Leadership Under Morbid Circumstance

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An Infantry Marine plays with a live mortar round for a funny photo op…

 

Morbidity is a fact of life but less visible on average in the United States. Death and preparing the dead are left to hospitals and funeral homes and are an incredibly sensitive subject in some families. As a society, we are “Death Dumb.” As children, we learn about death from the goldfish in the toilet, or the dog ‘sleeping’ on the side of the road – and so forth – until a death in the family comes along. Then it’s some version of salvation and how everyone (weirdly) is in heaven. (Side note: I always thought it was weird that all of my family were good enough to make it to heaven. It didn’t seem like it on Earth.)

In any event, death is not a subject to talk about without varying levels of censorship, lore, and fear. I have no opinion on how a society SHOULD act in relation to death, but this sentiment is definitely the norm I perceive as common in the bubbles and echo chambers I exist in. Current events have brought death and morbidity into our daily lives through the “Internet of Things.” Every site, every app, every news outlet, everything is flashing numbers about COVID-19 while we sit isolated wondering when, and if, we’ll get back to normal. Death now lurks in the background. Feeling slightly weirded out yet? I thought so.

I’ve lived with loss my entire life. The only period where tragic loss didn’t happen (luckily) was the first part of my military career between 1996 and September 2001. My childhood was riddled with close family dying from various causes. My older brother passed away my freshman year – leaving me as my mother’s only living child. I’ve experienced the pain of losing friends and consoling families of fallen Marines in combat or training for combat. It’s all very sad and tragic but as a leader, morbid circumstances must be accounted for.

Enter suicide stage right. Please let me say I am sorry for every single person who has been affected by suicide. What a motherfucker. Mad, sad, ashamed, self-loathing, guilt-stricken, pissed off, broken-hearted… These are some of the many emotions I have had while dealing with more suicides than I care to be associated with. It’s part of the GWOT (Global War On Terrorism) package. Now we have COVID-19 and things are starting to get weird with so many out of work, working under the ‘new normal’ from home, and isolated. 

It’s all because of the fear of death.

A friend of mine works at an international non-profit fully dedicated to preventing veteran suicide who recently reached out to me for advice. She’s seen a spike in veteran suicide during the COVID-19 isolation because, as she puts it, “Isolation is the number one thing we try to stop in order to prevent suicide.” Interesting. To take it a step further, she wasn’t reaching out about the veteran-clients but rather the veteran-facing staff members that were beginning to succumb to their own brand of “operator burnout.’” Many of these staff members are veterans or are spouses of veterans. They have experienced suicide as one of the herd, turned to non-profit work to help through caring, and are engaged daily with seriously injured veterans from near point-of-injury through post-military life. 

The professional paradox here is that caring too much may in fact be the primary factor for burnout. To make matters worse, we overwhelmingly acknowledge suicide as a sin, an evil thing, a shameful thing. Is it? In a military draped in Christianity, I believe we collectively value suicide as a sin and something that we can save people from. I’m not sure that is the case or the best business practice available. What if we accounted for death and suicide as a fact of life and something we can be familiar with to help those in need? I think it’s a valid question to explore when the systems in place are leading to more, not less, suicide. 

The idea of “normalized” morbidity is not lost on cultures around the world. Ironically, the United States Marine Corps’ primary focus is “mission accomplishment” which translates to “killing a lot of people like professional death dealers when bad guys don’t give up and/or get in the way.’”

We are proud of it and honestly, it’s ethically acceptable because warriors know that in mortal combat it’s either you or them. To paraphrase, a former Marine sniper and Medal of Honor recipient stated that, “he fought like he was already dead” during the battle in which he earned our nation’s highest award for combat bravery. This is a very very common mindset at the moment a warrior steps across the line of departure. In tactics, the LOD (Line of Departure) is the moment a formation crosses a known point to begin the fight. In a warrior’s mind, the LOD is the moment that the value of life is set aside in order to survive. True warriors who have experienced mortal combat have been dead before: it’s a requirement. 

So why do we continue to focus on suicide and death as bad instead of understanding it holistically as a personal choice? We blame ourselves and others, the system or an incident, drugs, and alcohol. I believe those are factors that can lead to suicide (especially the mix of drugs and alcohol) but warriors who have been there know that death is just a function of life. Death becomes an afterthought. So why do all the support mechanisms who essentially espouse narcissistic tendencies during suicide begin to burn out? I believe we have truly forgotten that living through war can be incredibly satisfying and answer some really important questions about life. Fulfillment is what comes to my mind.

