Editor’s note: The following is an opinion piece. The writers are not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
Retired Navy Capt. Charlie Plumb spent six years as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. In the years following his release, through his writings and talks, he shares countless valuable lessons about struggle — a topic that he knows intimately.
In our opinion, the most profound lesson Capt. Plumb offers the veteran and civilian communities is that suffering and struggle can lead to opportunities for growth and freedom from fear. And while no one would consider being tortured in a prison camp for six years as a “good thing”, Captain Plumb recounts his time as a captive as “undoubtedly the years of my life when I grew the strongest.”
In the wake of repeated deployments, visible and invisible injuries, and repeated disconnection, our service members and their families are struggling ― struggling to be well, to connect, to feel, to adjust and to stay together.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans are battling post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. Suicide in the veteran community remains at an epidemic level, 20 per day. Many spouses feel helpless and aren’t sure how to support their loved one. And children are growing up wondering why their mother or father has changed.
We wonder whether traditional mental health programs offer the best solutions for our veterans and their loved ones. Trauma-focused psychotherapies and psychotropic medications may offer symptom relief, but do they address the core issues of disconnection, societal withdrawal, and living without a sense of mission and purpose? Does this traditional approach offer a “fix” for what troubles our veterans?
The January 2017 edition of JAMA Psychiatry stated that “... we have probably come about as far as we can with current dominant clinical approaches. Other strategies are urgently needed to effectively address remaining research and clinical gaps concerning the health care needs of combat veterans”.
Traditional mental health programs focus primarily on symptom reduction. In doing so, they miss the opportunity to identify and facilitate personal growth as a result of veterans’ past and current struggles. Again, these are not abstract and uniformed ponderings, but rather an approach to trauma that has been studied by psychologists for the past three decades. It’s called Posttraumatic Growth, or PTG for short.
The term “posttraumatic growth” was coined in the 1990s by University of North Carolina at Charlotte psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun. PTG is the theoretical model and science that explores how people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often achieve positive growth afterwards.
This growth can occur in one or more domains: a greater appreciation of life, increased personal strength, openness to new possibilities, improved relationships, and enhanced spiritual or existential awareness. At the core of PTG is restoring the element of choice to live a purposeful and meaningful life, learning to respond rather than react, and the construction of new beliefs about the world, one’s self, and the future.
Facilitation of PTG is not therapy in the traditional sense. It is more along the lines of training. In fact, a primary reason we believe facilitation of PTG is consistent with the military culture is that they are both about training; training to be the best that you can be.
We know that training works ― it changes thoughts, feelings, and actions ― and no one knows it better than a combat veteran and their family members. We believe that there is an opportunity to take the same understanding and appreciation of training in support of a different mission ― the mission of self-care. What the remarkable warriors and their family members deserve is the training required to thrive and to live great lives, on and off the battlefield.
Indeed, struggle is painful. It is often unpredictable and stubborn. And it can be defeating. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s what we do to harness and “control” the struggle that makes all the difference.
Thousands of years of history teach us that combat veterans represent the finest and strongest among us. This notion ― that war endows warriors with unique skills, strengths, and attributes that are desperately needed on the home front ― is not new. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Athenian general and philosopher Thucydides said, “We must remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school.” The severest school is combat!
Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a former Army psychologist, veteran of the Iraq War and writer who lives in San Antonio. He’s the co-author of ”The Posttraumatic Growth Workbook” and writes Military Times’ ”Kevlar for the Mind” feature.
Ken Falke is a retired Navy master chief. He’s chairman and founder of both the Boulder Crest Retreat for Military and Veteran Wellness and the EOD Warrior Foundation, and the co-author of “Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma.”