What serving as an Occupational Therapist in the Iraq war taught Allen about life, team work, and serving others.
Duties on the front lines.
From 2003 until 2005, Allen Johnson served in the Iraq war as an Occupational Therapist with the Combat Stress Control Unit. This unit was responsible for supporting the troops with mental health outreach when “critical incidences” occurred, addressing emotional impact to assess if soldiers were fit to proceed with their mission or in need of further intervention. Not only was the unit responsible for addressing the soldiers’ safety, but they themselves had to focus on their own safety and how to successfully setup and navigate each mission.
Our guys are trained to perform in combat, but even with the best training it can be exceptionally traumatic, especially for younger soldiers. When you combine the physical demands, 138-degree heat and the emotional trauma of a friend or fellow soldier getting killed in combat, it’s very difficult to cope and manage the grief. Immediately after an incident, our unit would step in to evaluate their condition and if they had difficulty coping, they would go on to psych for evaluation and in many cases shipped out of the war for treatment at a hospital in Germany.
The critical thing about mental stability in a war is that everyone is counting on you and you on everyone else to have your back. If you’re not capable then that’s a weak link in a unit and you can get yourselves and others killed.
Critical incidences include any critical situation when soldiers are on patrol and faced with conflict including a bombing, ambush, or a battle that ensures where troops are injured or killed. Part of what the military learned from Vietnam is that it’s best for young soldiers to start talking about these experiences immediately after a traumatizing incident occurs otherwise it becomes a suppressed PTSD situation over time and incidences of suicide are high.
Our focus was to coach them to process what happened and work together as a team to figure out how they were going to proceed as a group regardless of what occurred.
In some cases it was important just to take individual troops aside to let them calm down. Giving them a chance to get something to drink, wash the blood from their hands, which may have been from a friend, and take a moment for themselves allowed them to mentally regroup.
When you’re at war, you’re constantly on alert wondering if you’re going to blow up at any time. There are a lot of sleep issues and psychotic breaks so I would evaluate our soldiers’ ability to take care of themselves and perform their tasks.
Allen acknowledged that before the war, he used to be very obsessive with a very particular approach to the way things should be done but the war loosened him and brought a new approach to resilience and leadership. With each mission, Allen would be assigned with a group of strangers and after days of travel, they would be dropped off in the middle of a war-torn country and told ‘Good Luck.’
When we were dropped at the gate, we just had to figure it out. So, we picked up our bags and got to the first order of business… where do we sleep? Ok, now where can we eat? We took it one step at a time and figured out how to survive until we got the lay of the land so that we could start and run the mission.
Allen’s perspective changed after the war. He was anxious, crowds were uncomfortable and situations that triggered memories in the field sent him right back to the stresses as if he was in a war zone. But his experience serving in Iraq also brought everyday life into perspective and served as a life changing reminder to value the little things.
For a while, crowds or even being stuck at a light or traffic jam took me back to the feeling of being a sitting duck at war where at any moment there could be an explosion. Even though I knew I was in a safe environment at home, when you spend such a long period of time focused on staying alive and alert in the military, it gets engrained in your mind and it’s difficult to shake.
Today Allen works as the Director of Clinical Services for Concept Rehab where he establishes clinical training programs for therapists treating patients in long-term care. He applies much of what he learned in the military to his work and if you ask him what it gave him, it’s resourcefulness, team work, and leadership training to the extreme.
In the military, you’re thrust into a team of individuals who you don’t know, each having different skills, and being able to work together is a matter of life and death. Under such extreme circumstances, you learn to identify and capitalize on individual strengths to help the whole team be successful on the mission. My job today is a different version but the focus is still the same where I establish tools for our front line teams to be successful.
With the work that I do today, it’s about knowing what I have available to me to utilize to make myself and our company successful, always looking for new and better ways of doing things. The military taught me how to do this very effectively and sharpened my ability to stay in perspective and seek ways for me and my team to do the best job possible.