“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” (George
If there is one thing we can all agree quarantine has taught us, it’s that isolation and loneliness
can be debilitating. Though technology has flattened the world and allowed for communication
to occur across oceans and in real-time, we often confuse phatic communication and staying
connected via social media with deep, meaningful interpersonal communication and healthy,
unfiltered relationships. If you want to retain a resilient mind, strong relationships are a part of
that, and it’s important to keep relationships strong with authentic, unbridled communication.
When the stressors of war are left untold and the warrior compartmentalizes the trauma,
which in turn develops into destructive, dangerous emotions and resultant maladaptive
behaviors on coping skills. I’m talking about the behaviors we often turn a blind eye to in the
special operations community; specifically, aggressiveness, dissociative behaviors, substance
abuse, violence, risky sexual escapades, self-medicating, and suicidal ideations. We see this
happening everywhere, on every team, in every Special Forces group and across the special
operations community. In fact, these behaviors are so prevalent that we accept it as normal
and chalk it up to being part of the personality and behaviors of the select few men who are
qualified enough to carry out the violence that war demands.
The problem is, that after the deployment is over and the men are sent home, the issues don’t
go away. In fact, the issues often worsen and tear families’ apart, strain friendships, and lead to
loneliness and severe depression. There is something we can do about it, however. It’s time we
bring a new fight to the community; communicating the tough realities, truths, and emotions
that come home from combat.
The military excels at training warriors for war preparation and warfighting, but where it lacks is
in its ability to train for war repair and asking for help. The destruction left in the aftermath of
war does not remain thousands of miles away on the battlefield, but rather it follows the
combat veteran home and wreaks havoc on their mind, body, and relationships; leaving a wake
of destruction that leads to social isolation, dissociation, damaged relationships, and
exacerbated posttraumatic stress symptoms. The warrior and their family must learn to
communicate deeply and with reciprocity if they wish to win the “fight” at home and maintain
strong, health bonds which will in turn protect them from psychopathological diagnoses and
distressing symptoms caused from combat as well.
There are many protective factors that can act as buffers to risk factors for combat derived
mental health issues. One of those protective factors being the family unit, such as supportive
and loving spouses, parents, and children. Furthermore, there are three elements that
contribute to family resiliency: family’s belief systems (i.e., type of meaning making and
appraisals of situations), organizational patterns (i.e., degree of flexibility, cohesiveness, and
leadership), and communication processes (i.e., ability for open communication, collaborative
problem solving, and use of humor). These factors are some warriors and families can work to
improve and control in order to help alleviate risk factors for PTSD, depression, anxiety, and
moral injury post combat or traumatic exposure. A strong, healthy family is one that is able to
cope and tolerate conflict, adapt to adverse circumstances, and place an emphasis on each
individual’s needs within the family. In order to hone these skills, it is critical the family learns
communication and acceptance of each other, at whatever phase of emotions and life they are
As comrades, friends, family, spouses, we need to come to the realization that mental health
injuries will require just as much support and encouragement as an amputation would. It will
require several doctor and specialty care visits, therapy, “bandage changes”, and lifestyle
adjustments. There will be ups and downs, setbacks, frustrations, rock bottom, adapting,
recovery, and triumph, all in the journey of creating a “new normal”. For the family members;
just like you wouldn’t walk out on your Soldier if they were shot, you shouldn’t give up on them
when they are suffering from PTSD, TBI, depression, or substance abuse (as a result of war)
Increased communication will furthermore aid in the processing the greatest stressors a warrior
faces: death. Grief and loss are traumatic events in and of themselves. Death is considered one of
the most stressful life events to experience. Grief is an acceptable and necessary emotion
following tragic outcomes, and loss needs to be processed. Every SOF Soldier who has deployed
has faced it on some level or another, so it’s time we get real about dealing with grief.
When we don’t process our emotions correctly or deal with them in healthy ways, we tend to
triangulate our frustrations onto whomever we’re around. Lashing out at our spouse, or snapping
at our kids, mouthing off to our teammates; these inappropriate or disproportionate emotional
responses are due to built-up suppression of extremely difficult emotions we are harboring. Like
any pressure cooker that’s not properly vented, the steam and hot air will force its way out
anyway it can if it’s not regulated. Unfortunately, for family members this can easily be the straw
that breaks the camel’s back. Having to be around a seemingly angry, unappreciative, or
emotionally labile SPECOPs veteran is extremely stressful and often internalized or
misunderstood by spouses; which leads to failed marriages or miserable relationships. If you can
get control of your emotions, you take back control of your life.
Processing grief allows for better emotional intelligence and emotional regulation (control).
Having a sense of healthy emotional regulation will benefit not just your own mind, but your
interpersonal relationships and communication as well. Having a healthy, common emotional
language helps communication, which as we know is the key to strong relationships. Which
consequently, will help you through your grief. Both the SOF Soldier and his family need to
learn how to clearly define the difficulties they are facing and implement effective solutions, as
well as ways to handle the day-to-day challenges related to deployment and the SOF lifestyle. Do
this while recognizing and building upon your existing strengths to save your relationships and
move forward through loss together.
