Right now, first responders are putting their lives at risk every day to save others. Twenty-five percent of police officers, 19% of firefighters, and 10% of EMTs are veterans who used to be on the frontlines defending America. Despite the fact they don’t have the PPE they need to stay safe in their new daily duties in the fight against COVID-19, they feel a moral obligation to serve our country in the streets and hospitals.

For many, they didn’t expect to face danger like this at home.

When I was deployed during my 20-year career in the military, we worked around the clock frequently. It wasn’t so bad because it was all we had to do. We knew our families were safe at home living their versions of normal until we could be together again. In active duty service, we got through hard times by leaning on each other, by “embracing the suck” together.

First responders don’t have that same luxury. They are enduring hours of stress and trauma, then going home to their families to try to be a mom or a dad, a husband, wife, or partner. Even going home doesn’t provide solace; with fears of spreading the coronavirus, people are sleeping on different floors of their houses or in their garages to keep separate from their families and their children. Those who live alone may find themselves isolated with their anxiety and grief.

It must be incredibly difficult to be immersed in hours and hours of trauma and then go home for dinner. The only way to get through it is by extreme compartmentalization. Compartmentalization is a subconscious psychological defense mechanism that allows people to separate two radically different states of being. This coping strategy can work in the short term, but once normal life returns, buried or ignored trauma tends to resurface.

The compartmentalization required for first responders to get through their shifts right now is going to have a massive psychological effect on their mental health down the road (if not immediately).

I am also concerned about veteran first responders reverting to their former frontline coping mechanisms. Doing a dangerous or critically important job under extreme circumstances without the proper equipment is just another day in the military. Marines have a mantra: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. This mantra is so ingrained that it never leaves them.

There’s also a survival technique called “going firm” that is employed when a unit is disoriented, or there’s enemy fire coming from an unknown location. Going firm means finding a safe place and getting quiet…getting small.

In the military, mantras and strategies like these save lives. However, when Marines go firm alone back home, it’s not a good thing. We don’t want first responders who are veterans reverting to the mindset of getting small, not speaking up if they need help, or feeling like they have to overcome a global humanitarian crisis on their own.

I am worried about first responders who are veterans because we have been taught how to suck it up. We’ve been taught how to get so small that we almost disappear. In this crisis, first responders will have to improvise and adapt to do their jobs, but we don’t want them to ball up and hide in isolation. We also don’t want them to carry so much that they eventually implode under the enormous pressure.

At Stop Soldier Suicide, we’re here to keep that from happening.

If you are a veteran first responder, and you feel like you’re overwhelmed, isolating, or reverting to your military coping mechanisms, please reach out to us. We can help you stay healthy and strong during this crisis.

If you are a first responder who isn’t a military veteran, we are grateful for your service too. This is an incredibly difficult time, and there are resources that are ready to help you:

Acadia Healthcare
Code Green Campaign
First Responder Support Network
Reboot Recovery
Safe Call Now
Veteran & First Responder Healthcare
Warriors Heart

There’s one more thing I want to mention: First responders are pleading for people to follow the rules because they aren’t prepared for this. Help them stay safe by staying home if you can.

Chris Ford
20-year Air Force Veteran and Stop Soldier Suicide CEO

March 29, 2020