This weekend as I spent time intentionally considering Veterans, my thoughts circulated around the mental and emotional health of those who have served. My husband was only in the military for 6 short years. And although his job in air traffic control was stressful, he never had to deploy or experience the trauma that many military men and women do. When he transitioned out of the military, we had family and a strong support system to help us adjust to civilian life. The transition wasn't without stress, but it was manageable. For many Veterans, however, the stress is more than they can manage. Their support systems are weak or nonexistent. They don't know where to ask for help. Many don't even recognize that they need help. This time of contemplation led me to reach out to a friend in North Iowa who understands this issue well, both personally and professionally. I'd like to share an excerpt from something he (Major Gabriel Haugland) wrote before diving in to this conversation:
"Serving in the military has changed me in profound ways, sorta like it does when you get married or become a Dad. First, you swear an oath to something greater than yourself, or any man, or any party - you swear an oath to the Constitution - and it changes you. Then you go to basic training and get yelled at for four months. They take away your hair, your food, your sleep, and anything that might make you comfortable. You learn that you can do with less. You miss your friends and family - and it changes you. After that you go to your first unit. For me, that meant showing up to the hardest unit in the Iowa Guard, full of Ranger-tabbed sergeants who just came back from deployment. If you screw up, and I did, they put you in front of the formation as the guidon bearer as the platoon sergeant demands better safety procedures from the unit during the next airborne operation. You were the idiot who almost lost his arm for wrapping it around the static line. He doesn’t say your name and embarrass you, but you get it - and it changes you. Then maybe you go on a deployment. It’s your first, but for most of the men you’re asked to lead, it’s their second or third. They’re not rattled, you are. You experience the culture shock of the Middle East. You sit on the side of a mountain on an international border at dusk and hear the call to prayer. You learn what it sounds like to be shot at, and how hard it is to stay calm when someone’s trying to kill you. You learn that most Muslims want to live in peace, but it’s complicated. How would you feel if they were here, telling you how screwed up your country is? And then, you lose a friend. You weren’t there. You broke your leg playing basketball and came home early. But that means you’re able to go to his funeral and console his mother and tell her that he was reading “Can a Christian be a Soldier” by Martin Luther - and it changes you. You move on, re-branch, learn a new skill. You’re an Army lawyer now. You learn how to help conduct investigations, and how important discipline is for a military unit. But you also learn nuance. You see men and women who deployed come back and make mistakes trying to deal with the stress of having lived a life of stress for a year - you prosecute them, you defend them, you help them, but you see human frailty and error up close and personal. It’s hard to watch - and again, it changes you. And then you take a somewhat unpopular job in the military (at the time) and you start working with survivors of sexual trauma. A lot of folks are skeptical. “It’s just day-after regret.” “She’s known for this.” “She’s a trouble-maker.” But you watch a client and her husband weep after a panel of officers removes her perpetrator - someone believed her - and again, it changes you. Military life is hard. It’s hard on the family. It’s hard on the individual. It changes all of us in some way or another - and not all of them good. But one thing I know, I’ve learned that I love the brave souls who raised their hands as 18 or 19 year old kids to serve their country during a time of war. They really didn’t know what they were getting into. I’ve learned our Veterans need continuing care and respect after they’re out..."
Photo: Gabe Haugland visiting the memorial by the CLFD with his son, Nick.
What are the needs among our Veterans? What role do we play in meeting the needs?
These are the questions I sought to answer in interviewing Major Gabriel (Gabe) Haugland this morning. Gabe is the Upper Midwest Regional Special Victims Council for the U.S. Army/Iowa Drill Guardsman. He is currently serving a 3-year active duty tour in this role, representing survivors of military sexual trauma. Gabe and I spent the majority of our conversation discussing how chronic stress impacts our military personnel. We discussed the occurrence of PTSD, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues that are frequently brought on due to the stresses of military service and during the transition from military service to civilian life.
