• Aging Well Denver

Supporting our Hero's - From A Military Psychologist

By Dr. Jacob N. Hyde

Since June of 1775, Americans have taken part in combat and conflict that has focused on freedom and the protection of the homeland. Throughout our Nation’s history, we have had many brave Americans volunteer for military service and numerous others drafted into service against their will. Whether a citizen voluntarily served in the armed forces or was told they did not have a choice, most served honorably and with integrity. One of the core values inherent in military service in the United States is the social responsibility. Servicemembers swear an oath to defend the “Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic...”; defending the Nation means to provide physical security from the destruction of property, but also to protect the myriad of cultures, beliefs, communities, relationships, and practices our Nation proudly holds. This social responsibility, or work to further the condition of others, is the hallmark of the men and women who wear our uniforms.

Servicemembers inevitably turn into Veterans when their time in service has ended. All of these proud men and women work tirelessly at home and abroad to further our Nation’s security and interests for varying amounts of time; National Guard and Reserve forces sometimes serve for just weeks and months, active-duty forces serve months and years, and countless Servicemembers spend their entire careers within military service. The common experience of all Servicemembers is that at some point in time they all become Veterans.

Veterans make up only a small segment of our society. There are about 21 million living Veterans in the U.S., totaling less than 10% of the U.S. population. Veterans experience many issues when they transition from military life to civilian life and then throughout various periods of transition across the lifespan. Commonly featured issues that grab headlines are issues like PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and substance abuse. Problems with finding a job, creating and maintaining relationships, and overall well-being are just as prevalent among Veterans but less provocative and exposed in the news cycle.

My research lab at the University of Denver studies Isolated, Confined, and Extreme Environments. Despite our name (the mICE lab), we don’t actually use any animals for experiments. We focus mostly on military personnel and their cognitive performance within harsh, stressful, and austere environments. If we are able to better understand how military personnel feel, act, and think when placed under stress, we will be able to better understand what aspects of human cognition may be monitored, trained, and changed – ultimately creating a healthy, high functioning, and safer fighting force. Right now, our lab is conducting a series of studies on a team of Veterans who are undertaking a trans-Atlantic expedition. This expedition will expose these Veterans to extreme levels of stress and isolation and we are hoping to use their expedition to further our understanding of resilience and growth in Veterans. One of the first studies we conducted with this team had some interesting findings related to social responsibility.

To better understand social responsibility and our inherent desire to help others, the work of an influential psychiatrist from the late 19th century is important to consider. Alfred Adler, a psychiatrist and Veteran of World War I was one of the first people to talk about and study our relationships with ourselves, others, and the world in a way that was timely and understandable. While serving as an Austrian military physician for three years during World War I, Adler began to question the madness and discordance of human nature that appeared during combat. In a departure from a traditional psychological theory of the time, Adler’s work was focused on a person’s individual experiences AND a person’s interactions within their social environments. Adler’s theory arranged a person’s individual and social challenges into three tasks of life: work, love, and relationships with others. Drawing on his work, we begin to understand that every human is destined to interact with others at some point within and throughout their life. And, as recent science has confirmed, how we interact with others influences how we feel about ourselves, how we behave, and the effects we have on our communities.

Alfred Adler also introduced us to a term called Gemeinschaftsgefuhl that roughly translates into “community feeling.” This concept of Gemeinschaftsgefuhl is certainly embodied within the military service of the majority of our Veterans. Spending weeks, months, and years of our lives serving others, defending the homeland, and protecting individual freedoms of our community members all juxtaposes to provide a sense of “community feeling.” Most healthy people strive to make a difference, protect their families and tribes, and to make their communities a better place. Your community might be the United States, might be your church, could be your neighborhood, or maybe the sorority, academic society, or fraternal organization you belong to. Military personnel and Veterans continue to make a difference to multiple communities every day throughout their lives. This work by our Veterans is the living embodiment of Gemeinschaftsgefuhl and my work as a psychological scientist continues to show that Veterans truly believe that their work in the military has helped themselves, protected others, and made a difference in the world.

One recent study we conducted (in press) found that Veterans on a small team endorsed values that were consistent with the social responsibility when we presented them with lots of different words about personal values. We asked this group of Veterans to look at over 80 cards containing words like “health”, “justice”, and “contribution” to find out what they considered to be their top personal values. Many of the cards contained words that were not representative of social responsibility but of positive values that many people tend to hold for their lives. In this particular study, all of the participants tended to choose values that related to social responsibility. Then, we asked all the Veterans to choose values from the same list, this time focusing on values for the overall team – we call this concept “team-based values.” As it turns out, participants again chose values that indicated social responsibility AND their top three values turned out to parallel Alfred Adler’s ideas about self, others, and the world. Certainly, as a scientist, I find these outcomes interesting. As a Veteran, I find hope in these results. As an American citizen, these findings re-energize my beliefs about the importance of social responsibility.

Military Veterans love this country. They fought for the ideas laid out in our Constitution. They took part in military service to challenge themselves, to find their direction, to help others, because they were told to because they wanted to escape poverty, and for a million other reasons. Their relationships in the military were far different than most civilians will ever understand. Maybe they “re-integrated” successfully or maybe it wasn’t until they retired from work before they experienced a challenge with transition. A Veteran may be a millennial like me or a seasoned millennial at 70 years old. One thing is for sure – we will all age, and our values, relationships, and priorities will always change. Let’s just make sure we are all focused on bettering the lives of others in some way and behaving in a way that promotes Gemeinschaftsgefuhl.

Dr. Jacob N. Hyde is a millennial, a combat Veteran, and loves to mountain bike. Dr. Hyde is the Faculty Director of the Sturm Specialty in Military Psychology, an Assistant Professor, and the director of the mICE lab at the University of Denver. Dr. Hyde is also an Assistant Editor for the Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments.

He can be reached at jacob.hyde@du.edu