Latest column in the North County Times

Here is my latest column in the North County Times:

No one immune to PTSD

 

Never in our history has the military establishment or the nation been as forthcoming or accepting of combat stress injuries. There are programs everywhere to help those who suffer from the effects of prolonged combat. The Veterans Administration offers everything from individual counseling to residential treatment for those who have left the military, and active-duty personnel are afforded the opportunity to seek treatment without effect to their careers.

Well, officially anyway.

I recognized that I had PTSD after my third combat tour. I had just returned from Afghanistan, and with a roomful of Marines I sat down for a post-deployment briefing that was pretty much identical to the ones I had attended after my two trips to Iraq.

A parade of briefers that ranged from concerned professionals to bored bureaucrats passed before us, flinging a blizzard of papers for us to read, initial, fill out, and sign. We sat behind computer terminals to see if we experienced any traumatic brain injuries, listened to how important it was to be patient with our wives and girlfriends and kids, and not to go out and get rip roaring drunk on our first night home.

Somewhere between the brain test and the drinking-and-driving lecture, a sheaf of papers was handed around for all of us to complete. Not thinking too much about it, I grabbed my pencil and started filling in the little bubbles by the questions.

“Do you have problems sleeping?”

“Are you more irritable now than before you deployed?”

“Do you have problems remembering things?”

“Do you feel unable to relax?”

The questions covered the page. I marked the little bubbles one after the other, and when I was done I looked it over and dropped my pencil in shock. It wasn’t the first time that I had seen a form like this; in fact, I filled one out after every deployment. The difference this time was that I had a whole lot more questions marked “Yes” than there had been previously. Not just one or two or three questions. I said yes to more than half of them.

My reaction was, “Holy mackerel! I can’t possibly have PTSD —- only burned out losers have PTSD. Not me! No way!”

I walked up to the guy who handed out the forms and turned it in. He looked at it, looked at me, and asked me if I wanted to go see anybody.

That was it. I could say no and get on with my life. That, to be honest, is the course that the vast majority of military folks take. At that moment, that timeless span of a few seconds, thoughts rocketed through my mind. What will people say? Do I really need help? Is there something wrong with me? Only losers have PTSD, don’t they?

So I chose not to choose, but I did ask the guy for more information. He shrugged and handed me a brochure for an on-base facility that offered assessment and treatment with no questions asked. I looked it over, folded it up, and went on my way.

Moving on was not as simple as shoving the brochure in my pocket, however. I really started to view myself through a different lens; I paid attention to myself. I really couldn’t remember things even though my mind had formerly been sharp. I was short-tempered, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t relax. I came to the stark realization that I had changed, and not in a good way.

So I made a choice. I pulled the crumpled pamphlet out of my pocked and read through it. Not just another cursory once over as I had done before, but I really studied it. It promised an opportunity to be evaluated by a staff of professionals whose only purpose was to help Marines like me. All I had to do was make a call.

So I did. More on that in my next column.

A fascinating education opportunity: Fidelis

SgtMaj (Retired) Frank Pulley, a good friend of mine who is actively involved with military transition while representing the Marine Corps Association and Foundation recently introduced me to a remarkably innovative organization that offers a variety of opportunities for veterans and active duty folks to pursue higher education.  Promising education in and of itself is not particularly innovative – there are plenty of companies and schools in that business – but what makes this venture noteworthy is how it provides a comprehensive path from prospective student to employed graduate by working closely with colleges, universities, governmental agencies, and prospective employers.

The name of this great organization is Fidelis.  Named the Fast Company magazine’s #7 Most Innovative Company in early 2012, it was created by former Marine Captain and Iraq combat veteran Gunnar Counselman.  The company’s mission is to build a scalable solution to the military-to-civilian career transition in partnership with leading universities, military organizations, and great companies.

