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Understanding Stress on Those Who Serve

Understanding Stress on Those Who Serve 

(An Observation About Public Servants) 

 By Robert B. (Scott) Kuhnen, USAF Civilian (RET) 

*This is an article from the Winter 2022/2023 issue of Combat Stress

Please forgive me. I’m a neophyte in your space. 

In the last edition of Combat Stress, I shared some thoughts which I entitled, “Understanding a Shooting in Texas.” I set readers up slightly by implying that I was discussing the highly publicized shooting in Uvalde, Texas which was then very much in the news, when I was really trying to provoke a conversation and re-examination of the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. 

In this edition of Combat Stress, I would like to continue my theme of trying to understand. As I conclude my thoughts, I will again try to provoke…and to see what reactions this may elicit. 

A quick story: In 2016, a small group of volunteers in and around Dayton, Ohio hosted the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team (now called USA Patriots Amputee Softball Team). Between doubleheader games by the amputee players versus able-bodied players, we hosted a ceremony patterned after the sign-off of long-time Cincinnati Reds broadcaster and Baseball Hall of Famer, Joe Nuxhall, who always told his listeners as the signoff of his broadcasts that he was “rounding 3rd and headed for home.” 

Our 2016 ceremony was in honor of Vietnam Veterans who, coincidently, were also recognizing the 50-year anniversary of the War in Vietnam.  We asked them to step up out of the first base dugout, then walk the bases from 1st to 2nd to 3rd, and then finally welcomed them home at home plate. At each stop, these Veterans of the Vietnam War were welcomed by our beneficiaries and other dignitaries, such as the Chief of Staff for the Dayton VA Medical Center at home plate. 

Prior to the start of ceremonies, and just prior to organizing this line of Veterans to be recognized, I happened upon a gentleman behind the stadium who was wearing a Veteran ball cap, so I casually asked him if he had signed up and was ready to walk the bases? 

His response surprised me. While he admitted that he was a Veteran of the Vietnam era, he sheepishly explained that he was never deployed to Vietnam and didn’t feel that this ceremony was for him. There were tears in his eyes. 

I then asked him if he had volunteered to serve? He said that he had. I asked him if, unlike everyone I ever knew who volunteered to serve, he had been asked where he wanted to serve or, like all the rest of us, was told where he would serve? 

I shared with him that once he raised his hand and swore that Oath of Enlistment, he was then told when to stand up, when to sit, where and when to sleep, when to eat, and what to do…and the choice to be deployed or not deployed to Vietnam was not in his control. Simply put, if he served during the war in Vietnam, he was a Vietnam Veteran. 

To my delight, he circled the bases and received thanks for his service. For me, and I hope for him, it was a highlight of our weekend with the USA Patriots Amputee Softball Team. 

This is the sort of person to whom service is meaningful; a person who would never steal the valor of another and respects his country far too much to let it down. 

This is the sort of person to whom discipline is soothing and calming and to whom conflict, and chaos are unsettling. Not everyone fits this mold. For example, do politicians? 

Now then, imagine for just a second what this person thought about our withdrawal in 2021 from Afghanistan? Honorable? Wise? Meeting commitments made, not just to Afghans but also to our US Servicemembers. 

 Imagine if you can, whether or not the sacrifice was worth it for the hundreds of thousands who took the oath upon answering the call of duty to Uncle Sam to protect and defend. This was the ultimate disloyalty for those who did. 

If you are imagining it (or maybe you are actually right now living it?), are you seeing a person under stress? Or, worse yet, are you actually imagining a person in despair? Where is that line…that difference between stress versus despair? 

How do people to whom service to others is foundational and paramount in their own lives, and an important part of who they are, cope with such an obvious and disheartening betrayal? Or asked another way, how many have been deeply impacted and unable to tolerate such betrayal and infidelity? 

These people wear a uniform, which signifies to others that they are serving their nation. Uniforms, of course, are not merely reserved for our Armed Forces but also for our 1st responders who also serve. One need not imagine, but merely observe, how such servants of the people are disrespected and abused. Watch as their foundational principles are attacked and eroded until they find it impossible to cope. 

