Coming home, part 2: The challenges facing cops returning from battle
Part 2 of a 3-part exclusive PoliceOne series
Note: This series deals with the potential problems of LEOs attempting to reintegrate into domestic policing after serving military combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our reporting is based on the presentations of experts at a unique, invitation-only symposium for law enforcement and mental health professionals at the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Police Academy, organized by Dr. Beverly Anderson, clinical director and administrator of the Metropolitan Police Employee Assistance Program. PoliceOne was the only communications agency permitted to attend.
In Part 1, we explored the battlefield culture, the mental injuries war commonly inflicts, and the fact that returning veterans will inevitably be changed, sometimes in negative ways, by what they have experienced.
[Read feedback on Part 1 from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Combat and PoliceOne National Advisory Board Member].
Once a law officer—or any returning soldier, for that matter—begins the process of reintegrating to home and job, “the road is likely to be longer, steeper and tougher than getting ready for combat,” said Capt. Aaron Krenz, a criminal justice-trained reintegration operations officer and Iraq veteran with the Minnesota National Guard. Often the men and women involved “don’t anticipate this.”
Hyper-vigilant, quick-trigger mentalities that helped an officer survive for months in a combat zone “don’t just go away, there’s no switch to turn this off,” Krenz said. And that’s the core of the reintegration struggle. Explains Maj. David Englert, chief of the Behavioral Analysis Division of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations: “Everything that made sense over there doesn’t make sense here.”
A simple example is driving style. In Iraq, Englert said, you’d swerve if you saw a water bottle on the roadway because it might be an IED, the greatest cause of injury and death in the war zone. You’d run cars off the road to get to your destination as fast as possible. You’d shoot any unknown vehicle that got too close to you for fear of an ambush.
He told of one returning vet who slipped behind the wheel of his family’s car after his wife and kids met him at the airport. “His wife stopped him even before they got to the ticket booth in the parking lot, and she took over” because his driving was so scary.
When an officer leaves for military deployment, “he takes a mental snapshot of how it’s going to be when he comes back,” Krenz says. But after the hugs and kisses of a brief honeymoon period—sometimes amazingly brief—a different reality often sets in.
Here are just a few of the reentry challenges that can impact an officer’s life back on the job and at home, according to the seminar faculty. Bear in mind that not all returning officer/veterans will experience these symptoms or be impaired by them. Just as with critical incidents in law enforcement, the lingering consequences of having been in combat will vary in nature and intensity from one individual to another.
• Adrenalin chasing. “War is an adventure,” Krenz said, and even policing for the most part can’t match its intensity. “You may be addicted to the adrenalin rush and not even know it.” In pursuit of that thrill, you may seek risks like a heat-seeking missile seeks a target. The challenge then becomes “replacing war with another high. How do you learn to accept life as it is and find meaning in it? How can you feel fully engaged again?
“Yes, the war was a defining moment in your life. But you need to close that chapter and move on to other defining moments.”
• Overwhelming complexity. In combat, a soldier has to make an average of 500 decisions a day, Krenz claimed. Civilians face an average of 3,000 decisions a day, probably even more in law enforcement. “You aren’t really using critical thinking skills over there,” Krenz said. “You may not have practiced those skills for a very long time. You go from simplicity to complexity, from no choices to overwhelming choices.”
He pointed out that there is often impatience with negotiating in relationships on the home front. “There is no negotiation in combat.”
The transition to new demands can be daunting. One presenter, Col. William Bograkos, a chief medical officer who heads the Warrior Transition Division of the military’s North Atlantic Region Medical Command, referenced the classic responses to stress overload: “Flight…fight…freeze.”
• Dismissive indifference. Back home, “things that seem like problems to other people aren’t a problem to you,” said Krenz. “Your attitude may be, ‘I’ve seen what a problem is. This isn’t a problem.’ ” Or, as Englert put it, “ ‘Last month I was dodging bullets, and now you want me to retype some report?’ Issues and priorities at work and home seem trivial compared to your recent war-zone activities, and you may refuse to comply with demands you see as unchallenging or unimportant.”
“If it didn’t blow me up or shoot me, it didn’t matter,” Sgt. Patrick Campbell, legislative director of the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans Assn., recalled of his mind-set upon returning stateside. “People I met seemed more worried about Starbucks than about soldiers dying in Iraq. I was callous, rude, impatient, got into fights. It took just three months before my best friend stopped speaking to me.”
