Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas, USMC Captain

by Jess Clackum

Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas was a United States Marine Corps officer for 8 years, serving as a Military Police Officer stateside and in Al Anbar, Iraq. She was also a leader of new women Marines, training recruits at Parris Island as both a Series and Company Commander.

Currently Dr. Thomas is an assistant professor of public health at Charleston Southern University where she researches military mental fitness. She has just released her newest book. Brave, Strong, and True: The Modern Warrior's Battle for Balance is available at www.bravestrongtrue.com

"The tremendous worth of FlyGirls is the work it will do to pave the way for healthy transitions for today's military women. Through the stories of courageous, yet entirely human women, we can learn about the experiences of a prior generation of veterans, about the shoulders upon which we stood during our own time in service.  Ultimately, through stories like these we learn about ourselves -  about sacrifice,  resiliency, loss, and duty."

"The very word veteran calls to mind the image of a man. Yet, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, there are currently over 1.6 million women veterans in the United States. Of these, 30% are post-9/11-era veterans. Many of these women served in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their participation throughout the spectrum of military operations, including in ground combat, is a first in our nation’s history.  Their experiences reintegrating into society after their military service have yet to be recorded, examined, and told.

Women veterans share many of the concerns of male veterans; yet they also face unique issues, especially when it comes to accessing services offered by veteran service organizations, and in their personal paths to finding a congruent self-concept that encompasses their identities as veterans as well as women, and, often, mothers. Indeed, compared to their non-veteran counterparts, women veterans are more likely to both be divorced and to have children. In addition, women veterans are more likely than male veterans to live in poverty, and to have no income and no health insurance.

This year, I am trying to contribute to the community I call home by sharing stuff that is hard to chat about around the Thanksgiving table. My book, Brave, Strong, & True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance hit stores and online retailers this month. It is my attempt to talk about something important, and to honor my responsibility to continue to serve even after leaving the active duty Marine Corps. My watch is over, but I am far from disconnected; the military will always be home.

Despite the vast news coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, one figure has remained mysterious: the number of suicides among US servicemen and women, compared to combat casualties. Here’s one statistic to contemplate: In 2012, the US military lost 295 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in combat in Afghanistan. But over this same time period, 349 took their own lives.  

Right now, we are losing more veterans to suicide than to combat. I’m a pretty decisive person with limited ability to ask for help and zero trouble-taking risks; there was a time I could have become one of those statistics.  

Those figures are mysterious because even as we throw money and resources at clinical mental health treatment and blame rising rates on multiple deployments, the answers are elusive. The narrative of the “broken veteran” struggling with combat stress just doesn’t ring quite true to those of us who served over the last decade, and the issue is more complicated than simple statistics can show.

I became a Marine to serve, and I loved being part of the Corps. As with anything I have ever loved intensely, the military changed and shaped me. To the casual observer looking in, the world seems brutal and intense. That casual observer isn’t entirely wrong—the military is some of those things. Shared hardship and challenge are vital parts of the refining and rebuilding process that changes a civilian into a warrior. If you ask anyone who served, they wouldn’t have it any other way. No one wants what comes easily or is handed to just anyone.

That process of obstacles, mastery experience, and shared suffering offers growth and transformation, but coming back to civilian life afterward can be incredibly hard. Standards are different. Camaraderie is different. Culture is absolutely different. I witnessed firsthand the toll that leaving the service took on many of us.

Stressful work environments, high rates of divorce and domestic violence, family separation, and repeated combat deployments all contributed, but the biggest reason for the reintegration problems many of us faced is cultural. We subscribe to unbalanced notions of what it means to be a warrior, and uphold silent suffering as virtue. Mistakes are shameful; pain is weakness. Saying that something is hard or stressful just isn’t done.

I don’t want to contribute to the silence that surrounds these issues anymore. Too many aspects of warrior culture are destructive lies we tell ourselves.

Who are we maintaining this veneer for?

What do we have to prove anymore?

Constant invulnerability is an illusion, and cultural mandates to be “together” in every way become dangerously prescriptive. We lose our authenticity in this way; we don’t know how to reach out to each other when stresses start to overwhelm. Too many of us who are used to appearing strong would, indeed, rather consider suicide than admit to being human, fallible, or broken.

My own public story was of crisp uniforms, physical fitness metrics, and successes. I always looked good on paper. My private story involved destructive choices, broken doors and holes in the walls, hiding weapons in the house, and getting dragged across the living room floor by my hair. I was as far from God as a person could be but had no idea at the time.

As a Marine Officer, I was not supposed to make mistakes, feel depressed, or need help. But I did. Tough places and situations became tougher because I didn’t know that people might be okay with an imperfect version of me. For too long I chose silence over reaching out to loved ones. I opted for deeply felt, visceral shame over openness and vulnerability.  

When serving in the military we are trained to lead with confidence. Presenting a certain and effective façade requires some incredibly useful skills. We make decisions quickly and responsively, but these very same skills become incredibly destructive when we never learn how to turn them off. This description fits most service members. We tend to be a driven, almost comically dysfunctional, lot.

What if I told you that I am not perfect?

I want to discuss strategies with you - including social support, self care, and spiritual practice - for all of us to meet the challenge of living purposeful lives. This is my attempt to contribute to the dialogue about connecting with veterans in this country after the last two wars. The book is a mix of stories from veterans, behavioral health research, and just a bit of practical guidance. Thank you for reading it. Thank you for caring. Thank you for having the conversation about balance with the military-connected people in your life. Whether you are a veteran, a family member, a military commander, mental health professional, or an everyday citizen who can identify with the title “warrior,” I appreciate you for engaging."

Order Kate’s new book, Brave Strong True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balancehere or at your favorite book retailer.