Warrior brings the worlds of the warrior and those they protect together to shine light on things that many of us thought we understood.
Trust, Stigma, Firearms,The Imploding Mind, Connection
Dr. Shauna Springer is a nationally recognized expert on initiatives that benefit the military community. Known as “Doc Springer”, she is a trusted adviser for a vast network of veterans, military families, and fellow thought leaders. She has helped thousands of veterans and their partners thrive after military service, supporting warriors in reconnecting with their tribe, strengthening their relationships, and building lives driven by their values.
In Warrior, Shauna offers a glimpse how our bravest citizens may struggle and draws from the experiences of our warfighters to help us understand true courage and the bonds of love that keep all of us in the fight.
Tell me a little about your book
Despite being constantly and reflexively “thanked for their service”, today’s veterans tell me that they feel no better understood by society than our Vietnam veterans did. They tell me that they often feel invisible, like ghosts, trying to navigate through a culture that has values that are now completely foreign to them.
Many people in society—including a fairly large number of therapists—seem to think that veterans come back traumatized by what they see and do in combat. Through public and private funding, we have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop effective treatments for post-traumatic stress, and to diagnose and better understand TBI. We are told that these are the “invisible wounds of war.” We have trained up thousands of clinicians across the VA to deliver empirically supported treatments for the “trauma of being exposed to war.”
And yet, the idea that veterans die by suicide because they deploy to war zones is a misconception: A 2015 study of nearly four million U.S. service members and veterans found that deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan is not associated with an increased risk of suicide.[i]
What I’ve observed is this: There are some injuries that are even more invisible, more insidious, and more lethal than the “invisible wounds of war” that we have focused so much time and money to address. For many of my patients, the hidden pain they carried came from other sources. For instance, five very common sources were childhood traumas; moral injuries; past experiences of social rejection upon entering treatment settings; feelings of alienation from their closest family members and civilians in general; and the helpless rage and overwhelming grief of losing fellow veterans to combat, training accidents, and suicide.
WARRIOR is a book about what we’re missing as a society – the injuries that are more invisible and potentially lethal than what we’re focused on now. It’s about the hidden pain of our bravest and strongest, and the possibility of navigating that pain in a way that makes us stronger in the end. And the message in this has broad implications for many across society that have suffered from unimaginable traumas – not from war perhaps, but from so many other causes.
What is the backstory behind “WARRIOR” and why did you decide to write this book?
The truth is this – it wasn’t my idea. One of my prior patients – a warrior who served in 5th Special Forces Group – put me up to it.
He encouraged me to write WARRIOR in a way that felt sacred, because he made the request in the context of a meaningfully “hail and farewell” of a kind.
During our final therapy session, he gave me a Special Forces challenge coin and a letter that said:
You have in my opinion, the heart and spirit of a true warrior. I am not talking about a warrior that kills people as in war but one that fights for people in a peaceful way, which in some ways is a much tougher thing to do. It is actually easy to kill someone, once you have the training to know how to do it. It is much harder to work with someone and stick with them through the tough times. To help them learn what works and what doesn’t work. To help them overcome the challenges in life. This is what I call a “tender warrior.” This is only the second time I have given someone this coin. Please accept this gift in the spirit it was given to you, with my deepest respect.
He challenged me to share what I’ve learned, a range of insights gained from the place of uniquely deep trust I’ve held with those in the warfighter community. He expressed to me that writing this would be the best way to honor this trust.
During our final clinical session, he impressed on me that writing WARRIOR would be the way I could scale these insights – to help warriors understand the challenges they face, and to help military leaders, healthcare decision-makers, military family members, VSOs, behavioral health providers, peer supporters, and healers of all kinds to better support our military community.
At the end of our final session, he left me with these parting words:
When you write this book, say what needs to be said without pulling punches. I know that you keep your word, so one year from today, I’m going to find you and see where you are in writing the book you promised you would write.
I could not say “no” to his request. Each time I sat down to write WARRIOR, I did so with this warrior and so many others at my back – holding space there as an invisible force. When I have had times of friction, as any writer does, they have helped me remember that this project is not about me, but about the relationship of trust we have held with each other. WARRIOR is about this trust, fulfilled in an urgency of purpose to share insights that can save the lives of their brothers and sisters in arms.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
Sure. This is an extension of a story I shared in my book WARRIOR that is based on part of a working draft for a TED talk I’d like to give in the future.
