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A Soldier-Turned-Therapist Stops PTSD in Its Tracks

I have to admit something about interviewing Dr. Phil Baquie: this was the first time I have ever met a musician-turned-combat soldier-turned-therapist. And you know what? Despite its eccentricity, his career trajectory totally makes sense.

Originally from Australia, Phil enjoyed a successful career in the music industry before enlisting in the U.S. military. Near the end of his service, he pursued an education in mental health and counseling, his studies inspired by the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Clearly, Phil’s background puts him in a unique position as a mental health professional to relate with familiarity to security personnel and their distinct culture.

The reason I was particularly excited to interview Phil was because of his cutting-edge approach to treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most of the literature around PTSD in the security community focuses on detecting and then treating PTSD. Meaning, reacting to PTSD, as opposed to being proactive in order to prevent individuals from developing PTSD in the first place. With this in mind, Phil created the Tactical Presilience Training program to provide law enforcement and military personnel with the psychological tools to create more resilient individuals.

Currently based in Oxford, Mississippi, Phil runs a practice that has trained Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, first responders, US Marshals, the DEA, US Border Patrol, and other federal and state law enforcement agency professionals. In addition to a master’s degree in counseling and a doctor of psychology, he holds a black belt in martial arts and is a certified law enforcement firearms and krav maga instructor, a high-risk global protective operations contractor, and a trained hostage/crisis negotiator. (In other words, don’t mess with Phil.)

My hope is that the following interview will provide an illustrative snapshot of this critical, preemptive mental health treatment that is available to security professionals today. The people who dedicate their lives to saving others deserve to live their best lives, too.

Jessica: Tell me a bit about your background, starting with why you enlisted in the U.S. military all the way up to the work you do today in mental health.

Phil: I joined the U.S. military primarily out of a feeling of gratitude for the privilege of getting to move to America from Australia in my twenties. By the time I was considering the military, I had already enjoyed a successful career as a professional musician, and was ready for my next adventure. It was 2008 and given how things were going for the country at that time with Iraq and Afghanistan, I thought it was the right thing to do.

Phil playing guitar for Sonicflood (c. 2009)

I served in several different units over an eight-year span, including infantry and the tactical PSYOP [psychological operations] special operations unit. I also had the opportunity to go back to school during this time. I’ve always had this fascination with spirituality, but wasn’t sure how to apply it in a way in which I was investing in others.

Then one day, I was standing in line in an armory doing a weapons return when this younger soldier started confiding in me about his troubles at home with the wife. We were talking for awhile and at some point he gives me this look and he’s like, “Man, you should be a therapist!” And it was like this epiphany, it was exactly what I wanted to do.

There’s something very powerful about a life of service. I think most of us want to give to something bigger than ourselves, whether it’s to God or country or a community. I think it’s why soldiers and law enforcement and first responders do what they do, too.

Jessica: You know, that career trajectory somehow makes total sense to me. Being a musician brings you in touch with the spiritual, and then you were drawn to psychology because you care about the human spirit.

Phil: Well, there’s probably not a lot of therapists who sit in a therapy chair and then strap on a gun and disappear overseas on a protection detail! So, there’s a commonality that helps me relate to the population I work with.

I’ve also served a short time in law enforcement and have come into contact with a lot of first responders who I have such a passion for since we tend to be cut from the same cloth. We tend to come from similar temperaments or personalities that push us into doing the sort of work we do. Unfortunately, we also tend to be emotional Neanderthals.

Phil in action: High-risk global protection training with Trojan Securities International (c. 2021)

There’s an unspoken belief in this culture that we need to disconnect from our emotions and who we are in order to do our jobs well. And I couldn’t disagree with that more.

I think the most effective operators are actually the ones who are emotionally in tune with who they are. They’re able to recognize what they’re doing and to do it effectively and even ferociously when needed. But at the same time, you need to be able to come home and reconcile the work that you have to do with the person you are and your role within your family and community.

Jessica: Most mental health professionals don’t have the military or law enforcement background that you have, which gives you an insider perspective when providing treatment in the security community. Have you seen any mistakes taking place in the way that “layman” therapists relate to or communicate with security professionals who seek treatment?