The idea for the company arose from Gunnar’s experience as he transitioned from active duty to the private sector.  As a veteran fresh from the fight in Iraq he entered the Harvard Business School, and upon graduation started a very successful career in the civilian world with a top-tier consulting firm.  During his graduate studies and his entry into corporate life he was startled by the differences between active service in the Marine Corps and life in the civilian environment and how difficult it was to make the transition between the two.  He mulled it over for several years, and with the conviction of someone willing to take the plunge he started Fidelis in order to not just help military folks make it through the transition by pursuing higher education but also to partner with corporations and business to employ them upon graduation.

Fidelis is much more than just a college and job placement firm.  It goes much deeper than that; each student works with a transitional coach and a network of mentors who help determine long term objectives, interests, and goals.  Once these are established, the coach and mentors guide the student through a tailored educational process that links their objectives with a personalized educational program that meets their educational needs.  With Fidelis’s help, the student enters college and obtains their degree – but the company’s commitment to the student does not end there.  The new graduate works with his or her coach, mentors, and the corporate sector to find the best employment fit.  The commitment does not end on the first day at work, either.  Fidelis is there for months afterwards to ensure that the transition process is successful.

The company has a broad array of colleges, universities, corporations, and business who all work through Fidelis to create the bridge from uniformed member of the armed forces to successful business professional.  They offer several programs that transitioning military people can pursue:

-2+2Plus: This program is for active duty personnel who know that they will be transitioning in the next year or two and don’t have a degree.  They can take general education classes using the company’s innovative social learning platform that marries courses from the  University of California with Fidelis’s learning program.  Designed to get the student back up to speed educationally and prepare them for enrollment in a full-time college or university while still on active duty, the technology used is flexible, intuitive, and supportive of the demanding requirements that are part and parcel of being in the military.  Once they leave active duty, the program continues as mentors and coaches guide the veteran to a college or university where they enroll in a program that meets their objectives and ultimately ends with placement in the private sector.

-Pre-MBA Bootcamp:  This program is for veterans who already have a college degree and are pursuing an MBA in one of the top 30 programs nationwide.  In conjunction with UCLA the program prepares the student with courses in finance, accounting, and quantitative analysis as well as providing an opportunity to socialize and network with other students.

-Silicon Valley Concentration:  Designed for veterans who already have a four year degree and are interested in the technology sector, this program is focused on a specific degree or discipline.  The program begins with a six week long course that introduces the technologies and companies that are the hub of Silicon Valley technology.  The mentors and counselors then work with the student to determine which aspects of the tech world that they want to pursue, and collectively they create a pathway to get there through focused training that results in technical certifications that bring the student to the cutting edge of ever-changing technology.  As with the other programs the mentorship and coaching does not end with a diploma, but instead follows the new employee as they pursue their new career.

All of this is done with little or no cost to the student other than the costs associated with enrolling in school.  The costs are borne by the companies that are investing in quality future employees and by colleges and universities who help educate veteran students.  Fidelis provides a remarkable opportunity for transitioning military people who want to pursue higher education and find a new career.  Take a look at what they offer- I am certain you will be as intrigued as I was!

The other side of transition: finding a job part 1

The time has come.  You have made your decision to leave the military and now the reality of the whole situation hits you right between the eyes like a mallet on a croquet ball: you have to go get a job.

The military is a tough profession.  It is rife with conflict and stress and danger; anyone who finds wearing a uniform and easy way of life isn’t doing it right.  The hours are long if you are lucky enough to be at your home duty station and the deployments are even longer as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines find themselves shuffled off to distant parts of the planet for months – and in some cases years – at a time.  It is a truly arduous line of work.

The one thing that military folks are not fighting for, however, is their paycheck.  As long as they are in the service they will receive their pay and allowances.  Unless they do something very wrong or fail to meet promotion requirements they can stay in until they decide to leave.  Generally speaking they cannot be fired; they may be relieved from their specific duties but they still are employed as they move to another job.  Unlike the civilian world there is rarely an existential crisis that finds military personnel wondering where or when their next paycheck will arrive.  Sure, they move around from job to job and from base to base, but always within the context of continued employment and service within the Department of Defense.