When a combat Marine is fully bent on self-destruction, is there anything that can stop that Marine in his or her tracks?
I invite you to walk with me and with a Marine name Brian Vargas who has given permission to share this story.
“Brian Vargas is a combat Marine who got blown up by an exploding drum full of deadly ammunition. Brian’s injuries required over 200 medical procedures when he was pulled out of the combat zone. It took us a long time to build trust, but in time we earned a deep level of trust with each other. On this particular day, during our therapy session, Brian is not making eye contact with me. He admits that he is in crisis, actively looping on thoughts of ending his life. I feel the familiar pull of fear, sadness and helplessness deep in my gut as I wonder whether I might be the last person to see him alive.
I go to my desk drawer and pull out an empty mint box. It has a picture of Shirley Temple on the outside, and another picture on the inside. Underneath the picture on the inside is the key for a firearm lock. Brian loves his wife very much – in fact, when he was lethally wounded in combat, it was his wife’s voice he heard urging him to keep fighting for life.
Getting into a power struggle about his ownership of his firearm wouldn’t have honored the trust we earned with each other. So, I offered him a firearm lock and asked Brian if he would be willing to lock his firearm and put the key underneath two pictures of his beautiful wife. I knew that this would force him to see her picture at least twice before making a decision to end his life.
Brian came back to the next session with a small ammo can – it was plastic – about 3” x 5.” He said, “OK Doc, let’s really test this theory. It can’t hurt, and I think I need this right now.” Brian eventually came to call this his WARRIOR BOX and he filled it up with sacred objects that remind him of the things he would be willing to die for. He filled it with pictures of his fellow Marines, some who died in battle, and some who died by suicide.
Into his WARRIOR BOX Brian placed his Purple Heart ribbon, his wife’s wedding vows, and pieces of shrapnel – ugly twisted fragments of metal that had done their best to claim his life, until his wife appeared in his mind’s eye and told him that she needed him to stay alive. When we connect, we survive.
And when Brian found himself in that desperate hour at the end of a tunnel of despair, he instinctively reached for his .45, but it was locked up. He felt a flash of rage at the obstacle to his plan. In this state of self-destructive rage, he threw the contents of his WARRIOR BOX out on the table, intent on getting the key. And, as these items – tangible reminders of what he would die for – spilled out onto the table there was a flash as the streetlight glinted off a piece of shrapnel that had been removed from his body.
His breathing slowed just a bit. Then he saw his wife’s wedding vows and was suddenly able to hear his wife’s urgent voice and feel her pulling at him, telling him to PLEASE STOP! Brian lived through his most desperate moment because the things that he would die for turn out to be the same things that he would live for, and he did.”
THIS is what has a power greater than despair. Brian and I have since spent many long hours co-developing a set of materials to go inside the ammo cans. The WARRIOR BOX Project kit has been deployed at several private reunions of Marines. We are now receiving orders from embedded behavioral health providers to deploy this intervention for active-duty service members. If you want to learn more, there is further information on my website – www.docshaunaspringer.com at the bottom of the home page in the “WARRIOR BOX PROJECT” box.
What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?
I’ve worked with many military leaders over the past decade.
Leaders who care about their men and women often express a feeling of helplessness to me around the issue of suicide losses in their ranks. The loss of someone to suicide creates both personal trauma and massive collateral damage within the Tribe of those who serve.
Military leaders must have the right insights for understanding mental warfare. THIS is a huge gap in their knowledge. This gap is what I am so well positioned to help them understand, and I’d like to equip them with these insights as a core element of their leadership training.
Here are some examples of insights I’ve learned through my work as a trusted Doc to countless military servicemembers, veterans and first responders:
I believe that our current interventions are aligned with the wrong question. Instead of asking a patient, “How can we come up with a plan to pull yourself out of a crisis?” a better question might be, “How can we help you draw from the strength of your Tribe to give you the will to stay in the fight?”
