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The Soldier Who Spoke Out

It’s not easy to talk about mental health, especially in the military. But for Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Olivia Nunn, it’s a mission. At the pinnacle of her military career, Olivia was on the brink of suicide. When she came out on the other side of her crisis, she could have continued to portray a “picture perfect” life to save face, especially considering that she was a public figure. Instead, she decided to speak out, because she realized that there were many other soldiers like her out there whose lives may be saved if they realized they weren’t alone.

As someone who has lost a friend to suicide in the security field, I want to personally express my gratitude to Olivia for her bravery and willingness to share her story. The mental health stigma is strongly grounded in our security culture, wrapped around a cultural misperception of “zero defects allowed” in our community. In the military, where service members must always remain battle-ready, the stigma is even more severe. Soldiers are afraid of asking for help due to fear of repercussions to their careers or humiliation in front of their colleagues. As a result, many service members are left to suffer in silence.

Mental health issues in the security field are complex and the stigma will be hard to break. But Olivia believes one of the most important first steps lies in the power of leadership—mainly, in their ability to set the example. As Olivia put it so poignantly in our interview, “If leaders speak out about self-care and obtaining mental healthcare when needed—without repercussions—hopefully it will trickle down and inspire other soldiers who desperately need mental health assistance to feel safe reaching out for it, too.”

Jessica: Tell me a bit about your background, starting with where you’re from and why you enlisted in the U.S. military.

Olivia: My dad served in the U.S. Army and growing up I was a bit of a daddy’s girl, so from the age of four I knew I wanted to join the army, too. The thing is my parents are Korean—I’m first generation Korean American—and for Asians education is a big deal. So, my parents were like, “You’re not going to enlist out of high school. You will go to college, get your education, and then you will be an officer.” I had no idea what they were talking about—I was four!—but I knew even back then that I was going to become a soldier.

I commissioned after graduating from college in 2001. For the first ten years in the Army, I served as a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) officer. What that meant is that I was a reactive staff officer. If a CBRN-type event were to occur, which is rare and catastrophic, I would be the soldier assisting the commander on what to do in the battlefield in that situation.

But in the meantime, what was I doing? I filled other positions in my unit. Soldiers like me were nicknamed the jack of all trades. So those first ten years as a soldier I spent a lot of time in a combat arms position, which meant I was in units heavily dominated by men.

CPT Olivia Nunn takes command of her troop, Headquarters and Headquarters Troops 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood Texas (c. 2008)

The military itself is predominantly male to start with, women only make up about 18% of the U.S. military. But in combat arms, you’re often the only woman. Sometimes I had to take on odd tasks or unpleasant jobs, but I’m not the type of person that ever sits in the corner. I want to be where the action is. And most people who join the military, especially the women, have that type of aggressive personality where they want to be in on the action.

Jessica: After years of being involved on the “hardcore” combat side, you became a public affairs officer. That must have been quite a mind shift.

Olivia: Public affairs was a natural fit for me because I’m a storyteller. By 2016, additional combat opportunities were opening up for women, but by then my body had gone through so many injuries that I had to be honest that it wasn’t the right fit for me anymore. I had done three tours in Iraq by that time. I was the first female company commander in my company, totally immersed in my career.

1LT Olivia with local Iraqi children outside a local school (c. 2003)

There’s a reason I didn’t have kids until later and it’s because I chased my career in my younger days. I decided to retire from the army at my 20-year mark, in September 2021. I truly enjoyed my time in the military, but it was becoming increasingly harder to be an amazing soldier, a wife, and a mom. I just didn’t feel like I could properly balance everything at a certain point.

I had a fantastic career and fantastic marriage with another army officer, but it ended in divorce near the time that I was starting to transition into retirement. It was one of the hardest times in my life, just as I was trying to keep my family together and transition my career.

Jessica: You’ve gone through a powerful mental health journey in the military. What’s your story and how has this journey inspired the work you do today?

Olivia: For all the years I was in the army, I didn’t really understand anything about mental health or suicide prevention. Mental health was just one of those things whispered about on the side. The general attitude was suck it up and drive on. You’re hurting? Suck it up and drive on. Go get your ibuprofen, take two, call me in the morning, and you just drive on. So many of us in the military have given so much of ourselves—mentally, emotionally, and physically. And when we’re done, there are so many questions.