Then comes the day when your next job is not assigned to you by some faceless bureaucrat in Washington.  On that day you realize that the next job for you is the one that you find.

Gulp.

That can be very daunting!  I have previously posted about the Transition Assistance programs that the services offer, so I won’t go into detail on those programs.  What I will start going into detail about, however, is the process that you will need to follow in order to take advantage of your military experience and leverage it into finding a job, and who knows?  Maybe even a new career!

Too many people leave the service with the unfounded expectation that there are jobs-a-plenty out in the civilian sector and that companies are foaming the mouth to hire veterans.  After all, who has greater leadership skills and management expertise than someone who has led their peers and subordinates into combat or supervised teams of highly trained people and maintained millions of dollars worth of equipment?  Which firms wouldn’t want to fill their plants and factories and businesses with former military professionals and make them into run like little armies?

The answer to that is pretty simple.  Almost none of them.

The cold hard truth about the business world is that companies exist to do one thing and one thing only; they are there to make money.  Sure there are nonprofit companies that aim to accomplish other things, but they need money to be able to meet their lofty goals.  The coin of the realm, if you will pardon the pun, is the mighty dollar.

If you cannot show to a potential employer how you will help them make more money or how you can assist them with saving money then they really don’t need you.

It is quite a shocking realization to learn that no matter what your skills are, no matter how many deployments you made or how many medals you have nobody on the outside really cares.  Sure, they are respectful of your service and sacrifice and will gladly buy you a drink, but they are not going to put you on the payroll unless you can show how you can add value to their firm.

This is why it is critically important to do a couple of things before you start heading out into the job market.  Here are the most crucial things that you MUST do before you start jobseeking:

1.  Get over yourself.  You have served your country and you have gone places and done things that civilians will never experience.  Guess what- if they want to hear all about the military and what it is like to serve they will go to the movies.  You need to move on from being Colonel Soandso or Sergeant Highspeed.  I guarantee you will never find a good job if you cannot let go of your military past.  Employers want to hire you for what you will do for them, not who you used to be.

2.  Figure out what you want to do.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  I strongly recommend that you find the time to sit down for a few uninterrupted hours and really analyze what you would like to do with yourself now that you are out of the military.  Ask yourself a few questions, such as where do I see myself in five years?  Ten?  What am I good at?  Do I want to find work in the areas I am familiar with, or do I want to strike out in a totally new direction?

3.  Start planning.  Now that you have an idea of which direction you would like to steer your ship you need to chart a course.  What companies are doing work that interests me?  Are they hiring?  Do I need to get some specialized training or education in order to pursue those goals?

Once you have worked through these three points you will be much more ready to start looking for a job.  In my next post we will focus on step 2: figuring out what to do.

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Lessons Learned:

1.  Getting a job once you get out is not easy.  It takes work, and you will waste a lot of time and suffer from some pretty significant blows to your ego if you think that the civilian world owes you something for your service.  They don’t.  If you want a job, you have to get out there and earn it.

2.  You need to do three things before your first interview:  Get over yourself, figure out what you want to do, and start planning.  We will talk about these in greater detail in future posts.

3.  Take a deeeeeeeep breath.  It’s going to be OK.  Trust me.

PTSD and Me, from the North County Times

Here is my latest column in the North County Times- a bit more on my personal experiences with PTSD:

Life “outside the wire” in a combat unit is the pinnacle of stress and a morass of boredom, with every minute lasting an hour and every hour lasting an eternity as you wait for the crack of an AK-47 and the snap of a passing 7.62 millimeter bullet. It is a way of life unlike any other, and to live through it changes your life forever.

I served four tours in two wars in five short years. Iraq was more kinetic —- which is the military word for people doing their best to kill each other with guns and bombs and such —- while Afghanistan was less personally violent.

My teams and I logged well over 200 missions “outside the wire.”

Most missions were accomplished without getting shot at or shooting back, but enough weren’t to keep us on our toes. We never really knew which trip into enemy territory would be our last, and collectively our minds shifted into overdrive as we departed the relative safety of the forward operating base or combat outpost for insurgent territory.