I believe there is more to it than individual resilience. In life-or-death moments, we need to call in maximum firepower. Developing individual “resilience” does not create the same level of “resilience” as reconnecting people to their Tribe. The power of connection between those who love and trust each other is a power that is greater than despair. These people are the ones with the greatest power to expose the fundamental lie that drives suicidal behavior – that one’s death will be a gift to others. That is a lie worth exposing.
And I realize that, as a healer, it is not my job to save my patients – to think that I could save them was simply to have the illusion of control. What I CAN do, however, is facilitate the connection between the things that people would be willing to die for in battle – since it turns out these are the very things that can stop them when they are fully bent on self-destruction.
The more I work in the trenches with populations that have a high suicide rate, the more I start to understand this truth: The things we would die for are the same things we would live for.
Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
Yes – more than I can name! I am an avid reader. One of my favorite authors is Karl Marlantes, who wrote the definitive novel of the Vietnam War, Matterhorn. Karl then wrote a follow up book called What it is Like to Go to War. This second book was based on Karl’s personal experiences in combat, as an officer leading a group of Marines in the jungles of Vietnam. This book has had a greater influence on me than any other book I’ve read. In this book, Karl wrote a series of very focused reflections on topics like “Killing,” “Loyalty” “Home” and others. He uses elements of his own story, and brilliant insights, sometimes derived from the work of his mentors, people like Joseph Campbell.
It has been one of the greatest honors of my life to come to know Karl as a personal friend. And his endorsement of my work – including his description of me as a “warrior in my own right” was an incredible blessing during this past year, a year that has otherwise been so challenging for me and for many of us.
There are many other books that have been important in shaping my understanding of how to better support those who take the oath of service. I actually created a list of my top 20 recommendations that I’d be happy to share with your readership – linked here.
This list definitely needs an update though. I’ve done quite a lot of additional reading during nearly a year of social distancing and “shelter-in-place” restrictions. To this list, I would add Major Scott Huesing’s Echo in Ramadi, Jimmy Blackmon’s Cowboys Over Iraq: Leadership from the Saddle, Mat Best’s Thank you for My Service, Bill Edmond’s God is Not Here, Jason Kander’s Outside the Wire: Ten Lessons I’ve Learned in Everyday Courage, Matt Louis’ Mission Transition, Milo Afong’s Hogs in the Shadows: Combat Stories from Marine Snipers in Iraq, and Sean Tobias Ambriz’ Ghosts of the Valley.
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven your page.
FACT 1: I had a full and expansive life before I ever studied psychology at the graduate level. I’ve lived at the extremes – spending summers in South America, serving kids with polio, sleeping under mosquito nets, hunting alligators with Shipibo Indians on the Amazon river, bathing in freezing aqueducts and shoveling rocks to build concrete buildings, and then working in the Vatican City on projects that tapped a different part of who I am. These experiences have helped me gain an unusual level of cultural agility.
FACT 2: I wasn’t even a psychology major during my time as an undergraduate at Harvard. And I thought I’d become a lawyer. I had had only one psychology course, so I had to work very hard to get prepared for and admitted to a Ph.D. program in Psychology. But I actually think that I did learn Psychology during my undergraduate years at Harvard – as an English Major. Any really good writer is a psychologist in a way. If psychology is the science of “understanding and predicting behavior” then writers, actors, and other creatives, as well as effective leaders in the corporate world, often have a well-developed understanding of psychology.
Of course, going through rigorous formal psychology training extended my understanding significantly. But ultimately, getting out of the classroom, and even out of the clinic, was what helped me make the transition from being “Dr. Springer” to “Doc Springer,” a name that I hold based on the trust I’ve developed with the military and first responder communities.
As I’ve made this transition, I now see with clarity that there are many meaningful differences between a “Dr.” and a “Doc.” For example, a “Doctor” who works with veterans often holds this core belief. “Working with Veterans is my job.”
Doctors assume trust based on academic credentials, think their first assessments are accurate, engage their patients as “the identified expert” and communicate ‘I outrank you’ to patients in ways both subtle and overt.
On the other hand, a “Doc” who works with veterans holds this core belief: “Serving Veterans is my calling.”
Docs see working with Veterans as their way to serve those who have served. They earn trust by listening closely and showing respect to their Veteran patients. Docs engage with Veterans outside of the “patient” role and they collaborate with and learn from their Veteran patients.
