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Getting Ahead of Post Deployment Blues

Last December, I presented a brief to our leaders entitled: “What the #%$ is wellness?” We discussed leadership’s potential impact during operations and the possible deflation members feel after ta disaster response operation, known as post-deployment blues.

At the end of my presentation, Brandon Callahan, the Incident Commander (IC) on Operation Wolfsnare, approached me and said, “I wanted to say something during your presentation, but didn’t want to be a dick.” I was expecting the worst, but Brandon wanted to offer deeper perspective.

Marine veteran Brandon Callahan (right) served as incident commander on Operation Wolfsnare in Virginia Beach in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

After Operation Wolfsnare, Brandon asked regional leaders to contact those who had deployed once they demobilized. The manner in which the information was delivered enabled everyone to openly discuss their feelings during post-deployment calls. Brandon continued, “You asked how we replicate the attitude from Op Wolfsnare, specifically regarding the openness to the post-deployment blues conversation?”

He went on to explain that getting veterans, first responders, and other similar personalities to open up about their personal feelings is much like cracking an encrypted code. “We are programmed to bury our feelings so we can function as part of the collective.” He shared lessons learned about leadership during his time as IC:

We are all greyshirts.

Often we hear, “The Command & Staff and the Greyshirts,” which establishes a divide. We are all Greyshirts, from our CEO to our newest volunteer. We have to reinforce that C&Gs are Greyshirts who have a different task. Much like the military, we can’t all go out and blow up shit. Someone has to make sure we have ammo, armor, food, and water. Someone has to point us in the direction of the bad guys, and make sure we are fully supported for the mission. Those somebodies aren’t any better or worse than you; they support the same mission. Our support structure is the same – one mission.

Establish a safe environment.

The openness created at Op Wolfsnare had to do with the overall attitude and environment of the entire operation. Give personnel a place to sleep, hot food to eat, work to be proud of, a “family” to embrace, and morale will improve. Most people had an excellent time, regardless of how long they deployed or their role, and people are more apt to discuss their thoughts or feelings in a safe environment.

Leadership sets the tone.

This requires presenting a unified front in public and handling disagreements in private. It also means letting people see your weakness, especially as leadership. Whenever something was on my mind, I shared it. Setting the example in an open environment demonstrates vulnerability. Let others see us cry when we are hurt, or smile when we are happy, and they will follow.

Debrief is critical.

As we return from the field, staff should take their happy ass outside and help out. This is an easy way to earn respect. The email and laptop can wait. After all personnel are done for the day, debrief over at the fire pit. If there isn’t a fire pit, make one. The fire pit is incredibly important to TR culture. Ask staff if they have any official business to discuss, which should take less than two minutes. Then raise the beer flag and create an environment for people to share openly, decompress, and build TRust and relationships.

Mission first, but always take care of each other. 

Our mission is not only aiding disasters, but aiding each other. We do that by responding to disasters. Take a genuine interest in the well-being of those in your charge, and they will respond. Too often we make it seem as if ICs are charged with getting work orders done and keeping people physically safe by wearing their PPE. That’s only part of it. We need to care for their mental well-being as well.

Acknowledge post-deployment blues.

Post-deployment blues are not easy to talk about, especially in front of a group of type “A” personalities. Yes, it’s hard to acknowledge, that’s the damn point. Post-deployment blues have claimed the lives of TR members, and they are the same ones that rob us of our brothers and sisters every single day. Give the topic the respect it deserves. Point out that the stronger the personality, the harder they will be hit. Identify resources for people. Be truthful – if you’ve used those resources yourself, let people know! This is the perfect example of a case where you MUST lead by example.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn how Team Rubicon works with partnering organizations to provide support to our growing volunteer base serving those affected by disasters. 

Michelle Ufner currently serves as the Wellness Manager in Region III residing in Pennsylvania. Michelle has a PhD in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh. She's served as a mental health liaison through the Department of Homeland Security and was employed by the U.S. Army as a civilian social scientist where she deployed to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. She also serves as a volunteer paramedic and is a member of the Disaster Action Team with the American Red Cross.