Unfortunately, just as I was getting ready to retire, my world came crashing down. In addition to my divorce, I was dealing with the memory of being assaulted during my first deployment. Back in 2003, when I was a convoy commander, my platoon sergeant physically assaulted me. I reported it, but the way the army handled it at the time was unacceptable. It was poor management.

The system failed me. My support structure wasn’t there for me. The entire situation left me mentally scarred. It made me question my ability as a leader. I felt like a failure. And I realized that the only way I was going to survive it all was to put it away in a box and never talk about it again.

Well, months go by and I’ve nearly forced the whole incident out of my mind completely. But then I returned from Iraq and I saw him at the gym. I had a panic attack and almost vomited. There were a few people who said to me, “You’re strong, Olivia. Be cool. Let it go.” It was that same attitude of suck it up and drive on. So, that’s what I did for many years.

I brushed off a lot of things over the years. I nearly got killed by several IED (improvised explosive device) blasts and an ambush, but I always brushed it off. I saw a lot, I analyzed a lot, but I kept my mouth shut. After nearly two decades of this attitude, an unexpected divorce is what caused the breaking point.

Jessica: How did this breakdown come to the surface? And what was your thought process while going through it?

Olivia: At this point, I was planning my suicide, but if you saw me from the outside you would have thought I was the last person to be suicidal. My job in the army at the time was as the public affairs officer and director of communications for the U.S. Army Soldier for Life, a strategic organization that assists and connects the army with organizations to support soldiers, veterans, and their families. Organizations knew me by name. I had a following. I was a podcaster. People would say, “Oh hey, you’re Lieutenant Colonel Nunn!” I really poured myself into that job because I believed in the mission. I loved my job.

LTC Olivia Nunn and COL Prescott Farris record a message about the importance of being a Soldier for Life and telling your army story (c. 2019)

In the ultimate ironic situation, I was contemplating suicide at the same time that I was developing relationships with mental health and wellness organizations for Solder for Life. Eventually, I did reach out to one of these organization for help, but they couldn’t help me—not because they didn’t want to, but because they were tapped out. COVID had just hit and there were not enough resources. I finally found a counselor to speak to, but by this time I was falling apart.

It was very hard to admit to anyone what was going on. How does a lieutenant colonel with clearance, who is a communicator for the army, who has a large following and is married to another lieutenant colonel and has two kids and the picture perfect life suddenly ask for help?

You know, I never understood how someone could end their life before, especially someone with kids. But in that moment, I understood. It has nothing to do with all the great things you have. You think you’re a burden. You think that if you remove yourself, you’ll make things easier for your family.

As a security professional, you’re trained to find the problem, fix the problem, then destroy the problem. And in my darkness and broken space, I found myself to be the problem. So that was my logical process, that I should destroy myself. It’s very hard to see past that and ask for help in our field.

Jessica: What was the turning point that saved your life?

Olivia: I finally found someone to speak to who was familiar with the military behavioral health system. And she basically threatened to call 911 on me if I didn’t take myself immediately to the hospital. I think I was actually more afraid of her calling 911 than anything else in that moment! She really guided me through the system. I needed an advocate to steer me through the system, especially through a system with strapped resources.

Jessica: After working so hard to create this picture-perfect life on the outside, you decided to put that image aside and share your story with the public. I’m sure that wasn’t easy. What inspired you to share your mental health story and how does that story inspire the work you do today?

Olivia: When all was said and done, I realized that I’m not alone. My story is just like hundreds of other stories. I realized that as a high-ranking officer, I had a responsibility to speak out for the sake of the next generation of soldiers. The military is like a triangle, with only a few senior leaders at the top. If leaders speak out about self-care and obtaining mental healthcare when needed—without repercussions—hopefully it will trickle down and inspire other soldiers who desperately need mental health assistance to feel safe reaching out for it, too.

LTC (ret) Olivia Nunn delivers closing comments on mental health and the importance of giving back on behalf of Serving Together (c. 2022)

If we’re going to talk about the military as a family, then we need to put our money where our mouth is. A true leader cares about their people. We need to stop pretending like we don’t hurt, even if it’s a hard conversation. If a leader can’t talk about it, then what are we doing as leaders anyways?

