By Brian Anderson, GB, BSW – CEO, Veterans Alternative
For years, the United States has struggled with men and women coming home from war. It’s almost comical. The name we now use to explain what warriors deal with returning from war is post-traumatic stress (PTS). A key symptom of PTS is avoidance, and for many years that is what our nation has chosen to do as it relates to post-war realities.
Why haven’t we gotten this right yet? Gen. James Mattis, retired U.S. Marine Corps General, has happened upon the answer. Our approach is wrong.
“I don’t believe in PTSD,” General Mattis said to the Inaugural Post-9/11 Stanford Ignite class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
As soon as the statement registered in my mind, I started to question what I thought I heard. Then Mattis said it again, this time while walking toward the audience with an unwavering confidence.
“I don’t believe in post-traumatic stress,” he repeated.
I didn’t react, but a small rage built inside of me. I wanted to ask Mattis what the hell he knew. In reality, Mattis held the key to Pandora’s box; he had the answer to why we have failed to serve the men and women coming home from war and transitioning back to the civilian world.
Mattis didn’t go into detail… or maybe he did, and all I heard was “there isn’t anything wrong with you, it’s all in your head,” but Mattis soon changed my entire life view relating to post-military/war life.
“I believe in post-traumatic growth,” Mattis said.
Post-traumatic growth is now the foundation for the work I get to do with veterans. What’s phenomenal is that the warriors I introduce it to feel the same reaction I do. Veterans Alternative, a non-profit serving veterans experiencing triggers related to combat and/or military sexual trauma—and their families—was formed, and we continue to develop a different term to explain what our veterans are going through.
MET-R: A new term that reduces stigma
Military Experience Trigger Reflex (MET-R) is a term built for warriors, by warriors who have an understanding of the realities of transition and everything it encompasses. My organization now uses MET-R in place of PTS.
The change in terminology from PTS to MET-R is actually a change in stigma, depth and blame. Currently, a PTS diagnosis in the military leads to lost opportunities, and is isolating. A PTS diagnosis is often rationalized as a normal reaction to extraordinary events. It is also made common by the application of the same diagnosis to civilians in a single incident, such as a car wreck. Last, but certainly not least, the blame, or burden, is placed on the warrior, insinuating there is something now wrong with him or her.
MET-R is best explained by breaking down the two terms that make up the acronym: military experience and trigger reflex.
Military experience is all-inclusive. It covers early stages of development (between adolescence and young adulthood); experiences in both deployed and garrison (non-deployed) environments; administration and chain of command; and last but not least, transition out of the military.
An 18-year-old warrior joining the Marines as an infantryman learns to shout “Kill” when his left foot hits the ground. In the Army, Soldiers are asked what makes the green grass grow, to which they reply, “Blood, blood, bright red blood makes the green grass grow.”
This 18-year-old will learn to shoot, move, and communicate. He learns how to negotiate human life. This is all happening during a period of time when the frontal lobe is still developing. The frontal lobe controls emotional expression, problem solving, memory, language, judgment, and sexual behavior. It is, in essence, the “control panel” of our personality and our ability to communicate. The frontal lobe reaches maturity at the age of 25.
In garrison environments, the young warrior will learn the meaning of right time, right place, and right uniform. Meals, hygiene, free time, training, check-ups, finances, sleep, housing—all are dictated for the warrior.
When he deploys he will already know what it means to count on his brothers and sisters. Camaraderie is at the foundation of all branches of service, and essential for the armed forces to successfully carry out their missions throughout the world.
Deploying to combat carries its own level of emotional stress, topped with an environment conducive to multiple “car accidents” in a single day—much different than the example of a single car accident that causes a civilian case of PTS.
And then, transition—one of the hardest puzzles to solve. How do you take somebody trained for the military and successfully integrate them into the civilian world?
Trigger reflex, at its essence, explains a veteran’s ability to learn. Shoot, move, and communicate are trained to a standard that all actions become automatic. Repetition is key.
The core foundation for a warrior is the same foundation for activating post-traumatic growth, a strength-based perspective, or activating a destructive path. Our military men and women are highly trainable; this is where perspective is essential.
Shining a light on post-traumatic growth
A diagnosis of PTS might be necessary for treatment, disability, and benefits, but it is now counterproductive to growth. Over the last 15 years our nation has unfortunately learned enough about PTS to be afraid of it. I’ve heard the diagnosis referred to as a suitcase of concrete handcuffed to the veteran.
If our warriors’ lives truly matter post-war, shouldn’t we assist them with a perspective that leads to the understanding that their military experience is only a foundation for the greatness they can accomplish coming home? Let’s not throw out post-traumatic stress. Instead, let’s shine a light on the term’s counterpart: post-traumatic growth.
To learn more about post-traumatic growth and how we can better prepare our veterans for coming home and coping with post-war experiences, visit VeteransAlternative.org.