A warrior on our side

Five takeaways on officer wellness from ‘Doc’ Springer


I just finished the book “Warrior – How to Support Those Who Protect Us,” by Shauna Springer, Ph.D. I have read many books on this topic, but Doc Springer captures the thoughts, feelings, fears and passions like no one else. She has clearly spent time in the trenches with warriors, battling their demons and working toward wellness. She suggests tools and mindsets that I believe have the power to transform warrior and officer wellness.

Doc Springer has more than 20 years of experience serving our nation’s veterans and first responders. She has learned that trusting relationships are the key to earning permission to hear our real story.

In August 2020, I sat down with Doc Springer to discuss her book, her commitment to veterans and first responders, and her hope in new ideas and treatments.

Here are my five takeaways:

1. MORAL INJURY

As Doc describes in her book, “Moral injury was originally defined as the shame that results from participation in acts or events that violate someone’s sense of morality.” She adds that the definition was later expanded to include acts of omission. However, Doc explains that from listening to veterans and first responders, she has learned moral injuries are more complex:

(Image/Armin Lear Press)
(Image/Armin Lear Press)
  • Surviving when loved ones have died can over time present like a moral injury.
  • Moral injury doesn’t require that warriors do anything outside their moral code.
  • Moral injuries can be socially transmitted between groups of people.
  • Moral injury may be a part of what makes addiction so challenging to overcome.
  • Moral injury is not always related to a discrete act or event; it can accrue over time as a predictable set of moral traumas unfold.

Doc and I discussed how moral injuries are affecting law enforcement officers today. Doc compared the current lack of support in some U.S. cities to the way some Americans treated Vietnam veterans in the 1970s. This just fuels the fire as officers continue to experience daily moral traumas, investigating crimes that reveal the worst part of humanity – child abuse, murder, rape, domestic violence and so much more. These moral injuries can lead to guilt and shame.

2. GUILT AND SHAME

Guilt and shame are two different animals, and understanding the difference is key. Doc explains, “Guilt is a feeling that you have done something that doesn’t line up with your personal values. Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing in all cases; it has a useful function in correcting our behavior…Shame penetrates much deeper than guilt and can make us feel unworthy, unlovable and unredeemable.”

Doc developed this theory: “For military service members and first responders, a desire to die is less likely to be the result of depressed mood and more likely because they have been infected by the cancer of shame.”

I have seen guilt and shame play out in my personal life. My family has core values that our kids helped us write. One of our core values is communication. We aim to listen well and talk when necessary. We aim to speak with each other with calm voices. After a long week, I have violated this family rule and yelled at my children and wife. Guilt moves me to apologize and ask for their forgiveness. This is good. We reconcile the relationship, and I demonstrate to my children how to resolve conflict. Shame, on the other hand, has been a crushing weight that leaves me feeling like a failure as a father and husband.

3. WE THRIVE IN TRIBE

This concept is no surprise to military veterans or LEOs. We operate in a team environment where we trust each other with our lives. When we clear buildings, we leave our backs to uncleared areas, knowing that another brother or sister is watching that direction, covering our backs. We trust them to keep us safe if a threat emerges.

Unfortunately, due to fear and stigma, we have not applied this same team principle when it comes to our mental well-being. Instead, we struggle in silence, afraid to let anyone know our thoughts and emotions.

Doc writes, “In battles with our demons, attachment to those we love, and trust has a power that can help us survive the obliterating pain of despair. This is the power of tribe.”

I know this to be true from my personal experience. Four years into my career, I struggled with anxiety, haunted by child crime investigations and overworked in all areas of my life. I had a competent mental health professional who helped me create a tribe of trusted people to walk with me. This tribe led to a speedy recovery and my ability to continue my career.

4. WARRIOR WIVES

At the core of my tribe is my wife. We grew up together as high school sweethearts. We are close and usually share every thought, emotion, joy and struggle. However, when I started to experience anxiety attacks, I felt like sharing this with her would leave me weak and vulnerable.

Doc Springer has heard similar thoughts from her patients. “Honestly, Doc, I would rather walk into the kill zone of an ambush than tell my wife how much I need her.” This same patient later described his wife as his “rock.”

The people closest to us – our wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, children and siblings – make up the core of our tribe. When in times of crisis, we desperately need their support. Maintaining open communication with them – being able to stand before them without armor, vulnerable, and share our burdens – empowers us to process and heal from our moral injuries.

As I shared some of these thoughts with Doc, she identified my wife as a “Warrior Wife.” She pointed out that she had the courage to stay with me and carry my burden. Wow, is she right!

5. BEYOND WARRIOR

As our conversation continued, we moved beyond Warrior and into her current work related to a medical treatment for veterans and first responders who experience mental trauma. She shared with me her collaborative work with Dr. Eugene Lipov at Stella Center where they have seen promising results from the stellate ganglion block (SGB) procedure.

We also talked about her partnership with author Jennifer Tracy in helping warriors redefine their mission by helping them address their mental health struggles. Their website redefineyourmission.com states, “We created the ‘Redefine Your Mission Tactical Toolkit’ because these kinds of battles require a new way of thinking and a range of tools.”

WRAPPING IT ALL UP

As I listened to Doc Springer discuss caring for and helping veterans and first responders, one idea was resolute in my mind. She truly cares. If this were a game of Texas Hold’em, she would be all in. She is part of the warrior community and is ready to stand watch and to battle the demons that wage war against our nations’ protectors.

An excerpt from “Warrior – How to Support Those Who Protect Us”

Chapter 9: Our Greatest Power

The power of tribe repeatedly surfaced in the stories of near-death experiences among my patients. I realized that I was hearing two categories of stories that were essentially brushes with death. On the one hand, several of my patients shared accounts of being hit by an IED or other potentially lethal projectile while in the combat zone. In these accounts, their fellow soldiers or Marines would run into danger to get them to safety. Their brothers-and sisters-in-arms would stay with them, calling in a medic while saying things like, "I'm right here. Look at me. Stay with me. You're going to be okay!"

Commonly, time would slow down, and the faces and voices of loved ones would mentally appear, urging them to stay in the fight – maybe the face of a child or a spouse imploring them to come home safely. Sometimes, a fellow warrior who had previously fallen in battle would mentally appear to infuse them with the will to fight, saying things like, "The guys need you!" or "You don't have permission to die!" Many expressed that these visitations gave them the will to fight for life, despite potentially lethal injuries.

The stories of my patients' past suicide attempts were different. In these types of near-death experiences, when individuals are in the grip of a suicidal crisis, on the ropes in the fight with their demons, there was commonly a profound detachment from loved ones. This helps us understand how a person can honestly, sincerely say, "I would never attempt suicide" one week (and mean it) and then get into a head space where self-destruction somehow seems like the right choice the following week.

Rather than hearing the voices and seeing the faces of loved ones, their thoughts obsessively looped on the theme of being a burden, a danger, or a liability to those they love. Their brains would actively make a case for how others will not really miss them or that in the long run, those they love would be better off without them somehow.

Of course, loved ones would often vehemently disagree with this if they had had the opportunity. But the perceptions of a person in a suicidal mode are extremely distorted. Towards the end of a tunnel of despair, people see suicide as the only "logical" choice, the same way that people who are struggling with advanced stage anorexia see themselves as fat.

Once I noticed these divergent themes in these two categories of near-death accounts, I saw that what I was hearing mapped onto what I was seeing as a timeless truth: In battles with our demons, attachments to those we love and trust has a power that can help us survive the obliterating pain of despair. This is the power of tribe. This may be the most important takeaway in this whole book.

NEXT: Officer wellness: Prioritizing mental & emotional health (eBook)

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