength-based approach is based on the premise that Operators are neither victims nor survivors, but people who have lived extraordinary lives who require unique skills to process extraordinary memories.
Dr. Preston B. Cline
Cofounder and Director of Research and Education at the Mission Critical Team Institute
Senior Fellow, Center for Leadership and Change Management, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Preston spent 30 years in the field of Adventure Education leading expeditions on all seven continents. These journeys became the catalyst for a lifelong academic investigation on how humans learn to interact with uncertainty. This research has resulted in a Masters of Education from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education on risk and uncertainty, and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education on the training and education of Mission Critical Teams: Small (4-12 agents), integrated groups of indigenously trained and educated experts that leverage tools and technology to resolve complex adaptive problems in an immersive, but constrained (five minutes or less), temporal environments, where the consequence of failure can be catastrophic. In 2018, after 10 years serving as the Director of the Wharton Leadership Ventures, Preston founded the Mission Critical Team Institute, which is an applied research institute focused on the development of an international collaborative inquiry community made up of Instructor Cadres within Military Special Operations, Emergency Medicine, Tactical Law Enforcement, Aerospace and Urban and Wilderness Fire Fighting Organizations within Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States. When he is working with Cadre, he resides outside Philadelphia with his extraordinary spouse Amy.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PAPER
Section 4: Building the Skills and Environment to Process Residue
Internal Protective Factors
Question: What Are You Actively Doing To Influence Your Attitude?
W.D., a Senior Trainer in Naval Special Warfare, believes young Operators need to establish a “Positive Joy Vector” early in their career. The idea is that the energy an individual applies toward the dedication of their occupation must be equal to the energy they apply to personal happiness. There must be a deliberate effort toward the balance between Self, Team, and Family.
Too much energy on any one of the three, the other two will always suffer, and all of them require intentional focus. Without all three, the Operator will be unable to achieve or sustain joy.
Denis Leary notes the balancing act is difficult, but in a job such as acting any and all of your emotions may come into play with every role.
So, it’s easy for it to become a place where you can utilize grief, sorrow, anger etc. in such a way that they are tools which help you to achieve a goal. That’s residue in action. Of course, the downside of that is making sure you keep those emotions close at hand so you can access them. So, a deeply felt personal moment of pain is literally bubbling somewhere on a low flame until you need it to reignite for a day or multiple days or even just a few hours. Denial is the one of the greatest weapons our brains employ. So, for me—in between jobs—I try hard to erase the residue of my most recent role while forcing the residue of my own emotions to linger somewhere inside.
There is an old saying that we cannot fix what we cannot talk about. In the case of residue, in order to talk about it, we first need to develop a shared authentic language to name and acknowledge both our challenges and opportunities, as we need to focus on both positivity and positive affirmation.
To that end it is important to note that in my research, I separate the terms Robust, Resilient and Mindful in the following way:
Robust is the ability to take a hit and not fall down; Resilient is taking the hit and getting right back up; and Mindfulness is about avoiding the hit altogether.
This difference matters because people who are more comfortable in a robust mindset, get hit more. M.A. talks about the fact for most Operators, “speed is security,” and when transitioning back to civilian life, that lack of speed can become stagnation and “insecurity.” In Japanese Zen Buddhism there is the term Shoshin, meaning ‘beginner’s mind’: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few” (Suzuki, 2010).
One of the challenges that Operators face is that they have been judged and rewarded in their career for their answers, not for their questions. The movement from the certainty of knowing an answer, to the ambiguity of the question can be destabilizing. In order to move out of liminality we need to weaponize our curiosity, carefully craft our question and listen deeply to the wisdom of others.
Question: Have You Had Your Chemistry And Sleep Tested?
Referencing his research on the physiology of transition and how our chemistry (hormones) change over time, Coleman Ruiz points out the fact that we cannot address any of the protective factors in isolation. Paddy Steinfort, Director, Performance and Leadership Development for the Philadelphia 76ers, has started to focus on the four major chemicals in the brain that influence our happiness—Dopamine, Endorphins, Oxytocin, and Serotonin.
When Operators spent time on the teams, they had a great deal of structure around accomplishing small and large goals. The constant anticipation of achieving those goals can release dopamine. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter needed to predict rewards and learn how to acquire them. It is key to motivating goal-directed behavior, and its levels increase during anticipation.
The nature of the work, high arousal situations, can lead to increased Endorphins.
The team-based nature of the work, focused on a higher purpose, involves interactions with individuals we trust and value, which releases Oxytocin.