Gabe shared that in his 15 years of service, he has seen how military life as a whole "can be a very stressful experience." He added that he believes the armed forces are doing a better job now of "understanding how much stress we are putting on our people. And we're doing a better job of figuring out how to address it." Gabe explained that it is not usually an isolated incident that leads to a mental health fallout, but rather the cumulative stress of being in the military. One way that the military is addressing the chronic stress crisis is through mandatory mental health resilience training for its member. The training raises awareness about how the military lifestyle is prone to chronic stress. The training also teaches how to recognize warning signs of mental illness fallout as well as skills for reversing destructive thinking patterns. I was encouraged to hear that mental health was at least being discussed.
Another topic of our conversation was access to services. While active duty military members have access to full health services, many Veterans struggle to get the help they need. Gabe shared that although services are available, "many Veterans are hesitant to seek services at the VA as there seems to be a stigma associated with VA healthcare options." He continued, "As a result, Veterans often end up very isolated." Feeling saddened (and a bit overwhelmed) by this reality, I asked Gabe to share some ways that we (as civilians) can help military families, and especially help those who have transitioned to Veteran status.
The top suggestion he offered me is to reduce the stigma and stereotypes that are often attached to military men and women and Veterans. These men and women are regular people just like you and I. They simply have experiences that may be a little different than the civilian experience. He also shared the importance of creating a culture of transparency and community. "We've all struggled. There have been times we've all needed help. We need to remove the blame and shame and make it okay to ask for help," he explained. Lastly, he offered the suggestion to simply be a good neighbor. If you know someone who is a Veteran, share your appreciation by making a small gesture of friendship. "Ask him or her to coffee," he added, "tell him thank you for his service."
I'm grateful for these helpful ideas as I've often felt unsure about how to express appreciation for Veterans in a way that goes beyond putting a "Thank You Veterans" post up on social media. Another big takeaway from my conversation with Gabe was that as a community we all need to be more aware of signs of struggle among those dealing with mental health fallout (not limited to just Veterans and military men and women).
Here is a list of signs to watch for:
Excessive worrying or fear
Feeling excessively sad or low
Confused thinking or problems concentrating
Extreme mood changes
Prolonged or strong feelings of anger or irritability
Avoiding friends and social activities
Difficulties relating to other people
Changes in sleeping habits
Lack of appetite
Changes in sex drive
Delusions or hallucinations
Inability to carry out daily activities
If someone you know is exhibiting any of these signs, do not hesitate to intervene on his or her behalf. In some cases, an emergency room visit may be the best choice. Additionally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255. And, if you are struggling in any of these areas yourself, do not be ashamed to ask for help. While there are a number of self-care practices that can help when we are experiencing mental health fallout, there are certainly times when self-care is not a reasonable option for a variety of reasons. In the case of a mental health emergency, call 9-1-1.
However, if you are looking for ideas to address milder forms of mental health burnout, here are some strategies I personally recommend. Having gone through a season of postpartum depression, and as someone who has struggled with anxiety on and off throughout my life, I can truly say these practices have been instrumental in helping me heal and thrive in the area of mental health:
Surround yourself with supportive people
Take time to do things you enjoy
Set realistic goals
Eat nutrient-dense meals that nourish the brain
Consider supplementing B vitamins and Vitamin D
Spend time in the sun (or use a Happy Light during the dark season in Iowa)
Drink plenty of water
Get enough sleep (I CANNOT EMPHASIZE THIS ENOUGH)
Volunteer or spend time helping others
Set aside time for meditation and/or prayer
Avoid alcohol and drugs
Participate in counseling
As mentioned before, if you or someone you know is at the point of feeling hopeless or is having suicidal thoughts, get help immediately. If you feel you're heading in the direction of mental health fallout, DO NOT IGNORE THE SIGNS. And lastly, know that you are valuable, cared about and loved. If you ever need a listening ear, our Team at Simply Nourished considers it a great honor to be available and prepared to help direct our customers and clients to the resources that can best address their individual needs. Simply Nourished is open Monday through Friday 10-6 and Saturday 10-4.