Being in combat consumes you. You become completely focused on the now. Thoughts of home and family are pushed completely from your mind as you look in a hundred directions at once: Is that an IED or just a pile of trash? Where would a sniper hide? Are those kids just playing, or are they lookouts for an insurgent ambush? Where are my teammates? Is that a tripwire? Does that man in the distance have a shovel or a rifle? Is he digging in an IED or fixing a broken pipe?

You are completely immersed in what is happening at the moment. You are consumed by your mission and completely focused on what is happening around you because you are never more than a split second away from the absolute chaos of a firefight or IED attack. You are always looking for cover, for something to dive behind when the bullets start flying. You become attuned completely to the environment and as one with your teammates.

That level of intense and singular focus is crucial to survive in combat. It is also impossible to seamlessly turn off when you come home.

I know because that describes me. PTSD takes many forms, and the inability to turn it off is mine.

I developed hypervigilance, which means that I have essentially developed adult-onset ADHD. I can’t sit still or relax without feeling pensive and anxious. I am compelled to be in motion in spite of myself.

I can’t sleep. I have not had a full night’s uninterrupted rest since 2005 —- well, not at home. I sleep fine in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not in San Diego. I snap wide awake every few hours, and if I am lucky, I can get back to sleep. I’m not often lucky.

I can’t remember anything. I have misplaced my short-term memory; I must write every task down as soon as I learn of it or I will forget. It drives my wife to distraction when I can’t remember what I went to the store for, or why I am standing in front of the pantry with a blank look on my face.

I can’t forget many of the events I experienced in combat, despite how much I wish I could. Every day I find my mind wandering back to firefights and attacks and blood and death, even though such things are the last thing I want to think about. Memories abound in my subconscious and they bubble to the surface unannounced, reminding me daily that I have killed for my country and come frighteningly close to dying for it.

PTSD is always with me as I move through my post-war life.

It is not hopeless, however, because there is help out there for those who seek it. More on that in my next column.

 

Read more: http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/military/columnists/grice/grice-ptsd-is-personal-for-combat-vets/article_37b56010-dca2-5463-9a2b-51f1f31f9b43.html#ixzz1rwXtaaA5

So now what?

So there you are, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee in your hand and the rest of your life in front of you.  You have made the decision to hang up your combat boots and get out of the service.  What you have not decided yet, though, is what to do next.  You stir your coffee, look out the window, and ask yourself “so now what?”

It is a great question, and you probably don’t have a truly great answer for it.  In many ways leaving the military puts you in the same position you were in when you graduated high school or college: the world lays before you with prospects to go in pretty much any direction you choose.  Which path is the one you want to take?

There are many possibilities.  You can go back to school, get a job, move back in with your parents, or become a hermit.  For the first time in years it is a choice that no senior officer or NCO will make for you.  So what are you gonna do?

Contrary to popular belief it is unlikely that you will be able to find a porch to sit on for the remainder of your days, unless you are retiring to a cabin in the middle of the mountains and plan on living on whatever you can grow, catch, or hunt yourself.  The retirement benefits aren’t that generous.  You are going to need to supplement your well earned but meager pension.

What if you are just getting out after a hitch or two?  Finding the retirement porch is probably decades in the future, so you need to find something to do until the rocking chair becomes your retirement throne.

So, back to the question: now what?

There are two common paths that people leaving the military take.  They generally either go back to school or find a job.  Many vets, like me, end up doing both at the same time as they work their way through college or graduate school.  Regardless of which path you take, however, you are ultimately going to end up back in the market for a job, if not a new career.  That is what the next string of posts will focus on: getting a job.

Despite what you may have heard, you can find employment after you get out despite the sour economy.  It isn’t easy, though.  There is no magical job fairy that sprinkles you with sparkly guaranteed-employment dust.  There are opportunities, though, but it takes some work to take advantage of them.