Lastly, one of the biggest predictors of optimism is psychological safety that comes with consistency which positively influences Serotonin—often recognized as the key factor in common cases of depression (relates to levels of optimism or depression) can actually be influenced heavily by what we eat (up to 70% of the levels are influenced by what happens in our gut).
When we have high levels of these chemicals, we are better positioned to resolve our challenges and problems. When these levels are low, we are often not happy, and when they are dangerously low, we do stupid things. As Dr. Josh Gold points out, we must integrate “many levels of information” including exercise, sleep, medications, hydration, nutrition, etc.
The Arousal/Regulatory Systems are the cognitive systems responsible for activating contextually appropriate parts of the brain, while also regulating energy balance and sleep systems. These systems are impacted by states of arousal, circadian rhythms, sleep and wakefulness (Insel et al., 2010).
Question: Are You Working On Improving Your Breathing?
Almost every contributor brought up the importance of breathing, both in life and in transition, because the body is often forgotten. Scott Glenn goes on to explain that “Lately I have been going to breathing, working on patterns and ways of breathing when my mind or feelings go to negative places. You always have your lungs with you, and different ways of breathing can always be improved. With breathing, unlike pushups, you can never hit a limit. You will never un-balance yourself with breath work.” Coleman Ruiz believes that “We can’t get psyched out about what may appear to be mystic approaches to getting back in touch with ourselves. Trauma (again, any kind) separates us from ourselves. It’s of course a natural defense mechanism.”
Things like Pranayama breathing only sound mystical when we don’t know the science behind how the autonomic nervous system interacts with our physiology via the vagus nerve. Even a reasonable understanding of the physiology points to massive benefits via activating (or re-activating in some of our cases) the parasympathetic nervous system (Rama, Ballentine, & Hymes, 1998).”
Dr. Al’ai Alvarez notes that tactical breathing has been used to quickly de-stress and focus on combat and during high performance events. “Emotions have been documented to change breathing patterns and breathing patterns have been documented to change emotions. Controlled patterns of breathing thus can serve as powerful tools to impact and shift emotional states” (Philippot, Chapelle, & Blairy, 2002). Dr. Art Finch points out that breathing, and a focus on breathing, lies at the core of virtually every meditative state/mindfulness process known to man, from a yogi in a box, to a sniper in the zone, to hypnosis, to performance visualization.
Question: How Are You Actively Managing Your Sleep?
M.A. notes that after 8 months outpatient at National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE): “I can testify to the fact that sleep is absolutely the center of gravity. Exercise powers deep and healthy sleep cycles. Hydration & Nutrition powers exercise.” Dr. Finch goes on to say that humans typically experience 4 periods of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep events each night which allows the brain to consolidate memories. It does this by connecting the chronology of new memories with old memories; essentially anchoring the day’s most important events to prior events.
For survivors of traumatic events, such as military combat veterans, this means that relatively benign daily events that occur in an environment composed of military locations, other members of the military, military uniforms, sights, smells, etc., can be linked during REM to previously established memories, which are likely to be more significant memories with a higher emotional valence, such as traumatic/intense combat events. This process is often experienced as “nightmares,” by such individuals upon awakening.
Question: Are You Regularly Pursuing Laughter, Joy And Play?
Every Operator I have ever met, whether a trauma nurse, a SEAL, or a firefighter, shares the habit of always looking to make someone laugh or to laugh themselves. Scott Glenn, citing Rinzai Zen, noted that “suicide is many things, but whatever else, is always a symptom of taking yourself too seriously” (Borup, 2008). Glenn went on to suggest that we “laugh as much as possible, even if it begins by being forced, and spend time with little kids and animals, neither of which have adult agendas and can help you lighten up on yourself and see the clutter of your life for what it is—just clutter. Even if it was once important.”
It also turns out that adults need a certain amount of play: “Exercise or activity engaged in for enjoyment or recreation rather than for a serious or practical purpose; amusement, entertainment, diversion; the spontaneous or organized recreational activity of children” (S. L. Brown, 2009; Simpson & Weiner, 1989).
Question: How Are You Positively Influencing Your Inner Monologue?
It turns out that the voices in our head, sometimes deceptive, are often the loudest. To reprogram these inner monologues of past hurts, regrets, shame, guilt, and anger we need to practice positive self-talk. Research regarding Goal Setting, Arousal Regulation, Mental Imagery and Positive Self Talk have all been shown to be very effective in helping operators reset after a setback (Barwood, 2006). This is not a simple act, as research has also shown that we need to focus on at least three positive thoughts or memories in order to counteract one negative thought or memory (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001).
