How to Respond to a Veteran in Crisis

Calls involving military vets require a different approach and tactics than other subjects.

3. When a veteran decompensates, the situation can become violent very quickly. If at all possible, establish some distance between the subject and everyone else around him. Phrases such as, “Hey, let’s give him some breathing room, folks, give the guy some air,” can clear some people away without insulting the veteran. This type of non-confrontational response will also decrease the veteran’s sense of threat, which is crucial in helping the veteran to feel safe.

4. Keep in mind that the veteran’s actions may be somewhat or completely out of his conscious control at that moment. He’s probably in nine kinds of pain and probably hasn’t gotten the help he deserves. So if it is at all appropriate and feasible, thank him for his service. Even if you have to take him down and handcuff him, try to be as respectful as possible. Do what you can to help the veteran save face. Obviously, in a foot chase, you’re not stopping to make nice. If the guy is threatening you, you’re not thanking him for his sacrifice. But if, for instance, it’s a suicide gesture or the guy is in an argument with someone, thanking him changes the tone of the encounter and builds rapport, which is key to de-escalation and resolution.

5. Combat veterans can have some pretty dramatic responses to being startled. My advice: minimize the surprises. You can’t control noises on the street or what other people do, but if, for instance, you need to pull out a pad and pen, don’t just suddenly reach into your pocket—his warrior brain may kick in and think you’re attacking him. Cue him into what you’re doing by saying, “I’m just going to take some notes.”

6. A corollary to that is to do things that will calm him. For instance, maintain an exterior that looks relaxed and confident. Use supportive language. Control your own voice; he’ll sense anger or disgust in your tone, which he’ll interpret as being disrespectful. If one of his kids is crying or his girlfriend is screaming at him, find a way of separating him from that. Neurologically, he’s torqued up, and additional stressors like that can escalate things unnecessarily.

7. If you have any ties to the military yourself, or if your family member se
rved in Iraq or Afghanistan, mention it. If you have any ties to New York City, tell him something like, “I personally appreciated you going over there and kicking the crap out of Bin Laden.” The more real you can be with him, the less likely his subconscious is to view you as an enemy when it comes time for you to take action and the more likely he is to drop his defensive posture.

8. Let him talk, as long as it is helping him wind down. Validate how tough his situation is (whatever that may be). If he’s ranting about something going on in his life, don’t argue with him, just nod your head and say something non-committal like, “Yeah, that sounds like a tough situation.” Time is your friend in these cases. Sometimes, the guy just needs to have a reason (jail) to regain control.

9. Think of the subject’s behavior as symptoms of an injury, not as a mental illness. I’ve never understood how a soldier witnessing his best friend or battle buddy getting blown apart makes him disordered. Far more empowering (and accurate) is that the soldier has been injured by the experience. An injury requires some care and some time, maybe even some adjustments afterwards, but doesn’t label the person as “broken.” If you approach the subject with the understanding that he is injured vs. emotionally disturbed, he’ll be far more likely to trust and connect with you.

10. If at any point the subject begins saying things that make no sense or are incongruous to the time and place, call the paramedics immediately and clear the area. If he starts shouting something like, “We’re three clicks away and under fire!” or if he starts calling out names of people who are not present, he is most likely experiencing a flashback and is living out a memory. That means he’s unpredictable. He may look straight at your uniform with the U.S. flag on it and, in his state, be absolutely convinced you are a suicide bomber about to detonate. He has no control over this behavior and cannot be “talked out of it,” and attempting to do so may agitate him further. If he appears to be living out a battle scene, create as large of a perimeter for him as possible, let him know that the “medics” are on their way “to help with the wounded” and alert EMS to the situation when they arrive. And remember, be respectful. These are symptoms of a significant injury.

Given what they’ve been through, our veterans deserve our most profound compassion and assistance. Special veteran courts are being established nationwide and are allowing many veterans to receive clinical care instead of getting lost in the legal system. They can, and will, heal, if we as a nation become savvy enough to work toward giving them a leg up instead of a hand out.

Related Articles:

Alison Lighthall, RN, BSN, MSN, is president of Hand2Hand Contact, a veteran-owned and operated training and consulting company that helps civilian organizations to better understand, work with, and care for veterans. She served as a captain in the Army Nurse Corps from 2004–2007, and is a member of the ILEETA trainers organization.

Photo: iStockPhoto.com

If you appreciated this article and want to receive more valuable industry content like this, click here to sign up for our FREE digital newsletters!

Leading in Turbulent Times: Effective Campus Public Safety Leadership for the 21st Century

This new webcast will discuss how campus public safety leaders can effectively incorporate Clery Act, Title IX, customer service, “helicopter” parents, emergency notification, town-gown relationships, brand management, Greek Life, student recruitment, faculty, and more into their roles and develop the necessary skills to successfully lead their departments. Register today to attend this free webcast!

Get Our Newsletters
Campus Safety Conference promo