Trauma often ignored and not discussed by analysts/officers in the Intelligence Community

This week we tackle the topic of trauma within the U.S. Intelligence Community, sitting down with former intelligence officer, now VP of Concentric, Laura Hoffner. Laura is the one that drew our attention to an article released by Rand on concerns over mental health within the Intelligence Community.

The question is, are we having open conversations within the Intelligence Community so mental health issues are properly addressed? Who better to talk with than someone who did intelligence in a war zone. Laura was in the Navy as an intelligence officer for special operations around the world.

In the article, a point of discussion is around the traumatic work conditions and things analysts/intelligence officers are exposed to. A lot of the time intelligence officers work without clocking in and out, so countless hours and often in dangerous places. That can lead to trauma post duty with no outlet to address mental health issues.

Laura says the scope of war has changed. It’s no longer a physical battleground as typically imagined. As the landscape of war has changed, more people are being involved in heavy decisions, and they’re being involved in actual action on target. Specifically, surveillance and reconnaissance, life and death decisions being brough back to the office. More people are being included, but no one knows as much as intelligence analysts. They are intimately involved and thus, take a lot with them, even after a mission is complete.

Q: Since a lot of information is classified, how do you survive, not being able to disucss things?

A: We full heartedly motivate ourselves to do these missions but yes, it inherently comes with access to disturbing information and watch things go down you weren’t prepared for…and that’s okay. One of the most important things from this article is just because you’ve had a traumatic response doesn’t mean you can’t hack it. Not any less of an analyst…not broken. We need resources and to make community better as a result of it.

Q: How do you personally cope with moving past the past?

A: It’s a learning process I haven’t figured that out yet. When you’ve done so many years and missions of quite genuinely life and death situations, it’s not always going to be positive, but what I will always be proud of, and this article illuminates positives as well, these are the missions I will be proud of and will remember on my death bed. There has to be an acknowledgement that with those really hard situations there are proud moments you’ll never give up.

Q: But how do you make something positive out of something horrific?

A: I think it’s a matter of that resilience military teaches you and continuing in this jobset you have to have. If it’s a matter that you’re on sixth deployment to Afhganistan, and you just have to find the positive in that day, raining for first time in months, that’s the positive…becomes a life philosophy in trying to find the positives. I have a boss that switches things to silver lining…not necessarily a good thing but that is my survival mechanism.

Q: It’s great to find positive message, but fine line to not suppress and then memories manifest in a different way. What advice would you give someone coming home from a mission that had an impact on their mental health?

A: That’s another thing I haven’t quite figured out…there’s a natural cadence when you’re not okay…normal coping mechanisms when you’re coming home, you’re driving more defensive, you’re sticking yourself if back of room so you can see, typically associate with military…and unfortunately typically associated with broken people, that’s a normal cadence coming back from combat life and death, giving yourself grace and recover in a normal way. Going away to Afghanistan and those kinds of missions with problem sets and expecting to come back the way you were, not going to happen and that’s okay.

Q: As we try to evolve mindset of therapy not being bad, are there resources available? Are there therapists allowed to discuss classified information with you?

A: The resources are getting there. Increasing access. Unfortunately, I think it’s a matter of good intent and poor execution. Third location, decompression. When you get back required to meet with psychologist. They are your door to being officially being done with deployment, able to go have a beer with your buddies. They are the gatekeeper and it does not enable genuine interaction…just say I’m fine, I’m fine…carry on…good to go. Yes, resource is there. However, it is being utilized or is recommended or utilized to benefit service member? Probably not.

Intelligence Community psychologists are not normally cleared to the level and even if there are, need to know…even if you have the same clearance, you may not need to know everything I’ve been through so thus i can’t share. I went around that by finding therapists outside of military so on my own dime or willing to go off books, no medical record. Came back to bite me because of VA claim, because they said, well you never saw anyone so clearly issues don’t exist. We are getting better but still needs to be general understanding that is going to be ok. They are still going to have security clearance, and I think leaders really need to speak up about them going. Providing space that it’s okay, you will retain your security clearance, they’re still a respected member of the organization, not broken.

Trauma is a word that’s being used a lot these days and in this new generation and I am so glad they are de-stigmatizing it. I think what we are having is a response to overusing the word….Not invalidating the experiences of people who have through very traumatic situations. There’s not a limit of trauma that can be experienced in this world. Also, one instance does not make a traumatic response. There’s the analogy of the boiling frog and water by gradually upping the temperature….it’s rarely one instance of a traumatic event, it’s the buildup of decades of a career that ultimately bring you to PTSD responses. But it’s not all bad, the article brings out positive things because of shitty situations. Post traumatic growth, you went and did the hard things, never lost that empathy or humanization that is so easily lost and that’s something to be proud of.

Q: What was it like being a female in the Intelligence Community in the military?

A: My first time heading into the environment I had a leader tell me I was deploying with men that had never heard the word no. I certainly had instances of sex harassment, sexual assault I hope follow on generations will not have from exposure of more women in special operations. That was a conscious choice I had to make. Was I going to be a whistleblower inside of special ops or become a leader who could do her job well and be respected?

I had to make that choice, if you’re a whistleblower, you just get kicked out community very quick. You are not seen as a team player or a trustworthy asset. It was very much an either/or.

Q: How does private security sector compare in that regard?

A: It is light years ahead of where we are within the military, special operations field in regards to understanding women are inherently needed, are a part of organizations, we bring talent and intelligence into the field. That is never a question, at least it hasn’t been my experience, but I feel like every single day in military I had to prove that.

The interview continues below. Also find out about the new non-profit Laura is helping to lead, The 188 Foundation. For more podcast episodes visit our podcast page or listen through iTunes, Spotify or Podbean.

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