Question: Are You Mourning Your Losses?
If you work in the world of Mission Critical Teams, you are going to experience loss. It might be the loss of community, the loss of identity, the loss of status, or the loss of a friend. The question is, How can we prepare Operators to manage those losses? One solution might be to better understand the five stages of grief and loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, first described by Kübler-Ross (Kübler-Ross, 1973). Scott Glen talks about letting go of an experience, “In most cases, the next mission (where you are headed next) is waiting to be found or will find you. The more you’ve enjoyed the experience, the more you’ll miss it—the discipline and the joy and the excitement. But it’s done and it’s not coming back.”
Chief David Morkal, in talking about the days after 9/11, getting promoted and dealing with endless funerals and loss: “I remember one day thinking, probably after therapy, that we had all been given a pebble in our shoe that day and it was up to each of us to decide what to do with that pebble. We each had a choice, we could stop walking, leave it there and feel the pain, take it out, clean it up, put it in our pocket, polish it, cherish it, regret it, anything but forget it. Our choice. I still have mine and it reminds me that I am who I am because of that pebble. It didn’t cripple me, I hope it made me a better person in the memory of that “pebble” and the people it represents. Dr. Art Finch goes on to point out that mourning applies not only to the loss of a loved one, but also loss of the tribe, a shared experience, or the “old normal.”
M.A. describing the death of his closest teammate and best friend: “Bluntly, he was shot in the head on a rooftop and I wasn’t there to back him up. I pursued a different path and therefore was not at his side. Plain and simple. No warrior poetry or prose is going to undue that hard reality. Survivor’s guilt is real and it, in my experience, is the densest form of residue. Ultimately, we must embrace our sorrow. We must weep hard. We must draw motivation. We must embrace the family. And most importantly, we mustn’t let ourselves become numb to the idea or feeling of loss or the WHY behind their sacrifice.”
Question: Are You Engaged In An Intentional Mindful Practice?
Dr. Art Finch notes that from a psychological intervention perspective, “mindfulness training” is the approach that seems to have the most helpful impact across breathing, arousal/regulatory systems, sleep, pain, and flow states. It comes in many forms and is a skill that must be learned, practiced, and continually utilized and improved. Dr. Al’ai Alvarez points out that meditation, in the form of the Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has been shown to be successful in pain management (Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, & Burney, 1985). It has the potential to make good people better and injured people healthier.
Dr. Elizabeth “Zab” Johnson, neuroscientist and Executive Director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, points out mindfulness is not the silver bullet, as it still requires action and intent that can prevent our minds from wandering.
The act of mind wandering allows the brain’s default mode network (DMN) (Spreng, 2012) to work on problems that we are struggling with that are important, but that are not necessarily active, externally directed tasks. A growing body of evidence suggests that the DMN is critical for internal focus, such as recollecting one’s past, imagining one’s personal future, social cognition, learning associations, and memory formation—likely aspects of problem-solving, as well. It is why those stories exist of people suddenly having an epiphany on a walk or in a shower.
Question: How Are You Becoming More Self-Aware?
All of these protective factors are predicated on the idea that the Operator must want to engage with them. They must want to learn, to grow, and to better understand themselves. Tom Hardy states: “Knowledge of self is key. In knowing self, in mastering self, it may be journeyed, and indeed is the hardest path, and battlefield, to take.” Coleman Ruiz states, “Probably the largest lesson I’ve learned in working with residue is how open of mind I had to actually be. I’ve always fancied myself an open-minded person but doing this work over the last three years has forced me to a new level of awareness and recognition of how much I didn’t know about any of these concepts. The first thing I learned was that it wasn’t just me. I didn’t have a “problem,” and I wasn’t broken.” Dr. Josh Gold notes that self-awareness includes wanting to improve, but it also includes knowing specific weaknesses that need improvement.
How we can cope will depend on addressing those specific assumptions and skills. In An Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine says, “the people who are most resilient, and find the most peace in their lives, have learned to tolerate extreme sensations while gaining the capacity for reflective self-awareness” (Levine, 2010). The problem is that self-awareness requires work, and as Dr. Art Finch points out, that is not a question of cognitive horsepower, as much as the intellectual curiosity to continue to make meaning of your evolving lived experience.
That process, as Reverend Sue Phillips notes, cannot be made just once or in isolation, but requires ongoing encounters with one’s own story as it connects to other people’s story, ancestors, texts, and wisdom lessons.
Question: What Do People See When They Watch You?
