I've heard it more than once, "Dude, the hardest part of getting out of the military was feeling like I was on my own". Yeah. No sh*t.
In the military and in the first responder community we've become accustom to living and working in teams to accomplish our calls and our missions. What we don't realize is that we are also leaning on each other for our mental and emotional well-being. Just as much as we are relying on each other during cover and movement on the battlefield, or back-up during an active shooter situation.
Today, our generation has men and women returning home from various countries all over the world fighting and sacrificing for the GWOT. A large part of our resilience to persevere through the tough times comes from the bonds made during the tough times. When we leave the military to follow other paths, or we retire, we need to continue to live, work and play together with the people who we shared these experiences and sacrifices with. My friends who have left the military and subsequently had some tough times all have one thing in common - their tribe was gone. Either they traveled back to their hometown to pickup where they left off, moved to an unknown city to start a new career, or started school in a big city on the other side of the country.
This reliance on small teams, or 'tribes', has been happening since our ancestors left Africa on foot some 70,000 years ago. It was the ability to work together in teams that enabled us to take down large game, provide enough food and shelter for the community and also adequately protect that community from danger. It is no wonder that this aspect of human existence has woven itself into our psychology and into the very fabric of our lives. It's the reason why most of us hate being alone. Our brains are wired to seek out interactions and relationships with others. It is so imperative to our well-being that solitary confinement for our misbehaving prisoners is now being considered as torture, as it permanently injures a person psychologically if they stay in solitary too long. (Rulings by the Supreme Court of British Columbia, Jan '18 and Ontario Supreme Court of Justice, Dec. '17) Being alone is torture. Let that sink in.
So, being able to get along and work well together not only helps us accomplish complex and difficult tasks, it's also vital to our health. Expertly captured in Sebastian Junger's book 'Tribe, On homecoming and belonging', we can see that throughout history our communities have relied on each other during times of conflict and war to ensure the psychological well-being of the group. It happened in the past and it's happening in our military and first responder communities today. Junger calls these groups 'communities of consequence'. And these groups, or tribes, must rely on each other for the safety and survival of the group. During times of war, Native American tribes relied on every member working collectively towards the war effort. While the fighting aged men were off fighting and raiding along the frontier, the women and children had to take care of the rest of the clan, gather and hunt food, and prepare weapons and clothes to resupply the warriors when they returned. These tribes often moved locations as the seasons changed or as the conflict dictated, and they did this together as a team. If one thing stands out to me about these tribes it's the fact that the members of the tribe were almost never alone. These were truly communities of consequence and they either thrived together or died together.
Suicide rates among Native Americans were obviously not tracked during the 18th and 19th centuries, but it appears that suicide was reserved for sick and dying elderly members who did not want to burden the group or warriors who were shamed at the loss of a battle and how they performed. And some groups, the Bella Coola, the Ojibwa, the Plateau Yuma, and the Southern Paiute among others have been reported to have no suicides at all. One thing that we do know from this time period is that white Europeans who were captured in battle by Native American tribes, after having spent significant time with their captors, did not return to their families and the 'modern' society of which they left. Even when given the chance to escape or when rescued. And we're not talking about some of them. We're talking about the overwhelming majority of the men, women and children who were captured and spent significant time living among the 'savages'. So much so it caused Benjamin Franklin, scientist, inventor, and American Founding Father to make this remark about rescued English in 1753 "Tho' ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life... and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods."
So now we're starting to see the breakdown of a clan like lifestyle in western society and the ensuing psychological and social consequences. And I think it's no coincidence that it's coinciding with the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.
Running away to join bands of Native American's in 1753 is one thing, but how does this help us here today in 2018? Well to me, this means that we need to keep our teams strong and together for as long as possible during the times that we are working. Infantry units need to go out of their way to try and keep the integrity of their sections together before, during and after deployments. No more breaking them up and spreading the guys around to different schools and supporting roles across the Battalion. Keeping them together will, for starters, allow the team to function smoother and work better together as they become more and more accustom to each team members individual needs and how they work. And it will enable the team to build better and stronger team SOP's. It will also help the team better manage operational stress and it will keep the members most important support network together when he or she is starting to feel the effects of operational stress or PTSD. Taking members away from their teams and placing them in a Personnel Support Unit or non-operational role when they have raised their hand and asked for some downtime or a break because of operational stress is clearly the opposite of what we should be doing. Keep the members in their sections. It is their lifeline. There is no reason why they can't receive part time support, see a therapist, or take a few a days of extra leave while still contributing to their team on a day to day basis.
