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What we can learn from our veterans about resiliency and connection

Aided by the Coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. is bracing for a mental health crisis that was, arguably, well underway. We were already battling a growing loneliness epidemic that our current environment only exacerbates. The results of a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, conducted in March 2020, revealed that 45 percent of adults in the United States have been negatively affected, and 20 percent are experiencing major issues.

Job loss and isolation contribute to poor mental health, as do skyrocketing levels of stress and anxiety, and feelings of guilt or fear about our health and incomes. As Mental Health Awareness month draws to a close and Memorial Day approaches, we spoke to members of the Global Veterans Network Employee Resource Group at Zendesk to draw ties between life under isolation and deployment, and what it’s like to return to “normal.” Here’s some insight into their experiences and tips for coping.

Social isolation deepens appreciation for the small stuff

Although we’re each isolated in our own ways at present, whether we’re sheltering in place alone or with family, we’re all distanced from our extended communities. There are some clear parallels here to military life, which often involves long shifts and months away. Nick Klauer, a software engineer, shared how on his last deployment he worked 12-hour shifts compiling critical intelligence briefings.

“What I was doing looks like what some of us are doing today—spending 12 hours in front of a computer, reading, analyzing, reporting, preparing briefs, documents, etc., without leaving a small room,” he said. “It was extremely isolating, to the point where people that were in rooms right next to me were almost strangers. Chance encounters with them were a real treat just because it was a chance to break up the monotony.”

Although we're each isolated in our own ways at present, whether we're sheltering in place alone or with family, we're all distanced from our extended communities.

Similarly, Michael Brinkofski, safety and security lead on the corporate security team, endured 18-hour long shifts in a windowless office where there might be no more than 4 other people working at any given time. “I spent the majority of the six months away from anyone and everyone. I felt like there was no one around, ever, and even when I could leave the building, it was usually just to the barracks or to the gym,” he said.

The isolation is easy to recall, but so are the antidotes. “Use this time to appreciate the simple things, like a good hot cup of coffee in the morning, the smell of a freshly peeled orange, or a cool breeze on a run,” Klauer said. “They seem insignificant, but they can affect your ability to handle the day’s stresses.”

He recalls receiving small care packages, and the pleasure that looking forward to them gave him. He developed a fondness for Starburst candies that he still has today and associates one of his most boring assignments—standing guard inside 20-foot walls from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.—with memories of the most beautiful sunrises.

"Use this time to appreciate the simple things, like a good hot cup of coffee in the morning, the smell of a freshly peeled orange, or a cool breeze on a run. They seem insignificant, but they can affect your ability to handle the day’s stresses." - Nick Klauer

Brinkofski was not able to make many phone calls, so he looked forward to frequent chats with friends and family over Facebook. “Take this time to talk to family and friends,” he advises. “Since I had to slow down while deployed, it gave me the chance to reconnect with friends I hadn’t talked to in years.”

[Related read: Empathy Lab: Building community in the workplace from the inside out]

Uncertainty is difficult, but there is strength in numbers

Isolation compounded by other stressors is hard to grapple with. Staring down the barrel of another long day, one that looks a lot like the day that came before, can be hard—especially without knowing when the end is in sight.

“A few times during my service, I found myself isolated with just one or two people—whom I’d just met—and with no contact to anyone we knew and no idea when we’d return to a building with running water, much less home,” said Shane Thornley, director of information security. “The most draining aspect of those situations was how open-ended they were.”

For Thornley, it was helpful to remember “I wasn’t the only person feeling the weight of the situation.” There were his counterparts he was holed up with, of course, but he also tapped into his empathy for what those at home were experiencing in his absence.

“Family members and friends on the far end were all feeling their own versions of the same weight and longing. The realization that I was not in the situation alone prompted me to embrace daily tasks rather than to loathe them. I missed people and things, but rediscovering purpose helped me through some difficult times,” he said.

At some point, there is an end—and when you reach it you may realize what matters to you most. Even with the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers, Mike Bahr, security training and awareness analyst, often felt isolated and was reminded of the distance from his friends and family every time he checked social media and waited for photos to ever-so-slowly load.