For a cop, an uncaring, irritable, dismissive approach to other people’s turmoil is guaranteed to generate complaints, if not assaults.
• Alienation. “Every returning soldier has had amazing experiences—good, bad and ugly,” Krentz said. But family, friends and co-workers often present annoying questions: “Did you kill anyone?” “What are we really doing over there?” and so on. “You may feel that they want to use you as a platform to tell you their views and that no one really cares about what happened to you.”
You may be inclined to withdraw and, for different reasons, people may withdraw from you. Campbell remembered being in a movie when something on the screen caused him to flash back to a vivid experience in Iraq. “I could not stop crying,” he said. Or an officer trying to reintegrate may react excessively when he’s surprised by a door slamming behind. Non-vets are frightened by this sort of thing, Krenz said.
• Cognitive impairment. As reported in Part 1, Dr. Louis French, director of the Veterans Brain Injury Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, briefed seminar attendees on the prevalence of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among returning combatants. In most cases, symptoms appear to abate before the return home, he said, but in others they do linger and can affect job performance.
Campbell, a lively, articulate presenter who experienced head injuries in Iraq, said he still has “severe memory problems. I can’t remember something until I write it out. Sometimes it takes me half an hour to remember someone’s name.”
French reported that in the wake of a TBI, there is “increased risk of alcohol abuse.” Other speakers noted that this, as well as gambling and drug use, is commonly a means by which officer veterans seek to “fill the void” left by the diminished adrenalin highs.
In some cases, TBI can also be associated with an increase in impulsive and/or aggressive behavior—serious liabilities for officers on the street.
Even in lieu of physical damage, some veterans on returning experience problems in getting quality sleep. Fatigue can also affect an officer’s reflexes, reaction time and decision-making, Englert said.
• Spiritual concerns. “Your spirituality is very important,” said Bograkos. “You take it with you [to the battlefield] and you bring it back with you.” And for some officers, the journey is not a smooth one.
“We may have done or not done things that violate our moral code,” Krenz explained. “We have participated in the killing of other humans,” and some officers after do-or-die combat are left with “real guilt, false guilt, or survivor’s guilt. We may wonder, Is there absolution, or do I live with these feelings forever?”
Experience with critical incident trauma in domestic policing has shown that unresolved spiritual issues can impact on decision-making and may result in dangerous hesitation in life-threatening situations. “One of the critical challenges of reintegration,” Krenz stated, “is to make peace with yourself and God.”
• Job stresses. “A lot of things may have changed in your workplace while you were gone,” Krenz said. “When you left, you were at the top of your game, but when you get back you may be treated like a new hire. The person you can’t tolerate may have become your supervisor. Your friends may have moved on, but you’ve been frozen in time. Stresses like these can cause many conflicts.”
Because of turnover or reassignment, you may end up with fellow officers you don’t know and who don’t know you, Englert points out. That can be unnerving because “you have to know you can trust the people you work with in law enforcement.”
Also, he says, “When you’re feeling miserable, you like to be around people who’ve been in circumstances like yours and have managed to get through it successfully.” But if you’re the only veteran on the job, you may sink into a numbing isolation.
• Marital conflicts. Conditions may be ragged on the home front, as well. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder—if you have a great marriage” when you leave for war, said Englert. “Absence makes things worse for people who have problems.” Plus, even the best marriages inevitably feel some strain of readjustment.
Issues typically include: role assignments, financial decisions, child-rearing, communication, independence, sexual performance, the need for appreciation, fidelity and what Englert calls the “who had it worse game”—the usual marital flashpoints, intensified.
The extent to which these conflicts cause distraction, anger, depression and other negative fallout can influence an officer’s attitude and behavior—and safety—on the job.
Bograkos closed the seminar with a statement all the experts agreed with: “Coming home from combat, you will find that your country has changed, your family has changed, you have changed.”
Now you will need to change more, to fit into your new environment.
The unacceptable alternative is to reach a point where you speak and hear back what Krenz terms “the most devastating words”: “I want to go back”…“I wish you were there.”
Next: The key elements of a successful reintegration program, including a day-by-day description of how the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. helps vets make the transition back to the streets. How does your agency stack up?