For the first responder community this means we need to honour and support the partners and groups that work well together and want to stay together. There is no requirement to screw around with shifts and schedules as a punishment for minuscule infractions. Premature shifting of teams and shift schedules not only causes operational stress, it's taking away from our number 1 tool to appropriately deal with the stress. This also means first responder communities need to go out of their way to talk and spend recreational time with the other services that are on their shifts but don't get the chance to decompress together. 911 operators, Police, Fire, and EMS who work calls together should have a means to socially connect and support each other. This could be done through official channels or on unofficial channels. It doesn't matter. What matters is being able to talk, share, reminisce about the calls together.
Of course there are necessary movements of personnel; promotions, career courses, administrative problems, etc. But team integrity should be priority number 1. It is an operational concern (experienced teams = competent teams) and also a medical concern, as the tight knit team is the best option for dealing with the psychological health of the team.
"Humans don't mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary." - Sebastian Junger
Secondly, this tells me that we need to plan and prepare to have our tribe available to us when we do retire or release. If you think you're going to join the Army, do a combat tour, then move back to the family farm in southern Ontario, and you think you're going to be fine. No, think again. Chances are you will have a difficult time. If you are a current serving member of the CAF or a first repsonder working in Canada start thinking now about what you will do when you get out - and it can happen a lot sooner than you expect.
We need to look at the availability of social warrior networks in our post career plans and locations. This is hardest for our military boys and girls as our military communities are only in a finite number of locations across the country. But there are a few locations that we like to stay and retire in. Take a look at your geographical options prior to releasing and ask yourself a few things. Does this location have a large population of retired/active military or law enforcement? Does this location provide me with the opportunity to do the recreational activities that I like to do? Are there veteran communities or social groups in this area that participant in activities that I would find enjoyable? Are there military and first responder support groups in the area? If the answer to all or most of these questions is no, then this locations is probably not suitable for life after a career in the military or in the public safety sector. The research and the historical data are showing us that these questions are just as important as what will be your new career path or what neighborhood you will raise your family in.
Now if we look at the state of our society today it's clear that it does not operate in a tribal or communal environment anymore. Everything is plugged in, connected, fast paced, online and everyone seems to be in rush to accomplish the next 'important' task or buy the next 'must have' electronic. This is clearly not the ideal situation for us as we retire from the job. Do some internet searches and ask some friends. Find your perfect retirement community. Maybe it's one that's not too big, but conveniently close to the big city and has a veteran mountain biking group that gets together every Sunday to crush some mountain trails... or whatever you're into ;)
Some places to check out:
Victoria, BC Yes there may be some 'tree hugging hippies' in the area but a lot of guys I served with are living out on Vancouver Island now. There is a strong community of military members, Esquimalt and Comox. And there are some kick ass things to do- Fishing, hiking, mountain climbing, mountain biking, sea kayaking, and surfing to name a few.
Squamish, BC The not-so-secret secret. Yes Squamish BC is a beautiful place with a boat load to see and do and is perfectly positioned in between Vancouver and Whistler. It's no wonder a lot of ex-military and ex-first responders are moving into the area.
Calgary, AB Calgary used to be home to some regular force military units but now has a few, well respected, reserve units. Calgary draws a lot of the guys I served with, 2 that serve with the Calgary Police now, as well as civilian friends of mine that I grew up with. Calgary must be doing something right. It's also extremely close to the Rocky Mountains and has the Calgary Stampede!
Petawawa, ON WHAT! Yes I know. But the Upper Ottawa Valley is a great place to retire if you love the outdoors. Great fishing, good hunting, and tonnes of places to go camping including Algonquin Park right around the corner. The community is definitely on the up and up, it's conveniently close to Ottawa, and has a larger military population.
Ottawa ON / Gatineau QB Cities with a very active lifestyle feel to them with large military and law enforcement populations. Lots to see and do this city is also home to a lot of military and service personnel sporting events and parades- The Army Run, National Remembrance Day Ceremony, etc.
Halifax / Dartmouth NS Sporting a bunch of regular force and reserve force bases the middle of Nova Scotia has a large community of active and retired military personnel. Live the east coast lifestyle and stay connected to your brothers and sisters.
Some groups to check out
Rogue Adventures Group
Project Trauma Support - weekly support groups
The Cav - Motorcycle club
Manitoba veterans support network
Canadian veteran and first responder network
Vets Canada - Transition network
Canadian Afghanistan War Veterans Association
Fox, Bailey. You are not Alone: Ontario and British Columbia Invalidate Solitary Confinement. www.thecourt.ca, 2018
Battin, Margaret Pabst. The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Junger, Sebastian. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.