Views on Warrior Culture & Veteran Mental Health
Welcome to the Interview Corner, the latest series at www.jessicawaltonwriter.com featuring unique voices in national security, communications, and culture. In this latest article, Major (Ret.) David Sussman talks about his transition from the U.S. military to civilian life and the cultural aspects that prevent service members from seeking mental health counsel according to his observations and interactions with the veteran community.
Veteran suicide rates are at the highest level in recorded history, with annual deaths by suicide at over 6,000 veterans per year. Understanding more about the psychological challenges veterans face as they transition from the military to the civilian world may help healthcare providers improve their quality of care and potentially save lives. Sussman believes that while combat and deployments are linked to increased risk for mental health conditions, general military service and the transition back into the civilian world can also lead to psychological difficulties that harm veterans' quality of life.
Jessica: Tell me a bit about your background and what inspired you to join the U.S. military?
David: I was born and raised in Minneapolis by parents and other relatives who had served in the military. I joined the military in 1982. It was a few years after the Vietnam War draft ended and there were a lot of shifts going on in the world, including within the Cold War period. The world felt like a scary place, but I didn’t want to be a random victim of it. I wanted to be part of the action. I wanted to face reality and make a positive difference.
I actually first sought to apply to the FBI and CIA when I was in high school. I think to this day they are still laughing at me. They were at least kind enough to suggest that I first consider the military. So, that’s what I did. I enlisted in the army and after basic training I pursued a very specific job in army intelligence, including learning Russian and then serving in occupied Berlin. I was mainly interested in international relations and national security, and the army supported that career interest.
So, from the beginning, I had a bit of an unusual relationship with the military service where I saw myself as a consultant, almost like an outsider. Throughout my twenty-four-year long service, which I enjoyed very much, I always tried to hold on to that outsider’s perspective, so that I could ask the hard questions and see a picture from different angles.
Army Reserve Training (Minnesota, 1987)
Jessica: How did your role and relationship with the military evolve over the years?
David: I served in various intelligence, officer cadet, field artillery, cavalry, and communications roles over the years in several countries. I was a company commander, a lead international operations officer in the U.S. Army Signal Command, and later on a technology exploitation officer in Washington, D.C. In the military, there isn’t a time clock that you’re punching. You’re not working nine to five—you’re working 24/7. At times, the conditions are dangerous or abysmal.
But at the end of the day, there is a lot of meaning and responsibility inherent in your work. There is also a special camaraderie. You’re part of a community. You share a dark sense of humor. No matter how you might feel about a fellow soldier, you know that he has your back and you will always have his. Everybody wants to go home alive and safe together. You are all part of a mission that is bigger than yourself.
Jessica: After twenty-four years in the military, you transitioned back into the civilian world. What were some of the psychological challenges you faced when making this transition?
David: For me, the biggest shock was working with people who punch in nine to five and don’t really care about the company or their job. Their heart isn’t necessarily in their work. On the surface, they’re working as part of a team, but it’s not like the army where you get to know each other intimately and have the assurance of knowing your comrades have your back. I found that difference between the army and the civilian world very harsh.
The army is also very structured and hierarchical. The mission is clear, your role is clear. Most jobs in the civilian world are not like that, which can be disorienting to a lot of veterans. It’s not surprising that so many veterans will go work in the defense industry because at least there’s a bit of familiarity.
Sussman, center far left, at his Russian language program (Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, 1984)
Another interesting thing about this transition period is what happens to the perception of your own health. We come into the army as the brightest, the healthiest, the strongest, the most motivated people. And although we may have already just served thirty years, in our minds we’re that same eighteen-year-old kid who came through the door. We’re just as healthy, just as strong, just as committed.
Yet, the reality is that the military service has taken a lot out of us. Whether we spend our time under water or jumping out of planes or being around loud noises, we’ve subjected our bodies to a lot. So, this Veterans Affairs (VA) guy comes in as we’re about to transition back to the civilian world and informs us that the government is going to compensate us for our disabilities. And we’re like, what are you talking about?