To this point, M.A. notes that after 20 years in Military Special Operations, “I have experienced eight close friends/teammates Killed In Action (countless others injured), suicides, overdose, and military punishment for conduct. Unbecoming has infested the SOCOM culture.” It was only after urging from his wife, and seeing others he trusted go through the program, that he enrolled in the NICoE to address his mental health. Part of the reason for doing so was to send a signal to his subordinates that they have a duty to look after themselves. “Ultimately you have to determine what it is that makes me hold others in high regard, and they to hold me in high regard.”
Question: How Are You Actively Practicing Self-Compassion?
Dr. Al’ai Alvarez introduced me to Kristen Neff’s research on self-compassion—which consists of three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness (Neff, 2011). Dr. Alvarez goes on to point out that the dual nature of sacrifice and always striving to be the best can be challenging because of the difference between self-compassion and narcissism. The former allows us to be self-forgiving and self-tolerant. It’s also not self-pity, which is a form of narcissism (Jinpa, 2016). The author Thupten Jinpa argues that self-compassion is tough to train.
Researchers have discovered that achievement-dependent self-esteem makes us vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy and failure when things don’t unfold as expected. Some researchers offer evidence that the pursuit of self-esteem may hinder learning, specifically learning from our mistakes. When our purpose in doing something is the validation we anticipate from positive results – running for the sake of winning and feeling like a winner, say, instead of running because it’s good for us, it helps us manage our depression, and it’s a nice day outside – we are not well equipped to deal with negative results. Then when failure and disappointment confront us, as inevitably they will, we feel personally threatened by them. Either we pretend that everything is fine (denial), or we go to the other extreme and judge ourselves harshly. (Jinpa, 2016)
Dr. Alvarez goes on to say that self-compassion allows one to name shame and move past its crippling effects. Even in training, imposter syndrome is greatly affected by lack of self-compassion. Feeling inferior to colleagues is brought upon by the negative self-talk associated with lack of self-compassion, constantly answering, “Am I good enough?” Self-compassion, we’ve seen, not only is protective from burnout, it also provides a means to overcome burnout. Coleman Ruiz, referencing What It’s Like To Go To War, notes that compassion must be elicited consciously in warfare, or, many years later, “all the jammed wiring starts coming loose” (Marlantes, 2011).
Question: What Are You Actively Doing To Reflect On Your Lived Experience?
Shaun Huls, in working with both transitioning Operators and professional athletes, notes that structured journaling can be a profound way to make meaning of your evolving life. By putting emotions on paper, you make them real. You can ask questions like “Why did I lose my friend?” and “What was it all for?” in a private personal context. M.A. notes that, “just writing my thoughts/feelings down was deeply helpful for me as it helped me translate thoughts into words and practice communicating in a more academic framework, albeit most of my ramblings were stream of consciousness.” It is also true, as Dr. Art Finch notes, MCTs often have high rates of ADHD, so traditional journaling can be tough to adopt.
Question: Are You Interacting Regularly With The Natural Environment?
Many contributors pointed at time spent in wilderness as a protective factor. Jelani Hale would often spend several days alone in the wilderness backpacking, camping, hiking, etc. after getting back from deployment to ground him and help him reflect.
Over 40 years of research showing that experiences of nature are linked to a remarkable breadth of positive health outcomes. This includes improved physical health, lower mortality from cardio-vascular disease, improved self-perceived general health, improved mental wellbeing, greater social wellbeing, and promotion of positive health behaviors. (Shanahan et al., 2016)
Dr. Finch goes on to say that this works well, and is often absolutely necessary for the more introverted Operators. Truly extroverted Operators will be miserable, unless they have at least one other person with them.
Question: What Is Your Personal Mythology And How Is It Evolving?
Beyond just the stories that we tell about ourselves, each of us has a personal mythology (Feinstein & Krippner, 1988), a deep sense and conviction of who we really are. What can become challenging is when that mythology needs to evolve. Operators have had diverse experiences even before joining the teams and we cannot minimize the fact that all of us are a sum of our own history. In order for protective factors to work, we will need to identify the personal mythologies that contribute to self-destruction.
Tom Hardy says, “One needs to dig a little deeper. And each individual will have their own story, the pre-journey that their professional journey and narrative is built upon. Or what are we running from? Where are we running to? What unresolved and often deeply pedestrian pains have we covered up with the pursuit of whatever that brings us here now?”
J.R. states, “A person’s starting point, their past experience, matters. Grounded people seem to have collected more residue and can still be effective. Those with less grounding or sense of bigger self (whatever that is) struggle more with less residue. Not absolute, but the norm for sure. Once on the team, if the idea of being an Operator defines you, at some point your world is going to change abruptly and you will crash.
