I stood in front of my command, and hesitated. Did I really want to do this?
As part of pre-deployment preparation, the Navy requires its Sailors to participate in Operational Stress Control training. The program assists Sailors and their leaders in navigating stress and identifying situations where such pressure is impacting health, performance, and resiliency. Although it is easy to dismiss the requirement as just another “administrative burden” levied on commands, I had found the framework useful during a previous deployment to Afghanistan, and I ensured we made it a priority amongst the many competing demands of deployment preparation.
After the lectures and seminars were finished, the leader of the training team asked me to give some closing remarks. He suggested I might want to include a vignette about a time in my life that I found stressful, and how I managed it. I could have easily disregarded his suggestion, and made some generic remarks about the importance of handling stress and taking care of shipmates, or perhaps told a story exaggerating a moment that wasn’t actually all that stressful.
I pondered these options because I knew that if I spoke honestly about the most stressful time in my life, there was a good chance I couldn’t get through it without breaking down in tears in front of my command, and that scenario did not seem all that appealing. Although military culture is far less macho and aggressive than popular media would lead one to believe, there are still unwritten rules about the displays of emotions. Sure, my eyes had welled up during my Change of Command speech when I thanked my wife and children. Everyone expects that. But to lay myself bare and discuss the most challenging point in my life – demonstrating weakness while fighting back tears – did not seem like an act that would inspire confidence in my team just prior to deployment.
But something told me to press forward. To trust the value of the training and to show the command that no one is immune to stress; that rank and age provide no sanctuary to life’s challenges and pressures.
So I stood up in front of everyone and told them about my previous tour on a staff billet. I told them how the learning curve in my job was steep and I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels, trying to figure out how to be effective. I would wake up in the middle of the night with my heart racing, wondering which of the twenty things on my boss’ priority list would be the priority that day. I spoke about how the staff didn’t have the camaraderie I was used to in navy squadrons and no one hung out together outside of work. Although my wife stayed positive, it was clear to me she wasn’t happy with our new duty station either.
And then I got to the part where I discussed my son being diagnosed with autism. I had to stop and collect myself. I stared at the wall, fighting back tears, and pressed on. I spoke of the initial overwhelming feelings of helplessness, my voice catching now and then. I could sense (or imagine) that certain people in the audience were embarrassed for me and the raw emotion on display.
I powered through, and talked about how I eventually managed to cope: Telling my wife and close friends how I was feeling so that they might provide much-needed perspective. Finding quick wins at work to increase my confidence and credibility. Starting this blog to give me a creative outlet. Realizing that my children judged me not by any metric of success at work, but by the quality of my presence with them.
I concluded by encouraging anyone feeling significant stress or anxiety to speak up to their friends and leaders, to be honest so that we could tackle it as a team. After my comments, I received no initial feedback – positive or negative – just a quiet exit from the venue after dismissal.
A few days later, I was in my office when one of my most trusted and capable leaders within the command knocked on the open door and requested a moment of my time. I readily obliged, and could sense the importance when the individual closed the door. As we sat down on couches across from one another, I braced for whatever was about to be conveyed (mishap report, disciplinary issue, “Skipper, I think you’re all hosed up”…).
Instead, the squadron mate thanked me for being so open and honest during the training assembly. Then they paused, and unsuccessfully fought back tears. Out came a story of stress and anxiety that was impacting this individual’s health and ability to focus at work, all the more amazing because this squared-away and positive leader was one of the last I would have suspected of being privately overwhelmed. We talked for a long time, and ultimately came up with a plan that included temporarily dialing back some responsibilities and time spent at work in order to focus on the source of the stress. Given where we were in deployment preparation, this was not an easy decision, but definitely the right one.
If you pressed me to pick only one thing from my command tour that I was most proud of, it would have to be this anecdote. I like to think it encapsulates the climate we sought to cultivate in the squadron, and that similar conversations occurred elsewhere in the command: Sailors admitting to their peers or supervisors that they needed help getting through the days and weeks ahead. Certainly we didn’t reach every one, but each time a squadron mate recognized they weren’t alone and that showing vulnerability was the key to getting stronger, those were the quiet victories that led to true success.