The Human Toll

We have been working on one particular case that has become quite time-intensive and also has gained some traction in the media. Last week, our client “C” and I sat down for an interview which is slated to air early next month. During that interview, C talked about the cost of being a whistleblower in the military. She recounted the ostracism, retaliation, retribution and bullying that she endured after reporting her supervisor for having harassed her. She continued by discussing how alone she felt afterwards, how few people came to her side and how so many either continued to work against her, or, turned against her.

If you know anything about my story, you know C’s story resonates with me deeply. So, when the camera pivoted to me and I was asked “what does the Foundation provide its clients,” I replied with an answer I’m not sure I had given before. Yes, I of course discussed the public advocacy piece and the individual guidance and advisement side of the house, but I also said “we are a partner, an ally with the client; someone on their side in this fight.” I’m not sure I had ever phrased the human side of what we do as a Foundation until that point. But it is a very important thing we do, perhaps the most important. Cases will run their course and rules and laws will change or they won’t, but the impact we can have on others and their lives is what counts; it is, by definition, our legacy.

After the interview was over and the reporters had departed, C and I had a quiet minute to ourselves to discuss what essentially is the human side of this process; more accurately, the human toll. We talked about this very lonely journey that one goes on when they stand up against the military institution (this “path” was the inspiration for the graphic design of my logo; the depiction of a long and winding road). And during this discussion, my thoughts went to, as they often do, those people in my life nearly two years ago who I looked to for love, empathy, support, compassion and camaraderie as I began my “path” in earnest. I, of course, thought about those people and where they landed on the ‘spectrum’ of support during that very difficult summer of 2021 – from complete betrayal to unwavering stalwart support and most things in between.

A year after I went public, I wrote an editorial taken from my experiences of the twelve months that followed. In it, there was a section entitled “Summer Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots” which calls into question the moral fabric of our military officer corps. But alongside that theme, and more germane to this article, is the introduction of the topic of reconciliation.

I discovered quite early on in my mental health journey that I have a tendency to ruminate: to dwell on something in my own mind and replay it back; almost always thinking of the event in the same way and from the same perspective. Psychologically, that means that the ruminator (me) is constantly not only reliving a traumatic event, but also creating more neural pathways to think of that event in the same way. In essence, with each rumination, I convinced myself even more that how I saw the events of the past was exactly how they were. The countertactic to this mental slippery slope is to consciously reframe the event and think of it from another perspective; something that is not your own point of view and may be completely contradictory, in fact. As I alluded to in my editorial, the resultant see-saw I typically find myself in when re-evaluating the events of the last two years boils down to basically this: “people should have been there for me” vs. “I understand why they weren’t.”

At face value, this re-framing seems like an easy task: stop yourself from thinking in one way, and start thinking another. But on the drive back from the interview last week, I thought, “easy…yet here I am nearly two years later still struggling…struggling to reconcile it all…” As soon as I arrived home, I looked up the word reconcile and re-discovered what an incredibly fitting word it is:

From Merriam-Webster online

There is not another word in the English language that better describes the toll this journey takes, and the aftermath, and the desired end-state than reconcile. Also fitting that 1a is the first definition used as it is really the ultimate goal: to restore to friendship, to restore to harmony.

2: To make consistent and congruous. I discussed in my article on moral injury beyond the battlefield the fundamental shifting a traumatic event can have on one’s belief system. As difficult as that may be, perhaps even more difficult is cleaning up the pieces afterwards. I say this because in the aftermath of a moral injury it is the onus of the victim to reset, to make life consistent and congruous again, to reconcile. The people around you who weren’t there, who didn’t deliver on their promises, who turned their backs on you: they continue on with life. Further, the system, the military institution, that harmed you – it doesn’t even bat an eye. None of them, whether it be the people who disappointed you or your service, suffered the moral injury – you did. It is then you that is left to deal with it, to deal with the disconnect of what you felt “should have been” and what “is” or “was.” For me, the incongruity is still there and it haunts me: this discord between my head and my heart, the former completely understanding all the rationales, the explanations, the justifications, the re-framing of events; the latter still hurting, and in some cases reeling, as if it all played out days ago, not years.

About midway through the interview, C read off from her official complaint the three requests she asked of the Navy. One of those was for her command to offer her an apology. I found that to be beautiful in its simplicity and poignancy. She had been through veritable hell for the past 16 months, with documented depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations. Yet, just about everyone reading this right now knows that apology is never going to come. The United States Navy, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government is, with 99 to 1 odds, not going to apologize to C. Despite the fact that, with well beyond a preponderance of the evidence, C was wronged in several ways, the military will likely never publicly accept that fault. Sad, really. I wonder what it would cost the Navy to just say “I’m sorry.” I wonder what it would cost them to meet C halfway and go so far as to simply acknowledge her suffering. Pride and ego are powerful motivators, aren’t they? …for both good and for evil. Flipping the script, imagine what something as simple as an apology would have done for C… Imagine if she didn’t have to fight and scrap and “lawyer up” for the better part of a year and a half in order to get that simple acknowledgment… I wonder how her life would have played out had our military had just owned up to having wronged her from the get-go. Would it have prevented the sleepless nights, the medical complications, the attempted suicide? I believe that answer is an unequivocal yes. But that apology or acknowledgment never came and so C befell the same fate as so many other victims in the military who are, in reality, victimized twice-over: the abuse itself and then the arduous road of seeking justice. I wonder how many “C”s are out there in today’s military… I wonder when the military will start caring about them…