Harry Moffit goes on to note that, “how you define yourself matters, and if all you are is your title, you will have a challenge when you no longer have that title.” M.A.: “I think most Operators believe they should take on the persona of the wounded, salty, slightly mentally damaged, road weary nomad. Not that they want sympathy but they also want their “character” to reflect the cost and the miles on them even if they appear in physical tip top shape. I have broken bones from blasts, spinal injuries, gunshot wounds, and my organs are discombobulated from overpressure, but I don’t showcase any of that on the outside.” As the Operator transitions, N.D. asks, “How do we help Operators craft their personal mythology?”
Question: What Are The Stories You Are Telling Yourself And Others?
All Mission Critical Teams share a culture of storytelling, so the story of one’s life, the narrative, is really important. As the professional Irish story teller Clare Muireann Murphy notes, all stories have “bones,” those essential moments that are required for the story to make sense. The question is whether Operators have the skills to determine what bones to use to tell the story of who they are.
The structure of these stories is strengthened when they are told in what Steve Jackson describes as an intimate environment absent from fear—where laughter from hearing the story and the resulting joy that comes from telling the story help guide the narrative framework.
Murphy goes on to say, “Carrying a story can be heavy work. For me, there is a limit on how many stories I can carry. After a while I have to retire certain stories, to give my psyche space to breathe. If there is no release valve, then the stories build up and create tension.” As Dr. Art Finch, and Reverend Sue Phillips reference, the act of telling a story, which requires listeners and witnesses and being listened to, relieves some of that tension. As part of this, Murphy believes it is essential to open and close the story telling space in a ritualistic fashion to allow her psyche to know that that story has come to an end.
Dr. Al’ai Alvarez goes on to say that one strategy for dealing with that is Narrative Medicine (Charon, 2001), to help tell the story beyond the data. With the slant toward introversion within Operator populations, we often have more lurkers and listeners than we have storytellers. In our modern and more isolated social network environment, organizations like membership in the VFW, bowling leagues, and other fraternal organizations are on a significant decline. What replaces/can replace these story-telling forums?
Chief David Morkal notes:
When working in the firehouse, whenever we would go to a fire, we would come back and after cleaning up, we would sit around the kitchen table and talk about the fire. What did you do, what happened, what did you see? This was an informal debrief and it let us process things that could affect us without us even knowing it did. It let us process our first child victim, or first “roast,” or first near-death experience. When we started doing more medical calls, we would come back from the medical call and go back to the rack, or back to whatever we were doing before the call. There was no sitting around the kitchen table. I realized, as a firefighter, this was not healthy when we had 5 DOAs in 5 tours in a row. The residue from the EMS runs was never processed out.
Question: What Is Your Expertise? Is It Evolving?
Learning the new rules of a new environment is a long term and deliberate game that requires patience. Being an expert learner is more valuable than being an expert. Shaun Huls notes that many Operators walk around with little notebooks constantly developing a task list. They feel good when they cross off an item. The question then becomes, What is the new task list? What motivates you? Could you take pleasure in being a great janitor?
By and large, Operators are experts at becoming experts; over time, they have weaponized their curiosity. How do we refocus that skill? For people who have been judged on their performance for years, How do they now judge what great performance might be? If you pride yourself on knowing the right answer, what happens when you don’t? What happens, when it is now your job to ask questions?
Question: What Are You Intentionally Learning?
It can be any new skill, as long as it’s not too easy: a language, designing something, a new sport. Denis Leary notes that as part of his transition process he will also spend time writing and reading. “This gets your mind off of the part and scenes you just played—the emotional world you just lived in and helped to create—and points you toward new roles and new emotional spaces.” It is important to understand that when a person learns, they are literally modifying their neural architecture. It is about changing both behaviors and beliefs which allow new ways of thinking, or living.
N.D. notes that all good Operators require some degree of adaptation or adaptive thinking to be successful. I have often noticed that the Operators that struggle the most during their transition are the ones that stop learning, that plateau, or get stuck in old ways.
Learning is also about uncovering deeper truths. Tom Hardy states, “The Unconscious never lies. Trusting that is key. Knowing its intricacies takes time, and for that, one must come off the line for extended periods to gain a deeper wisdom. Inevitably, to begin the new fight.”
Scott Glenn experienced this process of adaptive thinking riding an 850 lb. Harley Davidson cruiser bike at parade pace (very slowly). “What was great about that was that it requires behavior that is counter-intuitive; it requires complete attention and as much relaxation as possible.” What Glenn is describing is a type of deep, generative learning that works to rewire the schema and heuristics in the brain (Wittrock, 1992). N.D. points at the historical importance of non-martial hobbies in martial societies.
