A recent survey suggests that U.S. Special Operations Forces members transitioning to civilian life are still not receiving adequate transition assistance. The SOF for Life survey, conducted by the Global SOF Foundation, found that only 29 percent of respondents find the Defense Department’s Transition Assistance Program “helpful.”
“The whole transition piece wasn’t really clear to them,” retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Lamb, and current Director of Government Relations for the Global SOF Foundation, told Military Times.
During his career, Lamb spent more than 12 years overseas conducting operations in 37 countries, five continents, and six geographic combatant commands. These experiences have made Lamb intimately familiar with the unique challenges SOF members face both operationally and when leaving the military.
According to Lamb, of paramount importance are elevated “stress levels” caused by the uncertainty surrounding shifting from military to civilian life. That, combined with years of stress endured from combat, amplifies the problems.
“[When] you live on base, it’s very secure. You’ve got your own schools, you got your own place to shop, you have the bowling alley,” Lamb said. “And then ‘bam’ you’re out among the English, and it’s a totally different lifestyle.”
A little more than 60 percent of those surveyed reported experiencing anxiety in the year before separation. Additionally, 49 percent said leaving the military caused marital issues, with 53 percent stating that marital stress during a transition stemmed from financial strain, which according to the report, is second only to infidelity as a cause for divorce.
Throughout the Global War on Terror, SOF has endured a crushing operational tempo. It is evident in the survey results, with 65 percent of respondents stating that they had six or more deployments during their military service.
These frequent deployments, which research suggests result in higher rates of PTSD, also leads to what Lamb calls “operator syndrome.”
The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine states that operator syndrome “may be understood as the natural consequences of an extraordinarily high allostatic load.”
Or, in other words, the cumulative burden of chronic stress caused by life events. Ultimately, operator syndrome manifests itself with endocrine dysfunction, sleep disturbance, orthopedic problems, and being “on guard” or hypervigilant.
Additionally, cognitive issues with memory and concentration are also apparently caused by a mixture of effects caused by TBI and PTSD.
“Everybody has shortened fight or flight response,” Lamb said. “It’s been short-circuited over the years. You get an adrenaline rush, and then a crash, and then an adrenaline rush and a crash,” Lamb said.
This cycle leads to a spike in cortisol or the “stress hormone.” In turn, which, Lamb said, “eats” testosterone, leading directly to a lack of sleep, and in turn, a series of potentially compounding physical and mental issues.
“Without sleep, your body can’t repair itself. And so it just continually breaks down,” Lamb said.
With 65 percent of respondents reporting pain daily, 83 percent reporting issues with cognitive function, and 93 percent indicating problems with sleep as a result of serving in SOF, minimizing stress on a transitioning member of SOF is critical, as “fitness” represents one of the “five pillars of resilience.” The other four being family, faith, friends, and finances. All five are prone to disruption when someone leaves the military, so minimizing stress and preventing disruption is vital.
“We think you can lose two of those fives and probably still make it,” Lamb said. “If you lose three of those five, you’re probably going to commit suicide.”
Both Lamb, and those surveyed, have suggestions they believe would reduce the stress on SOF members leaving the military while improving their civilian prospects. The most common suggestions, by 90 percent of those surveyed, said that there should be a TAP specifically designed for members of SOF.
Lamb took that a step further and told Military Times that he believes that preparing to leave the military should begin once a service member joins and be part of regular counseling.
“If we can, if Rick was the sergeant major of the Army, it would be on the initial counseling form,” Lamb said. There should be a block in there somewhere to where is talking to a transition person.”
Lamb said that, ideally, this would occur as part of the regular counseling which SOF members receive. But, instead of purely looking at job performance, someone outside the chain of command would regularly check on the servicemember’s finances, investments, and health the entire time they’re in the service, and not just when they’re about to separate.
“Because if you wait till the guy’s 24 months out [to begin TAP],” Lamb said, [The servicemember] may decide tomorrow, I’m getting out in 90 days, then you’re way behind the power curve.”
According to Lamb, reducing the stress on and improving the civilian prospects of SOF members leaving the military is paramount. Not only would it reduce the number of suicides, but it could also provide a valuable recruiting tool for those looking to join the military.
“That soldier, sailor, airman Marine, needs and to make sure that that transition is a smooth one,” Lamb said. “I think it helps recruiting retention, it cuts down on the divorce rate, and it also means that guy or gal gets meaningful employment.”
James R. Webb is a rapid response reporter for Military Times. He served as a US Marine infantryman in Iraq. Additionally, he has worked as a Legislative Assistant in the US Senate and as an embedded photographer in Afghanistan.