The Defender job is stressful—arguably one of the hardest jobs in the military today. In addition to meeting the basic obligations of being an airman, maintaining proficiency in skills ranging from first aid and marksmanship to continuing education and requirements for promotion, they have the added requirement of displaying unfaltering professionalism in moments of uncertainty and crisis. Their continuous interaction with the general population requires them to maintain an unwavering level of calm and behavioral neutrality under ill-defined conditions that can never truly be anticipated.
This daily requirement for sustained poise under pressure is an endurance event, a life skill expected not solely from senior NCO’s or command teams. Every recent Security Forces tech school graduate is expected to maintain control of groups of people that at any given time might include foreign dignitaries, military VIPs, clergy, angry civilians, and children in crisis. Frequently put in chaotic working conditions, this doesn’t even take into consideration less-than-ideal situations Defenders may have at home.
Security forces units are made up of Defenders with a broad range of time in service, experience, and levels of training, and an even broader range of external conditions in their lives outside of their shifts. At any moment they are each dealing with sick or troubled family members, struggling marriages, new children, financial mishaps, pending deployment, their own health issues, and a myriad of other stressful circumstances in which all Americans in modern society might at some point find themselves. Regardless of how bad a day they may experience, they go home and put on their spouse or parent hat, and after a full day and possibly a lousy night’s sleep recalling events from a recent deployment, they get up and do it all over again.
This was the state of normal before COVID-19 hit. Suddenly Defenders had the added struggle of managing homeschool, working remotely, coordinating with contractors on nights and weekends after the kids go to sleep, and trying to maintain their health and protect the health of their loved ones.
As if that wasn’t enough, then the American relationship with law enforcement hit a boiling point—a double-tap in an already impossible scenario. Progressively, as their social media feeds light up with aggression towards their law enforcement brothers and sisters, they are then faced with the struggle to maintain outward pride and confidence in their profession in a world that, at times, can seem banded against them. All of this added burden compounds and has caused alarm for leaders who were already struggling to get a grasp on resilience and the unacceptable suicide rate for Defenders.
On a typical day, their heightened sense of alert starts at morning PT (earlier if they had to clean up after the dog, calm a child with a cranky wakeup, or deal with road rage on their way to base) and the intensity continues to build. The scenarios each Defender encounters throughout the course of their waking hours requires a physiological response from their sympathetic nervous system,1 the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. This response doesn’t only engage when they are in a shootout or a chase, it could happen in situations that are quite common—like trying to ensure pedestrians aren’t hit by oncoming traffic while directing an unauthorized vehicle to exit a base access point. This continuous heightened state of alert is all in a day’s work for a Defender and unfortunately, multiple studies have proven it can become acute and negatively impact their ability to shoot,2 think clearly,3 and defend themselves.4
Resiliency efforts are full steam ahead, and the Brave Badge Initiative is gaining traction.5 The Department of Resilience website (www.resilience.af.mil) has resources and supportive messages like: be grateful, be a good neighbor, combat mental health stigma, and seek help if you need it. This is great progress and all undoubtedly good advice, but if you find yourself concerned that it isn’t enough, you’re not alone.
The problem isn’t knowing where to find help—it is often just finding the time, and the courage to seek it.
The resilience we seek for our Defenders—the ability to bounce back to a state of readiness so that we are once again ready to respond to threat—is a natural function of a healthy autonomic nervous system. In order to effectively activate the body’s sympathetic response, it needs to be in the parasympathetic state. This balancing part of our autonomic nervous system is sometimes called “rest and digest,” a state of preparedness for “fight or flight.” Imbalance in the two can cause a body to stay in five-alarm-fire mode without even realizing it.
Our systems are rubber bands. If tension remains without returning to a flexible state, that tension will eventually snap.
While there are studies regarding the effects of mindfulness training on the acute stress of police officers, Defenders are unlikely to take mindfulness moments throughout the day, partly because the rub-some-dirt-on-it ‘tough guy’ culture still exists.6
The good news is there’s a simple remedy—make it quick, make it fun, make it mandatory, and incorporate it as part of regularly scheduled training. In a recent article series about the potential compounded dangers of acute stress, a simple solution is presented by incorporating resiliency as part of MILO Range training that’s already happening throughout Defender units around the world. A solution based on empirical research, that takes less than 5 minutes, in conjunction with training that is already happening, has no stigma attached, and is actually… fun!
Overcoming the fear of seeking help is no longer an issue if everyone is doing it; making it mandatory and in conjunction with MILO Range training is a good way to ensure self-care becomes an embedded part of the Defender culture.
We know there is a problem, and leadership has made almost every attempt to solve it. But among the expansive and increasingly growing list of required training for defenders, there remains one mission—the one critical for all other mission success—that merely remains ‘encouraged’. The mission of Defender self-care has to be mandatory, it has to be incorporated into training that’s already happening, and it needs to start before we have another Fort Hood.7
A version of this article was originally published by Security Forces Magazine:
VerPlanck, Joy. Incorporating Resilience into Training. Security Forces Magazine, volume 29, 4, 2020, 12-13. https://afsfaonline.com/
Anderson, G. S., Litzenberger, R., & Plecas, D. (2002). Physical evidence of police officer stress. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 25(2), 399-420.
2Nieuwenhuys, A. & Oudejans, R. (2010). Effects of anxiety on handgun shooting behavior of police officers: a pilot study. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping; An International Journal, 23(2), 225-233.
3Lieberman, H., Farina, E., Caldwell, J., Williams, K., Thompson, L., Niro, P., & McClung, J. (2016). Cognitive function, stress hormones, heart rate and nutritional status during simulated captivity in military survival training. Physiology & Behavior, 165, 86-97.
4Renden, P., Landman, A. Geerts, S., Jansen, S. Faber, G., Savelsbergh, G. (2013). Effects of anxiety on the execution of police arrest and self-defense skills. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping; An International Journal, 27(1), 100-112.
5The Brave Badge Initiative. (2020). Air Force Security Forces Association Online. Retrieved from https://afsfaonline.com/index.php/guardmount-news/359-the-brave-badge-initiative
6Dawson, J. (2019). “Fighting Stress in the Law Enforcement Community,” nij.ojp.gov: Retrieved from https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/fighting-stress-law-enforcement-community
7Fernandez, M. (2020). A Year of Heartbreak and Bloodshed. NY Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/09/us/fort-hood-deaths-army.html