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And now for something completely different, mental health!
Ukraine is a reminder of the mental health impacts of working in war zones
I haven’t written in a couple of weeks, but I have a good excuse.
I ran out of gas. I had a flat tire. I didn't have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn't come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts! It wasn’t my fault!
OK, maybe that was Joliet Jake. But I do have an excuse.
Two weeks ago I flew to D.C. for a job interview and a few days later accepted the position of managing editor of National Defense Magazine. I started the job remotely last week and so that has kept me busy.
On top of that, I spent two days with a film crew shooting a profile of me for the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride and Movember. DGR is an annual charity motorcycle ride that raises money for Movember, which spends the money on prostate cancer research and awareness and men’s mental health.
Both are personal causes. Prostate cancer runs in my family and so I have been on heightening screening since my late 30s, more than a decade earlier than screening usually begins. I have my next screening later this week and am hoping to continue my clean track record. Men, educate yourselves on screening and follow recommended protocols!
Now, regarding mental health… That’s more difficult to talk about, but not talking about it is part of the problem. I write about it extensively in my book, and since that’s still searching for an agent and publisher, I decided to start talking about it now.
From fall 2007 through summer 2012, I took roughly eight reporting trips a year, each lasting one-to-six weeks. Most of my trips were to places in conflict, on the brink of conflict, just out of conflict, or otherwise dangerous. Then, I moved to Afghanistan and lived there until the end of 2014 when NPR closed the bureau.
Over the course of seven years, I saw and heard horrible things. I visited refugee camps where traumatized people told tales of fleeing sadistic violence and losing family in the process. I met people who had suffered unimaginable cruelty and whose bodies suffered the effects. I saw children who entertained themselves in wastewater ponds at refugee camps. And there were plenty of bodies in various states of… just various states.
While conducting that work, I was in danger myself. In places like Colombia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, there was constant threat of death, detention, or abduction. Situational awareness was critical, and running for cover was a frequent thing.
All of that—seeing so much pain, suffering, and destruction, and spending so much time on high alert with danger all around—changed me. There wasn’t one single moment that did the damage, it was a progression, an accumulation.
I won’t go into details here, but I hope to in a longer article on the topic sometime soon. Suffice to say, I came out the other end darker, more cynical, soured on the human race, and feeling isolated. What made matters worse was the fact that when NPR closed the bureau in Afghanistan, there was nowhere else to put me, so I was out of a job. I came back to D.C. with no idea how affected I was by the years of work and no reentry support. It took a while to find a job, and so I had a lot of downtime to let things fester and to turn to unhealthy outlets, such as gambling and a relationship with an abusive partner.
Even though I ended up in what seemed like a great job at the Defense Department Office of Inspector General, I was not doing well inside. I was struggling to make sense of the world and my place in it. I kept up appearances and looked happy and successful even though I was deteriorating. I was increasingly isolated, lost, depressed, and hopeless.
In fall 2020, it came to a head. I was cratering and concluded there wasn’t a way forward. I started organizing my affairs and mapping out a plan to end things.
What stopped me? Squeak, my Afghan cat. The thought of abandoning her was enough to give me pause. My decision to rescue her in 2012 ended up rescuing me.
I took a leave from work, sought help, and decided to change the trajectory of my life. In March 2021, I left the government, cashed in all my savings, and spent a year writing a book about my (mis)adventures becoming and (briefly) working as a war correspondent.
It was healing and mildly traumatic at the same time to relive and write about the past. Again, I have no idea when the book will see the light of day, but for now I am sharing my story however I can for a couple of reasons. The most basic is to inspire/encourage others to talk and share and feel empowered to get help if they need it.
The other reason is to call attention to the fact that media, humanitarian, and other organizations that send people to work in hostile environments have a pretty poor track record of providing mental and emotional care and support to their personnel. I received security training—how to recognize and avoid threats, how to triage traumatic injuries—but I received no mental health training before, during, or after going to dangerous places. I had no skills in how to process the danger and horrors I saw. I was left to my own devices to work through it, and frankly I did a poor job.
I’m not the only one. I have many friends who have struggled with their time in challenging environments. Research shows that there is a lack of recognition of what humanitarians and aid workers go through and the PTSD many suffer.
That has to change.
So, I am opening up and encouraging others to do so. Nothing changes if people remain silent. We’ve seen that in many respects, and it’s time for people to speak out about the mental health of civilians who work in hostile environments. A lot of people are working to report on Ukraine and help save lives there and many are experiencing trauma. They need more than a rescue cat to serve as their mental health support.