The Power of a Military Mindset: Lessons in Coping During Difficult Times

Army Veteran and former CEO of Procter and Gamble Bob McDonald, led the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from 2014 – 2017 to improve Veteran access to healthcare and the many other benefits VA offers. It was an ambitious mission, and I was honored that I got to play a small part. Three colleagues and I stood up a Customer (Veterans) Experience Office at Bob’s request, and we spent much of our time doing field research, mostly listening to the stories of Veterans from all eras and branches of service. Their stories of resilience, of always finding a way and always having each other’s backs in the most difficult of circumstances, educated and continue to inspire me.

When the pandemic first hit, I thought of some of the Veterans I’d worked closely with during that time at VA who have since become friends and how they have so much wisdom to share. One is a journalist, while the two others lead a human-centered design consultancy. I wondered how they were coping with the health crisis and how their military training is coming into play in this present moment; so I asked each of them. As I imagined, their responses were creative, insightful, and reflective of their resourcefulness.

These conversations took place before Memorial Day. They were impactful for me, and I am compelled to share some of their lessons with you. May they bring you food for thought, and perhaps even a few tactics you can apply to help maintain and strengthen your resilience during this time.

“You decide and you do it. We’ve got this.”

Kelly Kennedy is the only U.S. woman to see combat both as a civilian journalist when she covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a soldier, when she served in the U.S. Army in Somalia and in Desert Storm. A former USA TODAY reporter, she now serves as managing editor for The War Horse. Here’s how she is coping with the challenges that have come from the COVID-19 pandemic.

I always find the solution. If I decide I’m going to do something, I do it. You might get pretty dirty, but you’re probably going to live through it. So I think – what’s the worst thing that can happen? Prepare for that. People get really creative in the military. You see it and you learn from them. People in the military can do anything with a cord and a knife. You jerry-rig things until you get through it. There’s a bit of a sense of being invincible. You assume you’re going to be fine. I catch myself doing this all the time and force myself to be careful: I wear a mask; I grocery shop every two weeks. We have a detox bathroom set up in the basement for when my partner comes home from working at the hospital. We make it work.

I think a lot about walking; being able to or not – especially as a reporter. Going back to my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, you can’t go for a walk. You’re stuck in a place and that feeling of being confined is there. Not being able to get to people that you want to be with is there. Maybe some of that slowness is there too. People joke about war being combat or boredom; you’re going or you’re sitting and getting a bit stir crazy. I’m used to those feelings.

There’s a sense among my military friends that as tough as things are, we’ve seen worse and we’re grateful to be here. No one is shooting at us, and there are ways to keep ourselves safe. I do worry about my friends with PTSD and the suicide rates of course.

During this time, I’m allowing myself an active moment of grief every day; those moments when I’m reading the obituaries and thinking about minorities dying at higher rates, or unprepared frontline workers. I set aside space for that grief, and the rest of the day is compartmentalized. It helps me a lot. I don’t want to be numb. I need to feel, but I don’t need to let it take over.

I’ve also used the slowness to build. So much of our time in the military is spent in preparation, so I’m reading, learning to refocus after all the busy-ness, and thinking about ways to help in the long-term. Some friends and I are creating a website that teaches how to take action in everyday life to improve the world, rather than feel overwhelmed by headlines and conspiracies and helplessness. You decide and you do it. We’ve got this.

“Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”

Shaun So is the founder and CEO of The So Company, a government service design firm. He is a U.S. Army veteran, having served in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2006. Here is how he is coping with the uncertainty of things during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Military training forces you to be present in a moment in which otherwise people are legitimately allowed to panic. This habit of sticking to the facts helps right now. In my household I run through them: Did you eat today? How are the kids? How often do they play? Sticking to objective recollection helps maintain a sense of roundedness and normalcy, and gets people out of anxiety and fear, though fear is definitely allowed. It helps you to be a little more rational. I’ll give you an example from Wilderness First Responder training: The Scene Size Up.

  1. Look out for #1. Am I safe in this moment? You have to be OK to take care of others.
  2. How are you? Look outward to see the people around you and see how they’re doing.
  3. Don’t get any on me. Wear protective gear in responding to someone who is hurt. Protect your face and hands.
  4. Are there any more? The coronavirus is similar to a counter-insurgency. The energy is invisible, potentially everywhere, and looks like anyone. Going into the world right now you have to assume everyone is the enemy and this isn’t healthy for normal people. It’s counterintuitive to human nature.
  5. Dead or alive? You go to help the person who is not dead. A lot of people are talking about this right now in medical and hospital situations. You have to triage.
    As a leader of a team, I realize that a mental health professional can do a much better job than me. I see a lot of ego with leaders who feel pressure amongst their peers and superiors to try and fix everything right now.

I stick to a few ideas from Delta Force: Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. This means the slower you move, the smoother you are, and the smoother you are together.

“There’s a place where expeditionary military thinking and design thinking link up.”

Richard Wheeler is an artist and designer living and working in Los Angeles; in his free time, he manages a service design consulting firm.  He served as an analyst in the United States Army.

One of the things I’ve asked myself a lot is: what are the essential problems that need to be solved? And where do I have the most leverage to do things? I think what everyone can get in the military—not that everyone does get this—is the idea of planning for field operations. You think: what are the essentials? I started making a lot of spreadsheets and taking the ordinary everyday things we do and decomposing them into checklists and SOP (standard operating procedures). You can break everything down to a system of requirements. For example: I need 2,000 calories a day. Where will they come from?

There’s a matter-of-fact-ness about these things in the military or any institutional setting (like a hospital). But in the military, there is an expeditionary component. And that makes you think about the future differently. If you can’t go to the grocery store for an unknown period of time it becomes a matter of imagination: what am I going to need in three months?

Another thing that you can learn to think about is pacing. You have to have an internal rhythm that is based on your reality and your systems regardless of what’s going on outside. You can’t just run all the time. Even if we all work really hard right now, we won’t solve all the problems. None of it changes the fact that we each have only our day and so many hours in that day. You need to plan and conserve resources.

There’s a place where expeditionary military thinking and design thinking link up. I worked in fashion before joining the military, and that gave me a sense of the production point of view. I would design, get fairly detailed about components and finishes, but at the end of the day, things were being fabricated by people in Korea or China. Someone else finished the project. And the time between when I designed something and it hit the stores could be a year or more. Right now, I’ve been working on making masks. Making 200 or so myself engages a different set of design questions than the ones I’m used to. It’s a completely different animal and for me, it’s been super interesting.

I’ve been really responding to a lot of articles I’m reading that are calling out the different kinds of decision fatigue we could all be experiencing right now, related to dealing with uncertainty. I feel pretty tapped out. I have less energy. And I still haven’t shut off parts of my brain that have expectations about what I should be getting done, even if those assumptions don’t make any sense anymore. You’ve got to constantly update your picture and ask yourself: what do I need to do now?

When people say “I didn’t get anything done today,” I have to ask if we can really trust those feelings right now. I’m still very much trying to adapt to a different assessment of what done and a full day looks like. Some people are judging themselves harshly. They may say “All I did was make a grocery list.” To me, that sounds like a really good thing to do right now. Did it help you get out of the grocery store 10 minutes earlier? That seems good. There are a zillion things like that in the military. Cleaning this. Fixing that. It can all seem so mundane, so tedious. Until you need that thing to work. Then it’s worth it.

Courtesy of Sarah Brooks

Featured image courtesy of Simona Toader

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