So with that possibility as an outcome of war, are ALL suicides that shocking? I think it’s time to start having the conversations that are less “Pentagon” and more Rolling Stone. I’m a big music buff. I love Jimmy Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. Both are arguably some of the biggest influences on modern rock music. But both committed suicide just after the height of their relative influence. Similarly, Eric O’Neill – the FBI agent who was instrumental in catching Robert Hanssen in the act – quit the FBI shortly thereafter due to feeling there was nothing more fulfilling than what he had accomplished so early in his career. Eric is alive, but the idea of quitting after fulfillment is similar. I am not advocating for suicide to be categorized as “good” or “bad’” but I do find that any person or staff that deals with suicide MUST disassociate their personal moral/ethical thoughts on the act of suicide to remain resilient under morbid circumstances. 

I reached out to a very close friend of mine who has been a police officer “in the hood” for 32 years. He’s done it all in law enforcement: homicide detective, beat cop, sniper, SWAT, even a forensic artist. Police officers deal with death and suicide constantly whether they are civilians, friends & family (like everyone else), and especially police officers. Great police officers with zero telegraph that would suggest suicide was on the horizon. After talking about the subject for a while, he drilled down on having attended “Criminal Composite Artist” school. There were cops and professional artists attending but something unexpected happened during the training: the cops were better at accomplishing the criminal-finding artwork because they viewed the victim as a source of information -detaching their personal beliefs and emotions from the work they conducted. The professional artists could not see the victim apart from the violence, could not exploit the details, and couldn’t create a workable product. Interesting again. I draw a parallel between the artists-in-training and non-profit staffs that work with at-risk veterans. Burnout will occur because the mental and emotional “light switch’” wasn’t toggled on and off correctly. There are plenty of parallel professions to choose from: pediatricians, oncologists, morticians, emergency room staff, police officers, etc. There are many professional people from all walks of life from which coping strategies/resiliency can be extracted. C aring too much ALL OF THE TIME works against longevity. Employee churn crushes continuity of services that are essential to helping those in need. Staff resiliency is a must.

So what do I suggest? How does a mid-level manager in the middle of a crisis keep her/his staff resilient in the face of morbid circumstances? First, engage frankly and openly with the team about the realities of the job and that everyone experiences a range of emotions after every death. A good leader will know their team(s) and expect certain reactions relative to each persons’ morals and ethics.

For example, I’m spiritual but not religious. If I have a Marine who is a lay-reader and attends church three times a week, I’d make sure she/he have spiritual outlet/counseling available in the face of a horrible sin: Suicide. I wouldn’t go on and on about meditation or walking labyrinths or Samurai culture because those activities do not feed her/his emotional necessities.

Similarly, I would make sure that the cold-hearted teammates (because they do exist) keep their ideals to themselves or allow them to vent in private. Be the rock. I’d then turn to hiring practices. How is the company/NPO/other selecting people with regards to resiliency under morbid circumstances? If “operator burnout” is a real concern, then selecting people who are resistant to morbidity might be a way of tweaking current hiring practices. Lastly, I would use employee evaluations as a way to leverage information and keep teammates on the right track. Be honest, open, and EMPATHETIC. What’s tough is that the reasons for suicide are as diverse as the reactions to the act(s) themselves. Managers MUST erase their personal beliefs from the equation to find workable solutions and resiliency strategies. I truly believe that viewing suicide as a fact and not a sin will help save more of those who want to be saved.

Author’s note: This is strictly an opinion piece backed only by personal strategies that have led to measurable positive outcomes while helping friends cope with extremely morbid and traumatizing events. The author served in Iraq four times (2004, 2006, 2007, 2018) and Afghanistan (2012) as both a Marine Corps Scout-Sniper and Special Operations Intelligence Operator.

Fritz Sleigher is a retired U.S .Marine Sniper and Intelligence Operator who spent 22 years in active service. Mr. Sleigher completed five combat deployments in the CENTCOM Area of Operations specializing in CI/HUMINT operations within SOF teams. He is a father of three and a graduate of the Norwich University Strategic Studies & Defense Analysis Program. Mr. Sleigher is now a Data Integrator within the SOCOM Data Science Team and enjoys his retirement by engaging in non-profit work, catching up on lost time with his children, and generally looking forward to a bright and interesting future. 

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