Those who serve their fellow citizens, and our nation are proud of their service. That pride is a deep-seated defense against setbacks, small or otherwise. Their pride is foundational to their sense of being. 

I believe that most of these public servants understood the nature of stress prior to, during, and even after their military service. I do not believe; however, they knew how fragile they might become when the very nation they were serving appeared to turn against them. Is this when stress becomes despair? 

To deal with this potential bridge from stress to despair, I would like to offer some thoughts…not exactly advice (since it would be too personal to presume). 

As I write, literally billions of people across the world are remembering and honoring Queen Elisabeth II on the occasion of her funeral. Within those billions of people, it is likely that some were inspired by a life of dedicated service. Many people, whether religious or not, did their best to emulate the Queen’s life of service to others and derived a great deal of satisfaction from attempts at selflessness and by serving others. I would argue that this service to others motivates many in our country, not merely our Armed Forces, but all nature of 1st responders and volunteers for worthwhile organizations and undertakings for noble causes. 

Public servants – those who work in Government for the citizens who pay their salaries – hold a special responsibility. Their service is to all of us, not merely those with whom they agree or may be sympathetic. I worry that politics has corrupted many of these public servants and those who are partisan should probably not remain on our payroll. 

I try to understand the gap which appears to now exist between those in our political class…the so-called elites…versus those who serve. Has this chasm ever been wider…at least in these United States? 

Walk a mile in the shoes of not just a traditional Service Member, but almost any 1st Responder…police, border agent, or any civil servant who sees and feels the wide gulf between the missions they are handed to pursue versus how that mission may be politicized or distorted to achieve certain political ends. 

Imagine the stress of not seeing the sort of entire-organization alignment required to achieve mission success. Might they be asking, “Does the boss have my back?” In Government, there are undoubtedly more layers and more bosses than you can even begin to grasp. But, to the psyche of the public servant, everyone is a boss, and the mission must provide for everyone’s benefit. It is certainly fair to expect that everyone would acknowledge and support their dedication and service to all of us. 

When does stress become despair? Can we head this off prior to it happening… knowing what the final consequences of that path will become? 

Is there something special or unique in the psyche of those who serve which we might consider for reaching, helping, and/or coaching them to cope? We must lean forward to understand and to provide for the welfare of those who have performed the most noble of deeds, our numerous and diverse public servants, only to have their sacrifices demeaned and dismissed and debased. 


Robert B. (Scott) Kuhnen retired from Federal Service in 2014 after more than 40 years combined military and civilian service in the USAF. A native Ohioan, he enlisted in the USAF directly out of high school and quickly found himself back in study at the Defense Language Institute (DLI), Monterey, CA.  As this occurred right as the U.S.S. Pueblo was being taken by the North Koreans in 1968, language specialists found themselves studying Korean and assigned to flight duty in Korea and Japan. Active duty years passed quickly and burnout was commonly experienced by those serving. The author was honorably discharged and soon found himself back in school at Kent State University where he graduated with honors in 1977. The start of a family made graduate school more difficult and the opportunity to join Federal Service (1978) in the Engineering Directorate of Aeronautical Systems Center (ASC) at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH very appealing. In spite of lacking an engineering degree, the author enjoyed a rewarding career serving in the Defense Standardization Program for both ASC and HQ Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) and as Scientific and Technical Information (STINFO) program manager for both ASC and HQ AFMC. The author considered public service to be a calling and he has continued to serve by raising funds for local Veteran organizations and causes like the Fisher House Foundation and Honor Flight-Dayton. 

Combat Stress Magazine

Combat Stress magazine is written with our military Service Members, Veterans, first responders, and their families in mind. We want all of our members and guests to find contentment in their lives by learning about stress management and finding what works best for each of them. Stress is unavoidable and comes in many shapes and sizes. It can even be considered a part of who we are. Being in a state of peaceful happiness may seem like a lofty goal but harnessing your stress in a positive way makes it obtainable. Serving in the military or being a police officer, firefighter or paramedic brings unique challenges and some extraordinarily bad days. The American Institute of Stress is dedicated to helping you, our Heroes and their families, cope with and heal your mind and body from the stress associated with your careers and sacrifices.

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