"The realization that I was not in the situation alone prompted me to embrace daily tasks rather than to loathe them. I missed people and things, but rediscovering purpose helped me through some difficult times." - Shane Thornley

“I learned to appreciate the time I had with family and friends,” he said, but also to embrace the ways that he could connect with those around him while he was away from everyone he loved.

“We found joy and humor in even some of the toughest times,” Bahr said. “We clung to what we had and learned to appreciate even that, knowing that it, too, could go away.”

“Tango Tango’s,” he said, refers to “Therapy Thursday,” a day when the soldiers allowed themselves to vent and poke fun at all the little things that were irritating. “We lived in such a serious world that finding an escape was crucial for our mental health.”

[Related read: Talking about mental health at work, now part of the employee experience]

Real talk: Life moves on and distance does change relationships

When Bahr returned from Iraq in 2010, he found his life was not the same as he’d left it. He was welcomed and enveloped by all the same people, but their individual experiences while separated were wildly different.

“I had a tougher time relating to my peers and often felt alienated or irritated at the lack of concern others had about the freedoms they were taking for granted,” he said.

Bahr came to learn that everyone experiences things differently. Some soldiers returned home and thrived while others struggled to reintegrate. He had to remind himself that the impact of their time apart was personal to each individual.

He advises slowing down as we all—when we all—cautiously return to the cadence of our daily lives, as we knew them before. For Bahr, the return home tempted him to over-indulge, to do everything at once. He’d turned 21 in Iraq and he was ready to socialize, buy a car, and spend his savings—to celebrate in all the ways that he could. But he quickly realized that taking things one step at a time proved the wisest path.

He advises slowing down as we all—when we all—cautiously return to the cadence of our daily lives, as we knew them before.

“I allowed myself to define my own metrics for what it meant to successfully reintegrate back into society,” he said.

[Related read: Leading with empathy: What you don’t say is just as important as what you do]

Resilience is a leap of trust and a bit of hope, best taken together

Ryan Gailey, senior associate corporate counsel, experienced a crash landing following an engine failure in a Blackhawk helicopter during a training exercise with a U.S. Army RECON unit. In fact, the whole crew survived a controlled descent by the pilot. While the unexpected can and will happen, it is our ability to process those events, summon our resilience, and come through them together that will carry us through. Sooner or later, we as a group have to “get back on the same bird and hope it was successfully repaired,” he said.

For Gailey, this experience taught him that we always need to return to the perspective that while anything can happen, we will never be alone when we return to any new normal and “confront previously unseen risks” together. “At the end of the day, together means not without you; no one gets left behind.”

The fact remains that there is grief in loss, and there is trauma in illness or injury. On a smaller scale, there are also all the things that we’re each missing right now, events and plans and vacations that were cancelled. And they matter too.

[Related read: What companies gain by hiring veterans]

“Plain and simple, it just sucks,” Bahr said of missing holidays, weddings, and family gatherings. “Sometimes there’s not a positive spin or silver lining. I learned to allow myself to be frustrated or upset about missing out or not being able to help. But I still had to perform and take care of myself. It’s a lot easier said than done, but is something I remind myself of during this current time.”

On a smaller scale, there are also all the things that we're each missing right now, events and plans and vacations that were cancelled. And they matter too. 

Klauer’s eldest son was born during his first deployment in 2006. He was granted four days to fly from California to his home in Wisconsin for the inducement and birth. He was allowed one more brief visit and then didn’t see his son again until he was crawling.

“Dwelling on what you’re missing is never a useful strategy,” Klauer said. “The phrase ‘hope springs eternal’ means that you can keep driving forward and use hope as a strength. Hope that you will get to see many more beautiful holidays, vacations, and events with friends and family. Life is always coming at you and the moments you miss when you worry or are saddened by loss take away from what you can be focusing on right now.”

These present moments come with many challenges, some dire and life-threatening and others more trivial (maybe not getting your preferred toilet paper brand). For those who have served, challenging times undoubtedly change and shaped them, and their experiences are now woven into the fabric of their lives. In the same way, the Coronavirus will change how we feel, how we operate, and what our life afterward looks like. But there is life afterward, and the task at hand just might be to look around and cherish what we do have, and work to repair and build and make better anything that we can.