Veterans, strength and the race for the White House

The presidential candidates have been desperately fighting to show their strength to be able to lead the American people. Unfortunately, as most campaigns go, their version of showing strength has been via bullying and posturing their way into the White House.

For example, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE’s speech to retired American veterans suggested that military personnel who struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are not strong enough to "handle" the horrors of war. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE has vowed to call out "bigotry" in Trump's campaign, yet states "half" of Trump supporters fit into a "basket of deplorables," alluding to the fact they are racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic.

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In this election of two relatively unloved candidates, we can gain some good insights by looking at those veterans with PTSD (that Trump was alluding to), so that they can shed light on what Trump and Hillary are trying to show but perhaps failing at. What is strength and why real strength would make a great leader? 

The following four signs of strength are as follows:

Surviving the risk factors

It’s true that not all war veterans develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Some of the risk factors for developing this diagnosis are: a history of childhood abuse; bereavement; history of family psychiatric issues; lack of social support; and being of Hispanic or African American ethnic background. Thus, people who have been faced with higher levels of adversity have had more challenges and are at a higher risk.

But let’s not leave it at that. If those who are at-risk for developing PTSD have already survived their fair share of hardship, that makes them even stronger and often more empathetic of others strife.  Strength is a process, not a trait! Individuals at-risk for PTSD often have higher levels of tolerance for frustration and resilience from what they have previously endured. They’re not often discouraged by setbacks. 

Both presidential candidates grew up in middle-class to wealthy households with no such noted diversities. They can imagine what it might have been like to significantly struggle during childhood, but they don’t have that experience, as many war vets unfortunately have had.

 The act of serving

People who’ve signed up to serve their country in the military are motivated, focused, and not opting for the easier path in life. They know they must endure tough conditions and give over control for an extended length of time for the greater good.  Most young people who enlist in the military do so for noble and brave reasons.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump ever served in the military. Had Trump had any combat experience, his comments would likely have had more real empathy, yet they were seen as insensitive and may have been interpreted differently. With military experience, Hillary during her previous presidential race in 2008 would not have needed to over-embellish her dramatic description of the arrival in Bosnia 12 years prior, stating that she landed under sniper fire to demonstrate that she has had combat experience.

Facing your problems honestly

Many military men and women are afraid to admit they struggle with symptoms of PTSD out of the stigma of mental illness. Only recently have government programs such as the Department of Veterans’ Affairs acknowledged the need for mental health treatment among veterans. Those who do seek help see strength in learning from the pain, not from avoiding it.

Both candidates continue to tout their “excellent health,” despite suspicions.  Certainly, they have reasons to keep medical and mental health-related issues out of the public eye. After all, they need to appear “strong.” But politicians are humans too and not immune from developing health-related problems. There is genuineness when one owns their strengths and weaknesses without having to “manage” their public perception.

Following direct orders

People in the military follow orders, whether they like them or not. It comes with the job. If soldiers continuously disregard orders, they are dishonorably discharged. Those in the military do not get the luxury of picking and choosing which orders they want to follow. Likewise, the heads of the military must follow direct orders from the President, whether they voted for them or not. This level of dedication takes strength.

In contrast to this, both Hillary and Donald certainly pick and choose their moments of following the rules and transparency to the American people. Most notably are Donald’s long-standing refusal to release recent tax returns and Hillary’s refusal to reveal the security-compromising emails. It shows great strength to follow the rules when you are given a request or an order, versus avoiding the topic altogether.

Regardless of your candidate, it is important to stop and see the casualties that a campaign trail like this one can leave along the way. Veterans who develop PTSD are still strong. They just need help organizing the traumatic events in their mind so they can properly file away the trauma they’ve experienced. Today with good cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) this can often be achieved in 10 weeks with the right mental health provider and CBT protocol. Although our veterans with PTSD can now be cured in 10 weeks using CBT, unfortunately in the same time frame, our candidates with their versions of “Strength” will still be the same. 

Dr. Paul DePompo is a psychologist, speaker, researcher, and author of the book “The Other Woman’s Affair”. He is recognized as an expert in helping people learn how to be their own coaches and make lasting change and is the founder of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute of Southern California. Dr. DePompo’s no-nonsense approach utilizes short-term techniques, that when mastered, make for long-term change. Follow him on Twitter @DrPaulDePompo


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