Phil: Unless you have cultural competence in the security field, you’re going to have a hard time cracking the hard exterior surface of a security professional. With this in mind, civilian mental health professionals will struggle to connect if they don’t understand the archetypes or personas that exist in this community.

Teaching Tactical Presilience to the Border Patrol (Tuscon, Arizona, c. 2022)

I’ve gotten this feedback from a lot of security professionals and I think one of the key factors in creating this disconnect is that it seems civilian therapists want to talk directly about emotions and they don’t understand that security professionals look at emotions as weak.

Jessica: So you think certain civilian mental health professionals are not using the right terminology and just turning off these very tough guys from wanting to take any treatment seriously?

Phil: Therapists have to understand how these guys perceive strength versus weakness. We’re taught in our profession to constantly have our head on a swivel, like 360 degrees security. We look for vulnerabilities and weakness as something to eradicate, whether it’s external or internal.

Security tends to be a masculine world. And this is going to sound controversial, but a lot of people in this culture tend to hold on to old school views of what it means to be masculine versus what it means to be feminine. We consider masculine to be tough and strong, while the feminine is emotional and weaker.

I personally believe this view of women as the weaker sex is absolutely false. Yet, in this culture, there is a strong association of emotions belonging to the realm of the feminine. As you can imagine, women in the security field have to work very hard to match or even surpass this perception to feel accepted.

To these men, being emotional means you might break down in the middle of a firefight or fail to keep your team safe. So naturally there’s a strong resistance to being emotionally connected with the self, because that’s seen as a weakness, which is threatening, and threats need to be eliminated.

I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a man. The opposite of a man is not a woman; the opposite of a grown man is an immature boy.

Part of what I do in my Presilience Training is to help trainees understand that being emotionally connected helps you stay in tune with your environment, so you can maintain control, catch subtleties, and interact better with others to make yourself even more effective at what you do.

Jessica: Let’s talk about your unique approach to dealing with PTSD. Many programs in the security field that tackle PTSD are reactive, meaning they're geared towards detecting and treating the condition. Your Tactical Presilience Training program, by contrast, presents a proactive approach that gives first responders, military personnel, and others in the field the tools to better manage traumatic incidents so they avoid getting PTSD in the first place. What inspired this program and how does it work?

Phil: There are some amazing programs and treatments available right-of-bang, such as 22Zero and their Trauma Resiliency Protocol. Hands down the best treatment for PTSD that I’ve seen that actually works, but yes, most of what is available from a training perspective is reactive.

Several years ago, I was sitting in an officer resiliency training with the FBI and it’s a great program, but I realized that it was training officers to clean up the mess after it’s happened. And so I was thinking, “We really need to be on the front end of this.”

Wellness and resiliency are becoming increasingly important in the law enforcement and military communities, but the movement seems to be disconnected from the idea that we should be more proactive. That’s why I came up with the term “presiliency,” to imply getting on the front end of mental health.

Alpha 6 Tactical Solutions private security contracting (c. 2020)

The philosophy behind this concept is that a critical incident does not necessarily need to create traumatic stress. It’s not the incident itself that creates the problem; it’s how the incident is perceived or the meaning that is ascribed by that individual. And the way each of us react to stressful incidents is unique because it’s based on our unique personality and temperament combined with our past experiences. So, at the end of the day, we can have very different outcomes on how we process and react to stressful experiences.

As for personal experiences, I assess individuals all the way back into childhood. One of the surveys I run anonymously among trainees is called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) survey. In a nutshell, it’s a ten-question survey that asks questions like (from under age 18) did you suffer from physical or sexual abuse or have parents who got divorced or were you ever incarcerated, and so on.

According to the original ACE studies, if you have scored four ACEs or more, you are 2.1 times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, 6.9 times more likely to develop alcohol use disorder, 8.1 times more likely to be a perpetrator of domestic violence, and 10.5 times more likely to have suicidal ideation. If you score five or more ACEs, you are 37.5 times more likely to commit suicide.

