- Jeffrey Denning
- I'm the author of four books: Warrior SOS, The Work of Death, Together Forever, and Leaders Wanted. I'm in the doc film Please Remove Your Shoes. I've blogged for The Washington Times, and I write for Guns.com. I've worked for the high-profile U.S.-led Roadmap to Mideast Peace in Israel and Palestine. I've also worked as a SWAT team leader, a Federal Air Marshal and a sole-source training instructor on a classified contract with a U.S. government customer. My master's degree is in Military Studies and terrorism. I'm a former noncommissioned and commissioned Army officer, with service in Iraq. I've been Scuba diving and skydiving; I have trained with members of the U.S. Olympic Ski Team, and I'm an FBI-trained crisis negotiator. My interests lie in helping others and in strengthening America through inspiring moral courage, government fiscal responsibility and accountability, and maintaining principles that have made--and will continue to make--the United States of America a blessed and prosperous country. I'm a father of six, a husband, and a police officer. I reside in Utah, and I'm a Mormon. See also https://jeffreydenning.wordpress.com.
May 19, 2011
Discussing high risk operations & PTSD - Interview with former Navy SEAL
Ronald Relf has over 35 years of experience in high-risk security and protective operations, including eight years in the United States Navy Special Warfare Community as an operator in Underwater Demolition Team 12 and SEAL Team One. Mr.Relf has been engaged with, among other things, Maritime Counter-terrorism, Direct Action and Mobile Training Teams, Personal Protection Operations, Threat Vulnerability Assessments, Analytical Risk Management and Harbor / Port Security Programs. Relf has also served as a Special Agent within the intelligence community in its Protective Operations Division. Mr. Relf served as a Police Officer with the Denver, Colorado Police Department for 15 years, including a patrolman, field training officer, SWAT Team operator, Bomb Technician, Criminal Investigator and Hostage Negotiator. Since October 2007, Mr. Relf has been the Director of Global Security for an offshore exploration company with over 4,000 employees worldwide. Mr. Relf has received a number of awards from the intelligence community and the Denver Police Department during his service, including a Medal of Honor from the Denver Police Department.
SOS: There have been a number of different names for the horrific stresses faced after lethal confrontations—battle fatigue, shell shock, post traumatic stress. In your experience, what is it that you feel brings on this phenomenon? What are some of the feelings associated with traumatic events, generally speaking?
I recall as a cop when I was exposed to a life threatening situation - either my own life or the life of a criminal in the act of committing a crime - I had the feeling of anger after the action was completed. Sometimes it would be directed toward the fool who put himself and me in the critical situation. Sometimes it would be at the totality of the circumstances. But I do believe anger is part of what causes the stress. The administrative second guessing is also a serious factor.
There does seem to be a difference when going into a combat situation in a war zone. For the most part I was already angry with anyone who would be considered an adversary, a very subtle anger but a powerful anger nonetheless. I believe the anger was part of the mental preparation for going into the environment. I mean I was not there to socialize that's for sure.
There is a human factor involved when you see a teammate or someone you lived and worked with blown into chunks. Human suffering is not normal for most to experience. It is not normal to see a human body torn and shredded by acts of war or violence. It is possible that our brains have a problem recognizing a damaged body and associating that damaged body with the people we care about without some type of mental response or possibly the lack of outward response. The other factor may be that when we see such a thing we do get angry and we want to return the favor to the people who caused the damage to our friends. I believe there is a baseline for human acceptance of disfigured or destroyed people - of course it is much lower if the body is of someone we care about vs .someone considered an adversary. Most know what they are getting into but to some degree are shocked when it actually happens with death and destruction resulting.
I also believe that when a reasonable human sees torn and shredded humans over and over again over a period of time a sort of mental numbness sets in as a coping tool. It may be possible that we see our own mortality in the death or destruction of others and we do not want to openly face that fact. I am nearly certain that this "numbness" is a huge part of the PTSD evolution for combat veterans. After a while combat veterans tend to isolate themselves and feel that no one except their "kind" have any value. Imagine how that would multiply when a veteran is released from service in a combat zone and comes home to what he would most likely deem "sheep" vs. warriors.
If you observe anyone who is truly suffering from PTSD or similar afflictions you will see that they do not seem to find many things entertaining or important. Smiles are very rare. Very sullen facial expressions. And emotional responses are difficult for them. People mean very little to them unless they have had similar experiences. Families had to be put on the back burner when the vet was in a war zone and now he does not feel like he may be able to communicate with them as a result of his experiences. He does not want to burden them with his traumas. He does not want to show any emotions because of the fear he may be seen as something less than the warrior he has become.
