Prepare for the Storm While the Sky is Blue

A massive sand storm cloud is close to enveloping Al Asad, Iraq, just before nightfall, April 27, 2005. DoD Photo

One of the key aspects of military service is training. Training, training, training. We train in the heat, we train in the rain, we train on the water and in the sky. There’s never a question about why we do it; we know why we do it. Preparation.

I am often reminded of one of Aesop’s fables, the Ants and the Grasshopper. In the story, the ant works all day brining food back to the anthill, while the Grasshopper does nothing; he even laughs at the ants for working so hard. Of course, when winter comes…when the storm comes…the grasshopper has nothing, and the hard work of the ants pays off.

So what does this have to do with veteran mental health? We hear it, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, a gallon of sweat in training saves a pint of blood in combat, but how does this apply to mental health in post-military life?

A Lack of Preparation Can Make a Bad Situation Worse

If I’m not working on my mental health and wellness, if I haven’t developed awareness or recognized that my emotions have changed, then when stress comes, the impact will be even greater. A veteran goes through a breakup: sure, that’s bad. If that same veteran has not learned to understand and control their emotions, or is dealing with unresolved trauma, then it goes from bad to worse. If we’re trapped in negative thinking patterns, then we become caught in a cage of our own construction. This is part of the downward spiral; if we don’t get our head space and timing set right, then our lack of preparation can make a tough situation into a crisis.

A Lack of Preparation Might Indicate Denial

Like the grasshopper in the story, it might be that our lack of preparation could be the result of denial that the danger is real, or that it applies to us. It’s like being blindsided, caught flatfooted. Sure, there is a suicide epidemic among veterans, but that will never happen to me. My buddies have a drinking problem…don’t. We don’t start thinking about understanding how combat and the military changed us until after a crisis, because we don’t think it did change us. Or, if it did, what did you expect? By not preparing for a potential crisis, we could be saying to ourselves, “that may apply to everyone else, but not to  me.” Sound familiar?

A Lack of Preparation Might Indicate a Lack of Foresight

Instead of denial, a lack of preparation when it comes to mental health could indicate a lack of foresight. We trained in the military because our leadership anticipated the situations we would likely face in the future. We had large scale training exercises for things that would happen months or years from now. Before we went on missions, we ran through rehearsals to prepare for things that would happen minutes or hours from now. It was based on an anticipated possible future, and we plan for all contingencies.

If we don’t start understanding how our mental health impacts our post military life, we might be demonstrating the lack of foresight that helped us in the military. Without understanding the potential danger, we may think that the sky will always be blue, that we will never face a crisis moment. How realistic is that? It’s not a denial that it can’t happen to us, but a denial that it can’t happen at all. Equally dangerous.

A Lack of Preparation Might Indicate Capitulation

Another potential reason for not getting our mental health straight is one of the prohibited words in the military: quitting. Giving up. Accepting that the situation we’re in is never going to change. In the recent National Academies study of the VA Mental Health System, they identified that more than half of the veterans who have a mental health need don’t perceive that they have a need. Only three out of ten veterans who have a need seek services; that means that approximately there are about 16% of veterans who have a need for mental health treatment, know they have a need, but yet won’t get the help.

Sure, there are reasons for this. A lack of quality care, both inside and outside the VA. Other barriers, like time, distance, money. Perceived stigma. When did we allow obstacles to stop us in the military, though? If we stop preparing, then we stop caring. When we stop caring, we’re on a slippery slope, and when a storm does come, we just don’t give a crap about it. Dangerous place to be.

Preparation Comes in Many Forms

Okay, now what? So how do we prepare? This is a good start. You’re taking the time to read something that could spark a thought, and might find something more that catches your attention. There are tons of online  resources. Check out some of the content that the VA has put together to combat stigma. Take a short course from PsychArmor to raise awareness about the impact of the military on mental health and wellness.

Character is Revealed in Crisis

When the world falls apart, who we really are is revealed. Our preparation, or lack of it, shows itself. If we weren’t proactive with our physical fitness, it shows when the PT test comes. If we half stepped our way through training, it comes out. The same thing will happen if we don’t prepare for a potential mental health crisis. Dr. Martin Luther King says, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In other words, when the sky is blue, we’re not tested; it’s what happens in the storm that is the true measure of our worth. On that day, the work that we put in is revealed.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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Duane France
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Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.