Becoming “Doc Springer” has been a process, and like everything in life, I find myself in a state of constant evolution. In the decades to come, I hope to train up an Army of Docs, both civilians with the same heart that drives me, and prior service members and first responders, who can bring the wisdom of lived experience to their next mission.
FACT 3: One of the most promising interventions for Post-Traumatic Stress that I’ve seen in two decades of work – has not hit a tipping point in awareness. About 4 years ago, when I was working as a frontline psychologist in a VA hospital, one of my patients asked me about a treatment I’ve never heard of – Stellate Ganglion Block (SGB), an injection in the neck that seems to calm an over-active “fight or flight system.” As I looked into it, I learned that this procedure – pioneered by a world-renowned anesthesiologist named Dr. Eugene Lipov – was being used in several military medical hospitals and as a “go to” treatment within some Special Forces units.
My patient had served in Special Forces – in fact, he was a medic – and he asked me to arrange for an SGB on his behalf. Fortunately, I did have a connection with a qualified physician. My patient asked to have me in the room during the procedure. After reading what sounded like unbelievable claims, I had to see this with my own eyes.
Within minutes of the SGB injection, the tension lines in his face relaxed. He teared up. He said, “it feels like someone just took a thousand-pound weight off my chest.” In the weeks after the injection, we were able to get real traction in setting him on a new course, and he has sustained these gains for years, without additional intervention. I’ve since treated dozens of patients with the same process – SGB paired with therapy.
From these experiences, I’ve seen how SGB accelerates and deepens the work we do. SGB and therapy together can help patients achieve outcomes I couldn’t have imagined when I started this journey. I have teamed up with Dr. Lipov and together we are leading a team that will make this new model of treatment available to many more Americans.
As Chief Psychologist for Stella, my role involves helping people understand the promise of this game-changing treatment. Doing this is a large part of how I’m currently working to support military veterans, first responders, and others in society who have experienced traumatic events. Learn more by connecting with us online at STELLA.
What is next for you and your writing projects?
Next up is a book I’m working on with retired police officer Michael Sugrue. Through our work together, we hope to shine a spotlight on the nature of trauma for our first responder community, and insights and pathways for healing this trauma. I’m excited about how the draft is progressing – Michael is a wonderful partner and this has been such a joyful collaboration!
After that I plan to write a book that brings me back to what I focused on during the first decade of my career. Specifically, I spent the first decade of my career focused on how we connect – or fail to connect – in our marriages and closest life partnerships.
Across the arc of my career thus far, I have learned many things that may seem counter-intuitive about how we connect with each other.
Here are ten examples, of many more, that I will be writing about for my next sole authored book, tentatively titled, BIND: The Surprising Truth About Human Connection.
1.) Even though 50% of marriages end in divorce, we do not have a 50% divorce rate – some of us have a much higher, or lower, risk of divorce, depending on several key factors
2.) Falling in love has much less to do with “love” than something like cocaine addiction
3.) Under the right circumstances, people who “hate each other on sight” can become people who would willingly die for each other
4.) Before we get married, we should have a number of good fights with our potential partner
5.) There is no such thing as “soul mates” the way we usually think of the concept, but under certain conditions, two people can become each other’s soul mate over time
6.) Past trauma shapes character, sometimes in great ways
7.) The “Golden Rule” turns out to be a really unhelpful guide in many cases when it comes to how we treat our partners
8.) Carrying each other’s emotional burdens often requires us to do nothing at all
9.) The more interdependent we are, the more independent we can be
10.) The power of connection has a power that is greater than despair. When we connect, we survive.
My goals in writing this book are to give my readers…
1) A clear picture of what right looks like – explained in a clear, practical 3-phase model of successful lifelong partnerships
2) A way to re-examine and address fears about future connection by developing new insights to explain why past relationships may not have worked out
3) An analysis of key factors that influence the likelihood of divorce, an analysis that is based on high quality research and two decades of clinical practice
4) Practical (often counter-intuitive) insights for how to create the conditions for a lasting, healthy partnership
5) A new understanding of the role of conflict in relationships that will allow us to overcome fears and avoidance of conflict
6) Practical guidance for how to engage in conflict that is productive, that builds trust and enhances the strength of our closest relationships
7) A realistic, honest conversation about what it takes to achieve lasting love
No matter what they tell you about clinical reserve in graduate school training, if your heart is really in the work, it creates an attachment. It’s certainly a unique kind of attachment in that my patients know very little about me and they are not there to serve my needs, but my heart has been fully invested in their growth and recovery. So, when I left a clinical position I had held for 8 years, serving hundreds of veterans, there was a strong attachment nonetheless, and one that could not translate into the way I have been able to hold other disrupted attachments.