Honestly, I would not say that I have never suffered some degree of this mental trauma but somehow I was prepared to deal with it. I expected it and was certainly ready to do what I needed to do. Being in several life threatening situations in the service, the police department and other tasks since then in foreign locations like Iraq and Afghanistan was something that I had accepted when I chose to do that kind of work. I did not enjoy taking action but I was not overwhelmed by the fact that I did take action resulting in a bad day or worse for others. (You know that I have seen at least my share of trauma and probably much more than my share of death and destruction.) I would think about the event and later do my own post operation evaluation as to what could have been different, what I learned and possibly what I could have done to avoid the situation or possibly have facilitated a different outcome. I dealt with it quickly and effectively - trying to find the answers that would allow me to move on. Never rationalizing or second guessing but coming up with an honest evaluation of what had taken place. There is no easy solution for dealing with the death of a teammate when one is trying to ensure they survive by providing effective cover or field medical care. There is a huge feeling responsibility when the person dies even though you did all you could to prevent the death. I am not quite sure how one explains that but I am nearly certain the field medics and corpsman in the service are dealing with this everyday and will soon find they have suffered something more than they signed up for. This is not to take away from medical professionals who deal with death daily but I can assure you it is much different, much more personal in a police action or in a combat action.
SOS: What do you believe is at the heart of healing from post-incident traumatic stress?
I think the issue is to get to the bottom of what the PTSD victim is actually suffering and then find out the best method to get them back to what their new normal will be.
Many will be very resistant because they may not actually understand what is moving about between their ears. I am nearly certain anger and survival instinct has a lot to do with it. Frustration is almost certainly a factor too. Also I believe that most decent people are not made to kill another or to accept that they are in the middle of the killing fields where their lives are in obvious and very real peril. Long term exposure to potential death and destruction has to be a factor as well. This may be true for cops and war fighters. NOT EVERYONE IS WELL SUITED TO BE A WARRIOR AND WHEN EXPOSED TO A SERIOUS LIFE AND DEATH WARRIOR ENVIRONMENT THEY SOME HOW MUST FIND A WAY TO COPE - THIS MAY BE A PORTION OF LINGERING MENTAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA. Check out Grossman's book "On Killing"; it will give you some serious insight.
Sorry to babble but this is an area I am still trying to clarify - I guess I had always known I would be in high risk - high threat situations and l knew no other way than to deal with it.
SOS: "On Killing" is a great read. I read it long ago. As far as your response, what do you mean no other way to deal with it? Do you mean than to figure it out in your own my psychologically and philosophically?
Yes - deal with it at a personal and professional level - remain honest with yourself and absorb the blame if it is necessary but understand that bad things happen to good people.
SOS: All of this is very poignant and relevant to what so many warriors have and are experiencing. You brought up several points worth examining more closely. Let's start with anger. An influential religious leader once said there is righteous anger and unrighteous anger. Would you agree? And, if so, how does one "control the beast," so to speak? Why is anger necessary?
I will avoid the religious connotation but there may be something to the two types of anger. For the most part our warriors, regardless of uniform, strongly believe in what they do. The reason may be varied but almost always there is a form of patriotism involved. Or at least a strong fiber of honor and duty. Part of the anger, at least from my point of view recently, maybe the result of the outward attack upon our way of life by jihadists or anyone who might appear to be against our western world. They are plotting to destroy what we have known all of our lives - they would like to take away our freedoms and make us live their ridiculous way of life. This might be what we could refer to as righteous anger. Unrighteous anger - Hmmm, not sure I can address that one. I would stick more with the righteous anger and it would carry over from the idealism to the field of battle. If someone is attempting to kill me or my teammates there is no problem mustering up the anger to defeat them at all costs, I believe General Patton made it perfectly clear when he said we should not die for our country let some other poor bastard die for his cause. That is righteous anger.
I am not sure anyone can kill another human without some degree of anger in their soul.
SOS: Any civilized person with a love for freedom and liberty yearns to preserve those blessings. That's particularly true for the warrior. That said, anger seems to be a natural response and by-product to prolonged stress as well. Could unjustified anger, then, be indicative of not dealing with the psychological issue at hand? More pointedly, how does one balance when to use justified anger in an operation and yet not lash out, abuse or harass others (including family members) verbally or physically? Or engage in foolish revenge or excessive force?
I think we would have to define unjustified anger. The actor will obviously have a different perception than the receiver.
SOS: True. For unjust anger I mean kicking the dog, slapping the wife, road rage and bar fights - basically flying off the handle. Prior to such a traumatic event as war or critical incidents that might cause PTSD, such anger wouldn't have happened -- or at least such anger wouldn't come as easily and the emotionally wounded warrior wouldn't be unjustifiably aggressive..
It seems that some of the characteristics may have existed before the trauma but are exposed much quicker and with more vigor after traumatic experience. I think some of it may be related to the point that those with traumatic experiences are less tolerant of others for many reasons they seem to think they can look through all of the superfluous situations and get right to the facts - they may not always be right but they do feel they have to be assertive in their actions and of course others are not. Plus I think that in many cases they have to be in charge because they want to be the one making critical decisions.