Jessica: You’re a big fan of healing and advocacy through storytelling. How do you use storytelling for maximum impact, especially on the podcast scene where you’re very active?

Olivia: Storytelling is the oldest way of getting the word out. It’s older than recorded history, it was the way ideas were passed down through generations. We’re emotional creatures, so when something touches us emotionally we’re more likely to remember it. The best way to connect people to what you believe in is by connecting the heart and the head.

Storytelling is also fun. It’s a great way to get someone’s point of view across in an interesting way. And you can do it through social media, through podcasting, through many mediums. I’ve podcasted on behalf of several organizations, including the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA).

Jessica: Let's talk briefly about your collaboration with Topaz Navarro, a fellow U.S. military veteran. The two of you joined forces to build and support the Work Play Obsession All In Foundation. How did the two of you get involved in the foundation and what is its primary mission?

Olivia: Topaz is my partner who started the foundation a few years ago. He realized that there wasn’t really a foundation that addressed everyone: veterans of all stripes, spouses, girlfriends, caregivers. The foundation supports anyone who went through trauma during their military service, and it doesn’t just have to be trauma from war. There’s so much that goes on in military service that isn’t talked about, so we talk about it.

From the foundation’s homepage

We often get together as a community doing active, outdoorsy things that we love, like hiking and jiu-jitsu. It helps people open up and enjoy themselves.

We also wanted to be a resource that leads people to other resources. We realized that there are so many great organizations and non-profits out there that want to help soldiers and veterans, but people don’t necessarily know about them. Between Topaz and I, we have a huge network, and so people can come to us as a starting point and we can direct them to other resources that can help them.

A typical post from Olivia’s Instagram page: Olivia and Topaz (center) out on the town supporting veteran organizations

Jessica: Do you have any recommendations for military leadership on how they can improve mental health support for their soldiers?

Olivia: First, break the wall of silence. Senior leaders need to speak out and to take concrete steps that show other soldiers not to be afraid. A leader can let his soldiers know when he’s taking time out to seek mental health care, and that it’s not ruining his career by doing so.

Second, we need more resources. We can’t have soldiers waiting weeks for an appointment with a counselor. We also need mental health care for the families of the soldiers, because there are things that can affect them, too, in the military. And I know this is a tough thing, because the Department of Defense has a budget that’s like a pie and there are just so many ways that you can cut up this pie. But we need our part of the pie if we’re going to have a capable military.

LTC (ret) Olivia as host and co-host Tony Lombardo of MOAA's Never Stop Serving Podcast Series speaking to a guest during Season 3 on stories from the war front (c. 2022)

The third thing is that leadership should be careful not to cut things from the budget that can indirectly have a negative impact on mental health. For example, if you are demanding more hours from soldiers, but not providing them with suitable and affordable childcare options, this is going to lead to a lot of stress in military families. On top of this, many military families suffer from food shortages, which is a painful but critical topic to address.

You can’t expect soldiers to perform at their best with these burdens. At the end of the day, if you’re in uniform you can’t advocate for yourself in front of Congress or go stand on Capitol Hill. American leadership needs to go to bat for its military.

Jessica: What is the one most important thing you would say to a current soldier suffering with a mental health issue right now?

Olivia: Get the help you need, even if you’re afraid. Don’t be so fixated on being “strong” that you get lost and wind up paying a big price later. You’re not weak in recognizing that you need help.

And once you come out on the other side, consider sharing your story with others. Of course, I know it’s not easy. I’ve been there. If you don’t want to share your story publicly, at least share it in your own circles, share it in a support group, share it with a friend.

I want to end with saying something about the positive psychological aspects of the army: the military is a doorway called opportunity for a reason. You go through that doorway and come out as a changed person. It can be a stepping stone to greatness.

There might be situations where you get roughened up along the way, but ultimately you learn a lot about yourself and can step out on the other side as a more resilient person. And just as amazing, you join a tribe. You might work hard to earn it, but in my opinion it’s one of the best tribes in the world.

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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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