It is reported that in ancient Sparta the second most valued skill in a man, after martial prowess, was his singing ability (Pressfield, 1999). “This is interesting as I think it likely contributes to the type of solitude and contemplation that brings meaning, value, and growth to suffering.” Jelani Hale also comments on the importance of learning a new skill, “Many martial cultures encourage non-martial hobbies (painting, calligraphy, tea ceremony). I seemed to notice that the guys who had hobbies outside of work seemed to be better able to cope post deployment. It may have had a similar grounding effect. I was fortunate to have plenty of friends and interests outside of NSW, and I was able to stay fairly balanced.”
External Protective Factors
Question: What Are You Doing To Stay Active?
Denis Leary relies heavily on hockey to help him decompress, as it is serious physical activity that involves the brain and the body. Getting out onto the ice several times a week—where speed, physical contact, and possible bodily harm are a constant given—often does the trick. “Hockey does not allow you to think about anything except what is going on in the game–otherwise you’ll get crushed.” Many contributors have referenced hiking, fishing, biking, skiing, singing, horseback riding, yoga, etc.
Question: What Is Your Craft?
There is a Zen Proverb that states, “ Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water” (Suzuki, 2010). There are certain truths only revealed in the practice of precise skilled workmanship, whether it is wood working, knife making, bonsai tree curation, or any craft or art. S.B. talks about his ownership of a 20-acre property and the fact that “there is always something to do or tie up my mind and focus my efforts. It challenges me both physically and mentally and tends to shift my attention to the now and the desired outcome of the activity I am engaged with and thus fades the memories and loss which I strongly believe continues to assist my now.” He goes on to talk about the profit of a hard day’s work. “The only advice I can offer is to get those people busy both mentally and physically in an activity where they can see the desired goal and once achieved, feel proud of what they obtained, thus strengthening their mind and body.”
Question: What Are Your Rituals?
There are reasons that religious rituals, birthdays, and weddings have endured for hundreds of years. The structure, the certainty, the touchstone of predictability can be a comfort in times of uncertainty (Bell, 1997; Turner, 1995). Jelani Hale, in talking about the loss of team member, asks, “What is the best way to honor a lost friend? Many of my colleagues were never able to say goodbye to a friend or attend a funeral, and as a result they never had closure and the loss continued to eat away at them.” Shaun Huls also asks, “What is the right ritual for closure?” In addition, what role should ritual play at the end of a deployment or after an intense experience? Briefly, it should be noted that whatever ritual exists must be created, and made sacred, by the community that utilizes the ritual (Van Gennep, 2011).
Coleman Ruiz believes that without reinstating rituals and ceremony, without mentors, elders, and expectations set, one cannot effectively process residue. Dr. Al’ai Alvarez points to ritual as a form of connection and a sense of community. Harry Moffit is one of many contributors to point toward surfing as a significant protective factor: “I used to go for a surf the day prior to deployment, shitty waves or not, and say goodbye to the beach as I drove away and hope I would be back for a wave soon … then not long after we got home, I would go for a wave, shitty waves or not, and when I jumped in I knew I was home and safe. Indeed, we used to go for a wave as a team in the same way on many occasions . . .”
Dr. Art Finch describes rituals as bookmarks, or lines in time that mark a point of departure in some process. The ceremony itself is a bundle of traditions that set a bookmark and transition point in life that validates and endorses the relationship and typically brings together “tribes,” where the grey beards can enlighten the younger generation. But rituals must be organic and meaningful to the participants.
Jelani Hale goes on to ask, “What is the best way to turn off the warrior mindset, and return to the peacetime mindset?” Many I know continue to maintain their warrior mindset after they come home, and I imagine that over time, that will have a very negative effect on the central nervous system and psychological state.
Denis Leary says:
The act of letting go of a character or job has a lot to do with the clothing and especially any props that belong to the character, a gun, a ring, a watch, a tee shirt or a pair of shoes, that acts to remind me every single morning that I am playing someone else. It becomes a touchstone that helps me drop into the zone each day. So, when the shoot is all over—after that final day of work—I can take it off and know I’m back to civilian life.
When I played Tommy Gavin on Rescue Me for seven years, his bunker gear and helmet were real touchstones for me. The last time I peeled them off felt like the day I let that character go and returned to being myself. Of course, that job carried the weight of many friends and a family member who were firefighters and had given their lives in the line of duty. So, the day Tommy Gavin turned in his gear was a day of mourning on several levels for me.