SOS: You had mentioned initially that those involved in critical incidents feel different -- like no one other than "their kind" understands them, or what they've experienced. Difficulty in marriage seems to almost always follow. Why? And, how can one begin the healing process in an attempt to feel normal again?
My perception is that combat changes ones views of what is most important in life and how one interacts with the people around him. My best guess is that marriages suffer because one person experiences the worst life has to offer and the other remains home with little or no change in their lives other than handling the household by themselves (not a simple task I might add). Maybe the best way to describe the situation is that people change when they experience traumatic situations on an extended time frame and spouses who remain home have to make adjustments and do the job of two people - this can be frustrating for them too. The two people in the marriage tend to grow apart because they cannot or will not see what the other has been through and expect the spouse to automatically understand their side. Communication skills are stifled then anger and frustration continue to expand thus a serious friction and eventual lack of patience with the other happens. Sometimes physical violence is the result- I would say mostly due to the frustration and lack of fulfilled expectations, as well as the inability to communicate.
SOS: How does one begin healing from post traumatic stress and engage in critical incident recovery?
I believe a person suffering from the impact of combat - where ever the environment might be - has to answer a few questions for himself- like:
What was the situation?
What was the first thing you saw that grabbed your emotional strings?
Was the event a recurring situation like multiple roadside IEDs resulting in death and destruction? Was it the fact that a human life was destroyed? Was it the fact that you had taken a human life?
How do you deal about the fact that you had to act or go home in a box? (are you angry that someone put you in that situation? - your adversary)
What was the duration of your deployment/s?
How did you function within your team or group?
How do you feel your peers reacted to the incident/s?
Did you have close peer support?
Did you sustain any physical injuries?
Did you lose someone you trusted?
Do you feel you have responded any differently than your peers?
Do you believe that your developing years allowed you do face the combat situation or did your sense of right and wrong impact your response in combat?
Do you feel that you were properly prepared to enter into a combat situation - not only your fighting skills but your psychological understanding of combat?
Were you prepared to kill or be killed?
Do you have trouble thinking about the incident/s that have caused you to feel depressed? How does your personal discipline impact your daily life now vs. prior to the incident/s?
Do you believe your loved ones see you differently after experiencing combat actions?
Do you see yourself as a different person now that you were before your combat experience?
Do you believe you fulfilled your personal commitments to your service?
What plans do you have regarding your future? Do you have goals set? Do you see yourself 5 or 10 years from now?
What makes you smile now?
If you were 17 yrs old again would you look forward to going into the service that exposed you to the combat situation?
Was is the most distinctive thing your recall from your combat experience?
What would you offer an young soldier/police officer regarding the job you chose?
What would you do over if you could?
What will it take to make you feel whole again?
When do you think about the combat experiences - during your sleep - during the day?
Do you have any fears?
What makes you feel strong?
What could you do to find the direction in life you are looking for?
Do you feel you are clinically depressed?
SOS: Do the feelings change after time—has that been your experience? Do those feelings change with repetitive combat experiences, either on the street as a cop or in a battle zone?
I am not certain the feelings change. I do believe however that we get better at dealing with the feelings and therefore they appear to change from the view of observers.
With repetitive experiences I believe we become more accustomed to the feelings and adjust - take a look at a serious combat veteran when the bullets are flying - he continues on without fear of destruction - even though he knows it could happen any second. He has adjusted to the emotions of combat and works beyond them to accomplish his perceived tasks.
SOS: What do you believe is at the heart of healing from post-incident traumatic stress?
Understanding the situation and what it has done to you. Knowing that you are in fact a good person with a strong moral fiber. Knowing that war will result in losses. Knowing you can continue on in life as a productive person, citizen and survivor. Believing in ourselves and understanding that the worst times may be over and we have a chance to heal and move on.
SOS: Are there any last words of advice you'd like to share?
The human spirit is truly resilient. Most of us know we can survive nearly anything that does not kill us. I would encourage any of my brothers to stand up, take an honest look at the situation and make every effort to step back into our society and become productive and successful but never forget they have served and given all they have for this country and for our fellow warriors.
We have one common goal and that is to serve our peers with loyalty, honesty and integrity. I have no doubt we will all succeed with this task.
SOS: Ron, you're an inspiration to me - a true friend, patriot and warrior. Thank you so very much for agreeing to do this interview. I'm confident your words and insights will help many, many others.
To read this and other amazing interviews, check out Warrior SOS, the book on Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/Warrior-SOS-Military-Veterans-Emotional/dp/1462117341/
For Warrior SOS book endorsements from Glenn Beck, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and others, check out the author's link: http://www.jeffrey-denning.com/books/warrior-sos/