You’ve been part of this warrior culture for so long and suddenly you’re being told you’re no longer a warrior. It affects your sense of self and wellbeing.
Jessica: Speaking of wellbeing, the U.S. military is currently going through a mental health crisis. In the past five years, the rate of suicides among service members has increased. The Department of Defense is looking for solutions, but there are institutional policies and cultural norms that are making it difficult for service members to seek help. As far as the military-to-civilian transition goes, what are some of the potential mental health pitfalls that veterans should be aware of?
David: Veterans should be aware that once they leave the military, they need to be more proactive about their health. In active duty, you have to maintain readiness, which means that it is required to get regular check-ups with the doctor. If something is wrong, it needs to be fixed right away. Because it’s the norm, no one resists this.
Promotion ceremony to rank of captain (Port au Prince, Haiti, 1995)
In the civilian world, there is no such tracking mechanism. You’re on your own. On top of this, the military has a requirement that you always need to be fit in order to execute your job. That mentality doesn’t magically disappear when you leave the army.
According to recent studies, about 60% of military personnel with mental health issues avoid seeking help. Many members of the military—and this attitude continues into retirement with veterans—are afraid to ask for help because they don’t want to be perceived as “weak” or unfit to perform their duties.
Jessica: What do you think is one of the biggest obstacles that prevents veterans from obtaining the mental health support they need?
David: It’s the veterans themselves. We’re part of a warrior culture. Like I said before, asking for help doesn’t come easy to us. When you’re used to being stronger and tougher than the average person, asking for help can be too painful. It’s like an admission of failure to take care of things on our own.
As we transition into the civilian world with all the emotional tumult that may come of it, some of us will figure out a way to deal with our mental health issues on our own, while others will struggle a lot more and refuse to see a counselor or go to a crisis center for external support. It doesn’t surprise me that suicide rates for service members is four times higher than deaths that occurred during military operations since 9/11. And the rates are only increasing. The veteran suicide rate is approximately 32 per 100,000, compared to 16 suicides per 100,000 non-veteran adults in the U.S.
There is also a fear that asking for help will backfire. What if I’m put on medicine that makes it hard for me to work or even disqualifies me from my job? What if my security clearance is taken away? Or my gun? What if I lose my entire career?
These are fears that need to be addressed, and they’re real. If you apply for a gun license or security clearance, you will be asked if you’ve ever sought mental health counseling. And if you say yes, you are automatically put into a different category. There is no section that allows someone to clarify how severe their mental health issue was—it could have been mild, brief anxiety or full-blown schizophrenia.
Jessica: From your own experience and your recent discussions with the veteran community, what measures do you think are effective against the mental health crisis in the military world?
David: There is not a broad stroke solution to this issue. Each person needs to seek counseling according to their needs, to be honest about their situation, and receive access to a counselor who is trustworthy and willing to tailor their solutions to each case. A counselor should also be sensitive to the overall military ecosystem so that they don’t needlessly damage someone’s career.
Sussman, far right, at his retirement ceremony (Fort Myer, Virginia, 2006)
Social connections are key. Following retirement from the military, there should be some formal network that helps veterans stay connected—ideally with people from the same unit who retired from the military around the same time. The military and veteran community should establish programs that facilitate tighter group connections, like a structured networking arrangement. They need to receive advice from peers who can uniquely understand and appreciate their mental health journey.
There are currently many organizations that try to do this, but they are minimally effective in my opinion because their scope is too narrow. The military and VA itself should make this type of program widely available and, if possible, make it mandatory.
Think about how Alcoholics Anonymous works: it’s a type of buddy or support system that includes sponsors, people checking in on each other. There’s a sense of unity and belonging, a place where people can speak openly about their problems with people who will understand. If someone doesn’t hear from you, they check in.
Same goes for the military. When we stick together, we save each other.
* * *
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.
To sign up for the (In)Security Blog newsletter and receive notification of the memoir release, click here.