How long has it been since you wrote your resume?  How about a cover letter?  Have you had any experience being interviewed for a job?  What kind of skills can you show to a potential employer?  What do you want to do?

These questions and many more will be answered as we look into post-military employment….

Finding an advocate…

A part of the separations process for every veteran is the medical evaluation that all veterans go through in order to determine whether or not they rate disability benefits.  It can be a confusion and overwhelming process even if you are healthy and don’t have any lagging medical problems, but it can get downright impenetrable if you have issues or have service-related disabilities.

It is not because the VA is an uncaring monolithic government agency – they are really doing their best to help out the hundreds of thousands of veterans who need their help.  They are doing the best that they can, but despite the ongoing modernization of various systems within the VA and a decent budget, they are simply buried by the sheer volume of veterans who are either already in the system or are now joining it.  It is likely to get worse in the near term, too, as the services begin the post-war drawdown that has been announced by the administration.

That is all well and good for the VA, but what about the individual veteran?  Is he or she on his or her own to try to navigate the bureaucracy?  No.  Fortunately there are some great organizations out there to help you, the veteran, ensure that you receive the benefits you are entitled to.  In addition, they will act as your adviser and advocate as you wend your way through the benefits claims process.

Several months ago I wrote a post about the TAP/TAMP process (https://orderstonowhere.com/2011/08/16/back-to-class-part-1-the-transition-assistance-management-program/), and in that post I wrote about the guy who reviewed my medical record.  Although I didn’t really understand the significance of meeting him at the TAP/TAMP course now that I have been working my way through the process for several months I get it.  Alan represented the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), which is a nonprofit organization that exists solely to help out veterans –  and not just those with a disability, but any vets out there who are in need of assistance.  At the TAP course Alan explained this all to me, but it was such a blizzard of information over those five days that I really didn’t pay as close attention as I should have.  I did listen to him when he asked me to sign up for the DAV as my advocate because it allowed him to review and prescreen my medical record before I was evaluated by the VA.

So what is the DAV?  Here is a blurb from their website (http://dav.org):

The 1.2 million-member Disabled American Veterans (DAV) is a non-profit 501(c)(4) charity dedicated to building better lives for America’s disabled veterans and their families.

The DAV was founded in 1920 by disabled veterans returning from World War I to represent their unique interests. In 1932, the DAV was congressionally chartered as the official voice of the nation’s wartime disabled veterans.

In addition to assisting veterans with myriad issues that they face after they leave the service they are an advocate for people like me who are being evaluated by the VA for possible medical disability benefits.  This is a great help because they have a lot of people with a lot of experience in dealing with the ins and out of the process, and they will go to bat for you in case you run into snags or are given a disability rating that does not reflect your actual physical condition.  They make the confusing process manageable and will help you through it, which is a great relief to those who have absolutely no idea what to do as they transition (like me!).

At any rate, Alan prescreened my record and in doing so set me up for a smooth evaluation process when I finally did receive my VA medical exams several months later.  He identified problems and issues that I had forgotten about but were relevant in the claims process because they could easily manifest themselves later in life, and if they are not identified in the VA physical then I would be ineligible for VA medical coverage to deal with them.

They also help with all kinds of other things that are veteran related; things like job placement assistance, counseling, and representing your interests to Congress.  The DAV is there for you, so when you go through TAP/TAMP, make sure to track the representative of the organization down.  He or she will gladly help you through the process, and you will be amazed at how much you will come to rely upon them to make it through.

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Lessons learned:

1.  There are a lot of organizations out there that will help you with veterans issues and the transition to civilian life.  I am working with the DAV, but the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and American Legion are also great organizations that can help you out.  There are literally dozens more.  They all have slightly different charters, so do some research and see which one works best for you.  Even better, join as many as you can- they are not competing with each other and they all want to help.

2.  Even if you are certain that you will have no disability rating it is still important to affiliate with a veterans advocacy group.  There are a lot of benefits that are outside the medical realm that they can help with, and if nothing else they are a great bunch of people you can rely on if you need advice or just somebody to talk to.