I wish I could’ve saved my soldiers.
I was 22 years old when I became a platoon leader overseeing and taking care of 40 soldiers in combat in 2010. At the time, I had only done one tour — 12 months — in Iraq. But many of my soldiers had served four or five tours and had seen much more than I had.
Our job was to drive up and down the International Highway, which connected Kuwait to Iraq, and build relationships with local Iraqi police and sheiks. But we also had to check for improvised explosives, or IEDs.
We didn’t get all of them. In one case, before heading out on a mission, a U.S. envoy truck came careening into our base, half blown to hell and torn to shreds. In the back: three dead bodies. We had missed an IED.
There’s a lot of guilt in seeing something like that, and it can lead to a major symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder called survivor’s remorse. There is a wear on the brain and the body that goes into being in the military, especially for those deployed.
But were you ever to suggest talking to a therapist, you’d be hard-pressed to find many service members who would take you up on it. In the military, getting mental health treatment is viewed as a weakness — which, besides the negative stigma, is just plain wrong. There were soldiers who’d give therapy a try, only to leave after a single session and say, “I don’t feel better. I need to get back to the unit. I need to help out. This is an hour out of my time when I could be spending that with my family.”
And within a few years, there were people in my unit who had attempted suicide. It’s been seven years since I left Iraq, and in that time we’ve lost two people who were in my unit, one of whom I directly oversaw.
As a platoon leader, I viewed it as my responsibility to take care of our soldiers beyond getting the mission done. But with the news of the suicides came a sense that I had failed as their leader. It was my responsibility to take care of these guys, just like they took care of us.
After I retired from the military in 2015, I went to business school in Philadelphia. It had become my mission to find out how I could make our soldiers know that therapy could actually work for them, if only they would stick with it. Just as you wouldn’t return to your normal, daily routine after breaking an arm and undergoing one session with a physical therapist, neither should you expect to be fully recuperated after one session with a mental health professional.
But, I soon realized, to get soldiers into therapy and keep them there, they needed to see — physically, with their own eyes — the progress they were making.
I read up on research that showed how you can use EEG technology, which measures electrical activity in the brain, to also measure one’s emotions. That was when a light bulb just went off, like, “Holy shit, you could make mental health as black and white as a broken arm.”
That meant therapists could measure and track the progress of patients, objectively. And by doing so, they could fight that negative stigma and give people more hope.
So I developed NeuroFlow. The idea is simple: Give therapists a technology that uses basic and affordable medical supplies, like EEGs or heart rate monitors, to examine the health of their clients. That way, patients could see how their heart races — literally — in real time as they talk about something traumatic. And then, over the course of their sessions, they would be able to see their heart rate slow down and return to a more relaxed state as they healed.
This is my new mission: helping the veteran community. With 20 vets killing themselves in the U.S. every day, there is still a lot of work to be done. So I can’t quite say my mission is complete … yet.