Take a Knee and Drink Water: Mental Health in the Army

There’s a saying in the Army: “Take a knee, pull security, and drink some water.” Some extra-caring people might even add, “Rub some dirt on it.” If your medic is extra loving, they might even tell you to change your socks. It’s what you say when someone gets injured or otherwise incapacitated, usually out in the field. Sprained ankle? Take a knee and drink some water. Shot through the leg? Take a knee, drink some water, doc will be here soon with the magic 800mg of ibuprofen. 

What the phrase is getting at is to step back, let things slow down around you, and do something healthy for yourself. And let’s be honest: we could all use something like that. And not just while out on patrol.

There’s long been a stigma associated with seeking care for mental health issues in the military. Which is odd, since it’s a force that values physical fitness incredibly highly. Why not then mental fitness? If a Soldier breaks their leg, we’re not going to have them running a five-miler; we’re going to get them evaluated and put on a no-running profile until they heal up. It should be the same with mental health injuries.

But even more than that, mental health isn’t just something you address when something is hurting. To extend the physical analogy, we do a lot of things to take care of our bodies to prevent injuries: stretching, chiropractors, massages, good diet, yoga, etc. So we should do the same thing with our mental health. Preventative care is vitally important.

About two years ago, I was going through a rough time. Couldn’t focus, had spiralling anxiety, wasn’t sleeping well, and wasn’t feeling any sense of peace or belonging. It took me almost six months to get my ass to a therapist precisely because of the “I’m a tough Army leader, I can take it, I don’t need therapy” even though I paid lip service to the idea that mental health care was important. 

Now, a year and a half in, things are far better than they were. I’m able to cope much more easily, feeling more like myself, and have developed skills and habits to deal with past issues.  And I am able to openly advocate for therapy to my Soldiers when they are struggling. I’m not sure if this helps, but it at least gives them someone in their lives who has said “I did this, I’m still here, you can, too.”

Force-wide, we need to come to a better place with ensuring that Soldiers have access to good, reliable mental health treatment. And we have to ensure that leaders – and the institution – do not put barriers to treatment in the way. Our culture absolutely has to change. If Soldiers are frequently told that seeking mental health is a sign of weakness, they’re not going to take the steps they need to get better. And the results of that are Soldiers who leave the service, who are unsupported under pressure, and who might be tempted to self-harm. We absolutely cannot have that.

So, if you’re an Army leader, I challenge you with this: be the advocate for mental health care for your Soldiers. Encourage them to seek assistance for issues, as well as preventative care. Let them know that it’s okay to take a knee and drink water. It’s how we create a healthy and ready force.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

Cover photo: U.S. soldiers take a knee before moving out to their follow on objective after jumping from an Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft at Rivolto Air Base in Udine, Italy, Sept. 26, 2017, during Exercise September Heat 2017. Army photo by Paolo Bovo

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