Now, fast-forward into the security field: look at the motivations and reasons why we do what we do. Is it really only patriotism? There are a lot of people in the military and first responder world who chose their profession because of adverse events they experienced in childhood. They experienced powerlessness early in their lives and responded by choosing a profession as an adult where they could help others. They desire to become part of something that’s bigger than themselves by investing in others. And I can tell you from running the Presiliency program that well over 60% of the security professionals I test score over four ACEs.

And then imagine joining a profession where you just pile on the critical incidents and stress. The average citizen experiences maybe one to five critical incidents in their lifetime; the average law enforcement professional experiences approximately two-hundred over the course of his or her career. But just because you experience a critical incident doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop PTSD.

There’s an ancient Jewish text called the Talmud that talks about how we see things not as they are, but as we are. So, part of my training is about how to maintain self-awareness and protect yourself psychologically when faced with an onslaught of horrific events.

Phil in therapist mode

During my sessions, I explain to security professionals how the limbic system and the amygdala work, which is the part of the brain responsible for PTSD. We then discuss how to create a conscious distinction between thoughts, feelings, and ourselves.

Dr. Viktor Frankl said that between stimulus and response exists a space, and within that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom. So, this is an important tool I teach—basically, understanding the difference and the space between the stimulus and the response.

Jessica: So, what you’re providing through Presilience Training is essentially a set of psychological tools that security professionals can use that results in a more robust reaction to stress. Because if you can’t handle stress, your mind breaks down and your body is quick to follow. It’s about literally adding back years to people’s lives.

Phil: It’s honestly mind blowing that there isn’t more time spent on training our military and law enforcement and first responders to deal with stress. You’re lucky if you get four to eight hours of mental health training total during your overall training. It’s unconscionable.

We train our operators to be physically fit, we train them to be tactically sound, even legally proficient. But we’ve failed to train them in the one area that holds all of these things together: how to operate effectively with a sound mind.

From a purely administrative perspective, this should be a high priority for the security community. Think about the cost of healthcare for our professionals who suffer adverse physical responses to stress. They’re going to take off more sick days. People who handle their stress poorly also result in more disciplinary problems. That comes back to haunt agencies in the form of lawsuits or being forced to fire the people they invested a lot of training in. The lack of proper mental health training is costing millions—if not billions—of dollars for agencies worldwide.

Jessica: Lastly, let’s talk about the role of stigma. It’s no secret that many security professionals avoid seeking treatment they may desperately need due to the negative connotations about mental health in this community. What is your approach to tackling this stigma?

Phil: A lot of the stigma surrounding mental health in our community is due to a complete misunderstanding of the role of emotions. As I mentioned earlier, we equate being emotionally sensitive to being weak. There’s a fear in our profession of getting too vulnerable; if you’re emotionally vulnerable, you’re opening yourself up to feeling weak. And weakness is the one thing you can’t afford because it could mean getting killed or getting your team mate killed.

In Presilience Training, I don’t use terms like “mental health” with this crowd at all. Instead, I explain the benefits of being in tune with who you are and being self-aware in a range of scenarios so that you can be more effective at your job. I tell them, “Hey, if you want to be the best operator or soldier and so on, you have to understand who you are, how you operate in stressful environments, and then obtain the tools and tactics to increase efficiency and become a force multiplier in your field.” When you phrase it like that, the guys are like, “Hell yeah, I’m in, give it to me!”

And it’s not just about the relationship one develops with one’s self; it’s also about successfully maintaining your relationships with others. What is the number one problem behind the high divorce rate in this community? It’s actually the same problem that leads to suicide. When people can’t handle their stress and they don’t know how to ask for help, they respond by separating, isolating, and just completely disconnecting from their supportive relationships.

So, I want not only to help security professionals connect with themselves in order to be more powerful force multipliers in the field; I want them to maintain and strengthen their personal relationships, too, with the people who matter.

Ultimately, Presilience is a holistic approach that helps the people in our community not only become the best agent or officer, the best first responder, the best soldier. I want security professionals to maximize their potential by showing up and being on-point in their professional and personal lives.

* * *

About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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