Submitted by Krysta Kurzynski
A few years ago, I came across a great article describing a writing exercise that challenges veterans to describe their war experiences in only 6 words.
While academia is enamored with the 40-page research paper and the 10 chapter thesis, the idea of taking a life-changing experience that sometimes spanned several years, and boiling it down to one sentence that a first-grader would compose presented an intriguing proposition. It would require reflection on a personal experience to find the one point that made an impression on everything that followed. For some veterans, this point was tragic and sad, but for others it was comedic or ironic. Each 6-word manifesto represented a deeply personal treatise that could convey so much with so little.
I kept that article bookmarked and upon re-discovery, it became a personal challenge to craft my own 6-word thesis. (A challenge that I now pass along to you.)
No, I am not a veteran, and my experience with war is as distant as most Americans today. Yet after reflection, I can now say that my 6 words are…
Rule Number Two Changed My Life
What is Rule #2, you ask?
Rule Number Two: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital is a powerful firsthand account of Dr. Heidi Squire Kraft, a Navy psychologist deployed to Iraq to treat the psychological wounds of American warriors. Reading this great book (4.6/5 stars according to Amazon reviewers) as a sophomore Psych major was the defining point that opened my eyes to the field of military psychology. I love that psychology can be found in everything that we do and that (frustratingly so) there are always more questions to be answered. Yet, in all of my psych classes, no professor had (or has since) ever mentioned this niche of psychology that explores enhancing human performance, preventing disorders through resilience training, or exploring the personality traits of one of the oldest professions in the history of all humanity-that of warrior, protector, and peace-maker. I was hooked.
While “multi-tasking” during an undergrad course lecture, I searched through the chronicles of the Military Psychology professional journal and bought 5 more books on the subject (which would be immensely more helpful to my career than the textbook purchased for said undergrad course). It was through this self-assigned research that I discovered that I wanted to work with the military population. Here is a culture that teaches discipline and hard work, and expects higher standards than the rest of the civilian world…and most of the people in this unique community are tenacious, sarcastic, and dedicated workers doing some of the hardest/dirtiest/most tedious jobs in the world. THESE are my people!
As a true psych major, I connected this to my ENTJ personality preference which is “characterized by an often ruthless level of rationality, using their drive, determination and sharp minds to achieve whatever end they’ve set for themselves… This determination is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, as ENTJs push their goals through with sheer willpower where others might give up and move on”. https://www.16personalities.com/entj-personality
Fast-forward five years and one master’s degree later. I have been happily working with military veterans for several years. Many of my colleagues are (or were) in the Army, I work with student veterans and ROTC cadets pursuing higher education, and I still enjoy nerding-out to good military psychology research. After a few frustrating challenges in my work though, I came to appreciate the dual reason why Rule Number Two changed my life.
The title of Dr. Kraft’s book comes from a great episode of M*A*S*H (season 1, episode 17) where Hawkeye’s friend, Tommy Gillis, comes to visit and is mortally wounded. The confident and sarcastic Hawkeye is profoundly impacted by his inability to save his friend …
Hawkeye: Henry, I know why I’m crying now. Tommy was my friend and I watched him die and I’m crying. I’ve watched guys die almost every day, why didn’t I ever cry for them?
Henry: Because you’re a doctor.
Hawkeye: What the hell does that mean?
Henry: I don’t know. If I had the answer, I’d be at the Mayo Clinic. Does this place look like the Mayo Clinic? Look, all I know is what they taught me at command school: There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is young men die, and rule number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one.
Despite his excellent skills in the field of medicine and his drive to save Tommy, Rule #2 reminds Hawkeye that some things are just beyond his control.
Like Captain Kirk defeating the Kobiashi Maru who says, “I don’t believe in no-win situations”, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qs0J2F3ErMc) I like to think that I can power my way through any difficult challenge. Of course, that’s not to say that I don’t occasionally lose (just ask my incredibly smart, competitive boyfriend) and I’m ok with someone else being smarter, faster, or stronger than me. However, it is very hard for me to accept that there are situations where, despite my skills, drive, and best effort, I would fail to “save” one of my patients.
This particular bit of hubris is common in many helping professionals because we fail to admit how much lies outside of our control- namely, our patients. The capricious nature of the human element is what makes simple answers so elusive in psychology, medicine, education, or sociology. (I dare you to try to find one reputable study that proves something to be true every time, for all people, without exception…excluding the proverbial “death and taxes”.)
In my profession, I work to ensure that the student veterans on our campus can excel in their personal, professional, and academic careers. By and large, these efforts have been very successful; our students have great GPAs, graduate at a significantly higher rate than the national average, secure good jobs after graduation, and our program has received national recognition as one of the best schools for veterans, year after year.
However, we have also had our share of academic “casualties”. Some “patients” don’t show up for appointments, don’t take the medicine designed to alleviate their symptoms, or don’t tell the “doctors” they’re experiencing distress. Because our campus is rather small in size, we have a pretty tight-knit group…which makes it particularly difficult for me to see one of our veterans- one of my students-one of my patients flat line in my “Operating Room”. I should be able to save them all.
I distinctly recall one semester where we were fully staffed and supplied, and we had the “prescribed treatments” in place; yet we had several casualties and a few who almost didn’t make it. Our staff discussed the epidemic at length trying to understand where we went wrong, and I questioned my effectiveness, my skills, and my vocation. I started to think…perhaps there are patients who simply can’t be saved, and I’m wasting my time…maybe this treatment is just a placebo…if I lost this patient, I probably can’t save that patient either…maybe it was a naïve, waste of time believing I could save them all…
Luckily, failure in this “operating room” does not have the mortal consequences of Hawkeye’s environment; but just like his work, there is always a human element out of my control. And just like Hawkeye, Rule #2 has been a hard lesson to learn, and a bitter pill for an ESTJ-personality to take.
So what’s the moral of the story? How did Rule #2 change my life (again)? Let’s flash back to Hawkeye and Henry…
Henry: There are certain rules about a war, and rule number one is young men die, and rule number two is, doctors can’t change rule number one.
Hawkeye: Do you believe that?
Henry: I don’t know. Do you?
Hawkeye: I don’t know, but I know one doctor who can keep one young man from dying in one war.
Hawkeye then runs off to treat a 15-year old patient who came in for an appendectomy…resuming his sarcastic antics by also sending the boy home with a Purple Heart that was awarded to Frank (for throwing out his back).
For me, Rule Number Two has changed how I evaluate a loss. Whereas I used to ask, “How do I prevent this from ever happening again?” I now think, “when this happens again, how do we see it earlier, and what might change the trajectory?” Yes, I acknowledge that I cannot control everything, and I know that I will lose patients along the way…but I will not allow myself to become pessimistic and jaded. I will see each veteran-student-patient as one that I can save, and I will not give up until they leave my “operating room”. Trying to save a life is never a waste of time.
So now I add to the list: Rule number three is that doctors still give their best to every one of their patients, in spite of rule number two.