Because I was able to deal with my grief over losing those guys in such a direct fashion on that show—as a writer and as an actor. But I also loved playing the character. That was a very complicated process—playing him off and on for seven years and finally letting him go. Took a long time.
Reverend Sue Phillips goes on to imagine Operators being lovingly released from their oaths and their service, by the people they were committed to in the first place. Imagine his/her family/civilian community ritually welcoming them back. Rites of Passage safeguard and support threshold moments. There need be no abandonment of one’s previous self to move into another phase, or emphasize another part of oneself. Rites of passage ritualize, formalize, encourage, ennoble, and invite the community to participate in an individual’s movement from one way of being to another.
Question: How Are You Creating Connection And Belonging?
Jeff Tiegs, former U.S. Army Special Operations, and now leading veteran Operators to combat human trafficking with Guardian Group, believes that we will forego basic essentials for moments of Love and Belonging. “Operators will suffer immensely for our tribe, and it is the tribe that reinforces our self-esteem, which is based in honor, integrity, reputation.” Reverend Sue Phillips identifies three needs of the soul:
· Belonging: Being fully Known and fully loved.
· Becoming: Growing our capacity to become the people we are called to be.
· Beyond: Experiencing ourselves as part of something more.
Reverend Phillips explains that belonging requires an outward need of psychological security and an inward provision for self-compassion. It turns out that at the edge of things, some problems cannot be resolved in the absence of love. Of both loving someone and being loved in return.
Dr. Al’ai Alvarez believes that it is the role of mentors and coaches to normalize the feeling of isolation and to encourage development of self-compassion in order to create connection to a community. Reverend Phillips references the concept of Eldership, of taking on the role of the community elders. M.A. then asks, “What happens when you surround yourself with what you view as mediocre performers after decades with high performers? Part of transition is understanding that you will never replicate the caliber of teammates you left, but that you can harness your leadership skills to shepherd your new teammates to excellence.”
Question: How Are You Balancing Your Solitude With Connection?
Coleman Ruiz notes that upon return home, “I found myself outside of my tribe, and dropped into a foreign country (civilian community), wondering what the new rules were. To make matters worse, I didn’t know what type of rules to look for. The rules of a stable, non-physically threatening environment weren’t believable at first.” This “lack of rules,” when what’s permitted or not permitted simply isn’t clear anymore, is referred to as Anomi—which can often lead to alienation, or being “isolated or estranged,” either intentionally or unintentionally. Ruiz comments that “alienation in transition is being constrained by the social system you don’t fully understand while induced or encouraged to act in ways that go against your goals.” The challenge is that returning Operators have no way to describe their experiences, and so isolate to try and make meaning. The problem, as Shaun Huls notes, “Isolation is Bad.”
Dr. Alvarez makes an important distinction between solitude and isolation:
As a physician, I need solitude at times to recharge and gather my thoughts. Isolation or loneliness differs from solitude in that it is a form of solitude plus avoidance of connection due in part to shame. From a physician standpoint, isolation or loneliness happens after key events: a medical error, a death, patient complaint, litigation, or more commonly, simply being involved in resuscitation or care of an emotionally charged case. We take this home. This is referred to as the second victim phenomenon (SVP) or the second trauma phenomenon. SVP happens regardless of whether there’s medical error, complaint, or litigation, and may lead to isolation because the physician is not able to reach out for help because of the shame they are feeling. Shame, it seems, is the core of isolation.
M.A. believe that alienation is the number one cause of depression in returning servicemembers. This is a direct result of the incongruency between the positive and the negative of the lived experience. The excitement of returning home, while also knowing that you are headed right back out sooner than later, which never allows for closure. “Every time we hit turbulence on a plane ride, I take my wife’s hand that is dripping with sweat and tell her it’s going to be okay. Without fail she turns to me with concern and asks why I don’t reflect her same concern. I feel alien. I couldn’t muster the fear if I tried. Part of me wishes I could regain that fear.”
Dr. Art Finch also notes that isolation and alienation are magnified because Operators tend to skew toward the introverted side of the personality spectrum. Introverts are less skilled at accurately tracking social and interpersonal cues, so they need to actively elicit feedback from significant others. “When you leave a social interaction, tell your significant other what you thought was happening during the exchange, then ask them what they saw and thought. It will most likely be different from yours. If so, you are wrong, and you should believe their observations.”
Question: How Are You Intentionally Maintaining Your Family Bonds?