After deployments, when the dust settles, is when the hard work really begins. That’s when ready
or not, you need to talk about the grief experiences. You have to deal with the longer-term issues.
Sometimes, talking about things that anger you isn’t cathartic, it can be perseverating and more
upsetting. Albeit, venting about grief will be releasing and therapeutic. Moreover, it will open
you up to your loved ones who are often blind to the internal struggle you are carrying on your
own. Achieving catharsis through communication, journaling, or self-authoring can vastly
improve one’s outlook, emotional regulation, and overall wellbeing. Finding the emotional
release that works for you may take some time, but ultimately it will help to overcome
maladaptive coping mechanisms, distressing mental health symptoms, and even grief and loss.
Recognizing the grief emotions and how they are all juxtaposed and intertwined in your mind
along with other mental health injuries will help in the healing process. Just as we often state,
“know your enemy and it will help you kill him”, you need to know your mind in order to help
yourself. The emotions you’re struggling through and suffering from are complicated and when
you’ve got comorbid issues, it can be difficult or daunting to imagine a solution. However, if you
understand each and every symptom and the etiology of it, we can begin to tackle one thing at
time. Giving you a greater chance to heal.
So, what tools do we as warriors and families need to pack in our “aid bags” that will keep us
resilient in times of adversity? The first step in preparedness is understanding the importance
communication has in maintaining and strengthening relationship bonds. Enforcing meaningful
conversation before, during, and after deployments will not only build deeper interpersonal
relationships but help serve as abreaction for combat warriors. Contrary to the Masculine
Warrior Paradigm, which assumes there is no asking for help or displays of emotion in being an
alpha male, uber masculine warrior, communicating your fears, guilt, grief, loss, sadness, and
love is cathartic and will actually build your mind up to be stronger and more resilient during
combat and for many years after.
After war, the entire family unit needs to adapt to new roles and understand how their old
roles are affected under the strain of war and injury post deployment. Families will have to
learn to work together under stress and believe me this level of stress rivals that of a fight fire.
It’s a new, nasty stress that rains down on everyone involved. It is important that as hard as it
is, you continue communicating about your individual struggles and needs. Your family
members are not mind readers; therefore, you NEED to be honest and forthcoming, or it
creates a worse atmosphere in your home. Coping, communication, and family cohesion will
help tremendously in the fight against the war in our heads.
Demands of military life are extraordinary, especially for SOF Soldiers. It creates a strain on
everyone in the family unit. Just like “it takes a village to raise a child”, it also takes a village to
heal a veteran. The whole family unit needs to be onboard and step up to the plate in
understanding what comes after combat. They need to be able to be your home front “battle
buddy”, and part of that is ensuring they are taking care of themselves in the process.
So, where the hell do we start? Here are a few TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) you
- Develop a LOC (line of communication). Find someone within the SOF community with
whom you can talk openly and honestly. I guarantee more of your comrades than you
realize are going through the same thing. Who knows, maybe you will end up helping
them out too.
- Make contact. You can achieve this by starting a discussion with your spouse, family
members, close friends, or even an online forum. I am not saying you have to tell them
all your deepest darkest secrets, hell, you don’t even have to talk to them about your
mental status. Just add more people to your list of those you can call or write and just
shoot the shit with; because being lonely is a dangerous thing my friends.
- Find a stress relieving outlet. Be it working out, yoga, mindfulness, volunteering,
journaling, self-authoring, and so on. Distract your mind from the pain by developing
new hobby that keep you interested, motivated, and excited about your day to day
routine. Monotony is the killer here. Things like a gratitude journal or a vision board can
help give you new meaning and something to look forward to. It will also help establish
new, achievable goals that help you escape from a stagnant mind. Journaling especially
can provide a much-needed relief, and even help you prepare for having hard
conversations with those you’d like to share your thoughts with. Bleed your emotions
out onto some empty notebook paper and achieve relief and self-reflection.
- Lastly, have a PACE plan. Call military OneSource and talk, go for a walk or get away
from whatever is triggering your destructive mindset, watch your favorite TV show, do
anything (healthy) that “saves you” in that moment and can distract you/improve your
mood. Figure out what that “thing is” that calms you down in your dark moments and
have a plan of action to deploy it when needed.
These tools may seem basic, elementary, or questionable to you. How are these truly going to
help you? Well, they are all about creating new habits, which form new neuropathways, which
overtime will make it easier to default to constructive thinking, actions, and behaviors. You
literally have to rewire your brain. Teach yourself a new SOP (standard operating procedure) for
handling your emotions, which lead to actions and behaviors. Think back to any infantry or SOF
course you’ve attended. Do you remember the redundant tasks you had to do, like practicing
magazine changes? Maybe you thought to yourself, “When the fuck can I fire my weapon?
That’s what I need to practice!” True, but you also need to practice the basics, like magazine
changes, to create muscle memory that your mind will default on under fire. Practicing the
abovementioned skills can be thought of as a similar practice. Do them until they become so
routine and so natural that they replace what’s routine (but destructive) now.
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Death is always a surprise. No one expects it. Not even terminal patients think they are going to die in a day or two. In a week, maybe. But only when this particular week is the n