Recently, I heard a news piece about Major General Gregg Martin, Ph.D., U.S. Army (Retired) that sparked my interest because typically an individual is disqualified from entering or serving in the military if they have a history of bipolar disorder. Yet General Martin served for years with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. His doctors have speculated that his latent condition may have been triggered when he was serving as a brigade commander leading thousands of soldiers during the assault on Baghdad in 2003. His condition worsened for nearly a decade, becoming acute between 2012 and 2014, but it still went unidentified.
It wasn’t until he was asked to resign as a two-star general from his post as the President of the National Defense University (NDU) in July 2014 due to erratic behavior that was disruptive to the mission when he realized something was terribly wrong. A few months later, he fell into an abyss of incapacitating hopelessness, depression, and psychosis and struggled to stay alive until 2016. Only then—after pursuing various kinds of treatment and trying several medications—did he finally find hope when he started taking lithium, which put his battle for recovery on track.
General Martin had a long and accomplished Army career, including graduating from the Ranger and Airborne schools and obtaining graduate degrees from West Point, MIT, and the Army and Naval War Colleges, without his condition being identified. In fact, he recalls that one week before he was asked to resign from NDU, both his general practitioner and psychiatrist gave him a clean bill of health after examining him.
He recounted how his mania enhanced his military performance because it actually fueled his productivity and exuberance. This resulted in admiration and promotions from the military. Even on the day he was asked to resign from NDU, he points out that he had never considered he was struggling with a mental illness. He had been feeling great and was full of energy, ambition, and ideas.
He described: “One of the ironies about bipolar disorder [is that] my levels of energy, positivity, creativity were just way above my fellow commanders. Nobody can keep up with you. And so you're rewarded. You have a biochemical advantage over everybody else. You're solving problems faster. It's wonderful until you go too high, and then you become destructive and a problem — or until you've crashed into depression.” (https://www.wbur.org/news/2021/05/24/army-general-gregg-martin-bipolar-disorder)
He further observed that the chain of command in the military makes it hard for subordinates who may notice signs of mental health problems in their leader or a person in authority over them to help them get mental health care.
In hindsight, General Martin recognizes that thoughts like he was Superman with the ability to fly and see above the battlefield, as well as other feelings of invincibility, were signs of bipolar disorder. He also heard later from others that there were red flags of his mania. For example, he did not get much sleep; engaged in high levels of physical exercise all the time; had boundless energy; took excessive risks on the battlefield when he shouldn’t have; had an abundance of ideas he couldn’t track; displayed unwarranted mistrust of certain people and showed rapid and pressurized speech.
Using his own experience and recovery as inspiration, General Martin is now a champion for increasing people’s awareness about bipolar disorder and how it is a medical condition that needs to be identified. Based on his personal story, he knows how challenging it can be to get bipolar disorder diagnosed accurately and then to find and stick with treatment. He recommends the following tips for addressing bipolar disorder head on:
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Paula Domenici, Ph.D., is a Director of Training and Education for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. She oversees the development of courses and training programs for providers on evidence-based treatments for service members and veterans.