As I began to sever ties with them, some of them went into crisis and it was a very scary, turbulent time for them and for me. I had nightmares about their struggles, thought about them all the time, worried over them, prayed for them, and struggled with how to let them go.
In the context of this time of suffering, I developed a practice that gave me a good way through. This practice was an adaptation of how I have helped people grieve other types of losses. First, I had to realize that this was indeed grief. Second, I had to acknowledge that grief was the appropriate emotion to feel. Essentially, I needed to get comfortable with the fact that I was experiencing attachment loss as an extension of doing the work with my whole heart, and this was not pathological.
Once these two connections were made, I was able to rely on what I know about healthy grieving. As I have told my patients, a healthy grief journey is one that allows us to remain connected with loved ones we have lost, rather than making it our goal to forget about them and move on. So, in those final poignant sessions with my patients, I locked the memory of their faces and voices in my mind. I listened very closely to everything they said in the context of terminating our therapeutic relationship.
As veterans generally are, they were extremely generous in spirit. Some of them acknowledged that it “really sucked,” but without exception, they thanked me and gave me words of encouragement. They told me that they believe in me and that they would always have my back if I ever needed them. So that is where I have placed them in my mind. They are standing right behind me. I can almost hear them because I know what they would say.
For example, a few months into my new job, I was flying to speak to a group of Marines. I had a terrible sinus infection, and the descent in the plane was excruciatingly painful —so much that it brought tears to my eyes from the sheer physical pain. I felt like my head was going to explode or maybe that I would have a stroke or something. But then I heard the faint echo of the voice of one of my former patients saying, “Embrace the suck, Doc”—which is how Marines effectively say, “Lean into the pain, and you will get through it.”
When I assemble them as an invisible mental force, I can easily call them to mind. I can continue to hold and carry their stories. I can pray for them as a group, and I do. I can honor them in the next chapter of my life. I can draw from their strength to be bold as I work on their behalf.
I still miss my patients, sometimes acutely, but as in any healthy grief journey, I also can access the happy memories of our conversations, ranging from a collection of hilarious stories to the times when we walked on sacred ground as they talked about their hidden pain. My patients have taught me so much about courage and the bonds of love and trust that make life meaningful. Writing this book has been one way for me to honor this attachment and carry it forward with me on my own journey. I hope I got it right.
[i] M. A. Reger, D. J. Smolenski, N. A. Skopp, M. J. Metzger-Abamukang, H. K. Kang, T, A. Bullman, S. Perdue, and G. A. Gahm. “Risk of Suicide Among US Military Service Members Following Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom Deployment and Separation From the US Military,” JAMA Psychiatry, 72 (2015): 561–569.
Shauna “Doc” Springer is a best-selling author, frequently requested keynote speaker, and one of the world’s leading experts on psychological trauma, military transition, suicide prevention, and close relationships. She is the author of WARRIOR: How to Support Those Who Protect Us and the co-author of BEYOND THE MILITARY: A Leader’s Handbook for Warrior Reintegration.
A Harvard graduate who has become a trusted Doc to our nation’s military warfighters, she navigates different cultures with exceptional agility. As Chief Psychologist for Stella, she advances a new model for treating psychological trauma that combines biological and psychological interventions.
Doc Springer is a licensed psychologist who is frequently sourced by the media for her uniquely perceptive insights on trauma recovery, post-traumatic growth, psychological health, and interpersonal relationships, developed from two decades of work at the extremes.
Doc Springer’s work has been featured in multiple media outlets, including CNN, VICE, NPR, NBC, CBS Radio, Forbes, Business Insider, Military Times, Gun Talk Radio, Coffee or Die Magazine, The Marine Corps Gazette, Havok Journal, THRIVE GLOBAL, Anxiety.org, Washington Post, and Psychology Today.