Guest Perspective: Soldier or Psychologist - Why Not Both?

Guest Perspective: Soldier or Psychologist - Why Not Both?

It is Monday at 0730 in Bethesda, Maryland. A line of DoD employees stand outside the entrance to the Uniformed Services University (USU). Suddenly, the uniformity is interrupted. A cacophony of sounds and colors erupts from the Metro stop. Although many of my fellow Summer Institute participants fail to recognize our “gaggle” status, as we near the gate, a hush falls over our group. We make it through without incident and our group continues. I find myself reflecting back to words spoken at my basic combat training years before, “MOVE WITH A PURPOSE, PRIVATE.” Years later, I understand the value of that statement and the need to call cadence. We were truly a gaggle!

From the moment I landed at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, I knew it was going to be a good week. Everything about the Washington D.C. metro-area felt like home. Although we were a gaggle, for the first time in three years, I felt like I was standing with people who understood “the call.” My peers and I eagerly discussed Officer Candidate School, deployments, the Warrior Ethos, and PT test standards. Although we came from very diverse backgrounds, we had commonalities that are seldom seen in the general graduate student population.

Having been immersed in military culture for years, I did not really see it as a unique cultural group. However, as we began discussing various aspects of military service, I started to realize that my decision to include AARs (After Action Reviews) in all my presentations was something unique to my military background. As a former soldier, I know the military lifestyle. Similarly, as an advanced graduate student, I know what it means to be a mental health professional. Prior to the Summer Institute, I would have said that the marriage of these backgrounds was self-explanatory. This belief altered significantly when presented with the “nuts and bolts” of the life of a military mental health provider.

As I write this, my mind continuously returns to one of the most powerful moments of the week. This moment was unique and powerful for a multitude of reasons. During our second day of the institute our class was introduced to a career military CWO. She spent the next two hours enthralling us with her career as a female rotary wing pilot. You could have heard a pin drop. Her story had ups and downs, but in many ways depicted the failings of military mental health services. Looking around, I saw people tear up as she talked of loss, PTSD, and a war that would change her forever. When people asked me “Why the military?” I rarely had a satisfactory answer. I would respond with the clichés of honor, loyalty, or selfless service. Perhaps I would even quote the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare (often associated with the TV show “Band of Brothers”).

There is a bond among Service members. Although in some ways the hype exceeds reality, my reaction to the CWO was amplified by this bond. She deployed as part of the 28th Infantry Division (28ID), a division in which I served. As she showed pre-deployment pictures, I recognized the landscape and buildings that had been my home for a time. While I did not know anyone in her specific unit, I had a strong bond with soldiers from the division. I felt my own eyes tear up as I thought about my friends from the 28ID, many of whom had experienced similar traumas. Although I knew nothing could ever describe the enormity of their sacrifice, the oft-cited quote “a solider is someone who at one point in their life wrote a blank check made payable to ‘The United States of America,’ for an amount up to and including their life (Unknown, n.d.).” comes to mind.

A second, sobering experience was the tour of the war memorials. I had been to DC on multiple occasions in the past, but some from my group had never visited the sad beauty that commemorates the fallen heroes. As we visited each memorial, I found myself repeating the Soldier’s Creed: “I am an American Soldier…”. The experience, was not only sobering, but reminded me of the duty I still feel towards my country. At each memorial I would stop and watch my fellow visitors. Some cried, some took pictures, and some just stood, as if stone. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, paying tribute to those whose proverbial checks were cashed in defense of our ideals. Everyone who looked upon those memorials took away something unique. For me, I left with renewed convictions and a desire to help those who have survived the atrocities of war.

In the military, education does not end in the classroom. Well, for many of my peers, this week was no different. The small gym at the hotel was packed to capacity with graduate students running, lifting, and performing calisthenics. For the average student, evening would mean rest and relaxation but for those aspiring to lead the way, push-ups replaced television and running replaced sitting. It was during this time that friendships began to blossom. We talked of collaborations and career aspirations. We swapped phone numbers and emails. The development of relationships outside of class changed our composition within the classroom. We became more cohesive, we walked with more authority, spoke with more confidence and were more self-aware.

Thus far I have mostly spoken of the events that evoked emotional responses. However, there were many more moments that provided equally powerful, albeit different experiences. For example, CDP staff provided participants the opportunity to hear from a diverse set of active duty military psychologists. These men and women varied in rank and branch of service. They spoke of the good and bad, giving us a chance to see what “a day in the life” truly looks like. Days later, we heard from military internship training directors. These individuals spoke of the diverse opportunities and provided information on the application process and highly-desired internship experience. These presentations were equally helpful. For some, hearing from these professionals solidified their desire to serve. For others, it allowed them to discover military service was not consistent with their personal or professional goals. Regardless of our individual interests, we all continued to grow as clinicians and researchers.

While the Summer Institute lasted only five days, the experiences and connections will last a lifetime. As interns, post-docs, and early career professionals, we will maintain these connections in the coming years. I had the good fortune of speaking with several of my fellow attendees at the 2017 APA convention. Many of us continue to keep in touch via social media. A few weeks ago, a younger graduate student asked me “Was the Summer Institute worth it?” I paused for a second before answering; “Yes, if you truly want to know what it means to serve, this experience is well worth your time.”

Joshua Camins was a participant in the 2017 iteration of the CDP's Summer Institute: Preparing for a Career in the Armed Forces