Jelani Hale and Denis Leary both talk about spending a lot of time with family and friends to get back into real time and real life to help process the residue. This is obvious but often overlooked. Hale states that “Most develop really strong bonds with their fellow Operators, and these bonds are different and often more intense/fun/exciting than the bonds created with family. I always tried to prioritize family over work when I got home. I took all of my vacation (and more). I did not volunteer for every cool lock picking or race car driving school right after a deployment. I visited extended family whenever possible.”
Coleman Ruiz notes the mixed messages, as family time is often a call to slow down, to rest, to take care of themselves for once. They often just do not know how and need outside support, which they do not know how to ask for. M.A. talks about family as the great neutralizer, the people who can instantly disarm the cloak of invisibility and peel away the curtain to reveal the whole engine churning away. They may not see the residue, but they are the best gauge to benchmark and run diagnostics on you. They definitely should know when the “check engine light” comes on.
Dr. Art Finch points out that families are the single setting where Operators can be as uncompartmentalized, anxious, and vulnerable as they will ever be. It can be very therapeutic, as long as the family can tolerate it.
Loss of family is one of the most significant, yet common casualties in the life of an Operator. For more introverted personalities, being around family can be highly stressful. The stress comes from the pressure of interacting with multiple people in close proximity for extended periods of time.
The stress is elevated by the realization that they are becoming stressed out, by the very people they are supposed to love unconditionally and whom they believe they should always want to be around. At times, just slipping away for a drive or a movie by themselves is sufficient to break through the stress. The Operator’s high level of emotional compartmentalization can make them seem “cold, detached, and inaccessible to family members.” Low anxiety and mismatched anxiety can cause great stress in Operator family relationships. When a family member is stressed about something and the Operator is not, then that family member will do things to elevate the Operator’s anxiety until they are compelled to respond or act.
Question: What Is Your Third Thing?
The Third Place are the locations in our lives that separate us from the two usual social environments of home (“first place”) and the workplace (“second place”). Places like wilderness, gyms, cafes, clubs, churches, libraries, etc. (Oldenburg, 1989; Putnam, 2000). Shaun Huls, along with many contributors, believe that Operators need multiple hobbies—woodworking, gardening, leading youth groups—to separate work from home life. Harry Moffit believes that one of the reasons his transition went smoother than others is because in addition to being an Operator, he was always part of a rock and roll band (The Externals, an amazing Australian SAS rock band) made of people outside of the team and 20 years with a football and cricket club. “I have a whole other habitat full of trusted and lifelong mates who are completely different, but exactly the same as my Operator mates.” Dr. Art Finch agrees that the Operators who struggle the most with transition are the ones for whom the military, team, and rank were their whole world. In addition, those who seem to struggle the most are those whose family members wear the Operator’s career and status as their own: “Well, I’m the Command Sargent Major’s wife!”
Question: What Are You In Service To?
Operators need goals and purpose. Dr. Josh Gold, in referencing issues of cognitive control, notes that Operators constantly need to accurately represent, update and maintain their goals. Coleman Ruiz comments that “alienation emerges primarily from a misalignment of your personal values and how best to use them in impacting the people around you. The two questions I often ask myself today is ‘Who do you want to help?’ and ‘What do you want to learn?’ This helps to give me tremendous clarity and direction.”
Dr. Al’ai Alvarez notes that for stress to be enhancing, rather than stressful, the Operator must be in service to something greater than themselves (Dweck, 2008; McGonigal, 2016).
This perspective often allows people to experience a stress such as negative feedback as a way to move toward the larger goal rather than just personal criticism. Dr. Art Finch goes on to note that Operators who are able to receive negative feedback in the civilian world are able to become more comfortable allowing emotions and anxiety to better inform and influence their decision-making as leaders, rather than avoiding the perceived intrusion. “In my mind, this has always been ‘residue’ being metabolized into ‘wisdom.’”
Organizations like Team Rubicon (https://teamrubiconusa.org/) were founded on the idea of continued service, and have positively impacted thousands of Veterans. Scott Glenn noted that in between films “…volunteering for anything that serves something other than yourself” has been really helpful to his transitions. Glenn describes entering a character: “For me it all boils down to finding the bare bones of the character—this is about re-entry, coming back to neutral, and understanding that the mission of your life has changed.” As he transitions out of the role, however, Glenn describes the downside of the transition: “Because I no longer have the security or structure, no longer have that special purpose to wake up with or go to sleep with.” Shaun Huls notes that Operators don’t want charity, they want challenge. They miss being dangerous, of having skin in the game, meaning, and significance.