In a prescient and poignant piece of commentary published on June 16th, 2017, in the San Diego Union-Tribune, retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer Ed Hiner described the toll that 16 years of continuous wartime deployments have taken on the Navy’s SEAL community. It is a devastating and cautionary picture he paints.
Hiner describes the situation as an “epidemic” and a “train wreck” that is facing the country’s “tip-of-the-spear veterans.” He is not wrong and should be commended for bringing this issue to the public’s attention. It is one that we here at SOFREP have raised as well.
In the piece, Hiner provides readers with two recent examples of SEALs — both from SEAL team FIVE — who took their own lives within six months of each other after leaving military service. He also mentions a third SEAL who is in long-term inpatient care as a result of post-traumatic stress.
Hiner states that the two SEALs who took their own lives in-fact served in the same platoon at ST-5 and were both “over-exposed” to combat in the years before they transitioned to civilian life. It is this abrupt transition, in Hiner’s view, that is at least partly to blame for the mental stresses facing these special operations personnel. In an illustrative and apt metaphor, Hiner likens the time spent in combat to saturation diving.
Hiner explains that just as divers who have made a particularly deep dive have to spend a good deal of time decompressing before they come to the surface — to allow nitrogen to absorb in the body and avoid the onset of the bends (decompression sickness) — SEALs and other special operations forces need time to decompress before fully transitioning to the “surface” of civilian life.
Hiner also points out that this is a new problem for American society, in that we have never before had to face this problem with SOF in our history. Consequently, there is no effective program for addressing this “combat saturation” as far as Hiner is concerned.
He goes on to call for the creation of such a program, without prescribing exactly how it should run, that would facilitate the slow and smooth transition of SOF operators from the service to civilian life. While doing so, it would keep them “tied to the brotherhood that they have lived in for most of their lives.”
Hiner concludes his commentary by stating that “a gold watch and a handshake won’t do it” when it comes to sending a combat veteran SEAL off to the civilian world. He is right. Collectively, we as the U.S. military, politicians, and civil society need to do a better job welcoming these men and women back from long-term combat deployments so that they may again become productive and healthy civilian members of our citizenry.
We owe them that, and much more. It would be a great place to start.
Read the full text of Hiner’s commentary here.
Featured Image: Greek special forces and U.S. Navy SEALs search houses during a predawn assault as part of Sarisa 16, an annual Greek exercise, near Thessaloniki, Greece, Sept. 20, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Marcus Fichtl)