Camp Lejeune, N.C. --
After years of hearing from his wife that he seemed different and with his marriage in turmoil, Master Sgt. Ryan E. Evans, the operations chief for Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command’s Communications Directorate, decided it was time to go speak to a counselor. During the summer of 2018, Evans took the first step on his self-care path by meeting with the command psychologist, one of the many resources available to service members within MARSOC.
“In 2016-2017, I checked back into MARSOC and my pace of life and operational tempo completely slowed down,” explained Evans. “When you’re always busy or always deployed or doing back-to-back training, you stuff it in your pack and move on, you don’t take the time to process how you’re doing or what you’re feeling.”
Evans connected the slowdown in his operational pace as a turning point in his life and when he realized that he needed to do more to help himself. He couldn’t just “stuff it in his pack and move on.” Seeing a counselor helped him identify the areas he was struggling with, but Evans often found it hard to communicate with the counselor because of their lack of understanding of military trauma, as well his own fear of being perceived as broken, or worse, a monster.
Evans soon had a friend refer him to a program called the Mighty Oaks Foundation, explaining that the Mighty Oaks Warrior Program helped him talk about and manage his post-traumatic stress. He thought Evans would benefit from it as well. Evans decided to submit an application, but kept his expectations low before attending in the Spring of 2019.
“Before going to the [Mighty Oaks’] Legacy Program, I viewed guys who had PTSD as weak-minded and never understood how some guys could claim having PTSD, who had barely seen combat,” said Evans. “After completing the program, I understood that PTS affects people in a multitude of ways and having that understanding now helps me be more empathetic when talking with fellow Marines.”
PTS can occur following any life-threatening encounter, such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults, like rape. Generally, post-traumatic stress disorder is treated as a mental or emotional disorder with medication and psychotherapy, whereas the Mighty Oaks methodology looks at the spiritual resiliency needed to rise and meet the challenges of post-trauma life and move forward to find hope, purpose and a more fulfilling future.
Chad M. Robichaux and his wife, Kathy, founded the Mighty Oaks Foundation in 2011 with the goal to share their story through the trials of PTS and assist others along the path to recovery and success. According the their website, the foundation is a leading military non-profit, serving the U.S. military active duty and veteran communities, with highly successful peer-to-peer faith-based combat trauma programs and combat resiliency conferences. Robichaux and his team are dedicated to helping America’s military warriors and their families suffering from the “unseen wounds” of combat such as PTS. Their effort is on the front line to intercede and end the climbing 22-per-day veteran suicide rate and the tragic divorce epidemic in military families.
“I grew up in a church family, but never really had a strong relationship with God,” commented Evans. “Attending Chad’s Legacy Program allowed me to develop the skills needed to manage PTS through faith, with bible readings and having guys to rely on who know what it’s like. It made me realize I wasn’t the only guy dealing with this and that I wasn’t alone; it forced me to take off the mask and be vulnerable. I wanted to share that with fellow military members here at the command, so I organized the resiliency event.”
Evans coordinated with Robichaux to have him conduct one of his military resiliency events at MARSOC on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., in August. Marines and Sailors across the command attended the event and listened to Robichaux speak on the trials and hardships he and many like him have faced, or currently face, when dealing with post-traumatic stress in their careers and at home while trying to reintegrate into life after combat and other traumatic events.
“This program is a life changing event,” commented retired U.S. Marine Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, 16th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, after Robichaux’s resiliency event at MARSOC. “I’ve participated in the program and it truly opens up a new way of thinking. The program assists these warriors with going through life without needing medications or other medical forms of help. Chad’s aim is to truly help our warriors get better and his program hasn’t lost a warrior to date.”
Mighty Oaks Warrior Program uses a grassroots approach, empowering veterans and active duty members to begin their healing and then be a positive impact on those in their surrounding communities. Through the methodologies used and the evaluation of those who have experienced combat, Robichaux and his team discovered that the same methods used to “heal” PTSD are equally effective if implemented prior to traumatic events such as those experienced in combat.
“I created this program as my way to pay it forward,” Robichaux stated. “I wanted to give back to others what I experienced and learned despite the many ups and downs I faced throughout my journey to recovery.”
While Mighty Oaks is Christian faith-based in its methodology, the mentors and advisors are all previous combat-experienced military members. Having team mentors that have experienced similar situations allowed the attendees to talk through things easier and connect with each other of deeper levels.
“It was such a moving experience because you were able to reconnect with your faith and you were able to communicate and share your experiences with people who have experienced the same or similar traumatic events as you,” added Evans. “You got to hear everything that they went through and how they managed it and realized you weren’t alone.”
According to him, reading the bible and reconnecting to his faith helped Evans truly understand what being a man of God means and, in turn, helped him control his anger and irritability. It also helped him manage the guilt he would get from feeling like he wasn’t doing enough, or for not deploying, and helped him understand that he couldn't control some of the situations.
“I’m not saying it’s a cure-all, but it definitely helps you manage everything,” added Evans. “I don’t think you ever recover, I think you just learn how to manage it better.”
Part of the road to recovery is the Mighty Oaks Program’s after-care that includes team mentors, also known as corner men, or groups of individuals who reach out to a participant from the program and regularly check-in on them regularly once they leave that environment. Evans commented he has a corner man in the local area who’s a good friend that he talks to all the time.
Evans wanted to pay it forward by providing the Marines and Sailors of MARSOC an opportunity to learn about the Mighty Oaks program and, should they need it, the knowledge on how to utilize this resource.
“I know that there’s a lot of people here within MARSOC that deploy all the time, that consistently have a high operational tempo, and I think a lot of people have PTS related symptoms that affect them greatly, but never talk about it or share those experiences. They just keep everything bottled up inside,” remarked Evans. “I think it’s more in the senior and mid-level leaders who have had multiple deployments and just never talk about it that are the ones affected most. The Mighty Oaks Program is really about creating an environment where these people are more likely to share those thoughts and struggles.”
Other Marines within MARSOC have also attended the Mighty Oaks Program, and praised the program as being “a great resource for anyone struggling to work through any traumatic event that they experienced in their lives.”
Spiritual Resiliency is nothing new to the military; the ethos has always embodied such traits to build the greatest warriors by emphasizing the three pillars of resiliency: mind, body and spirit; however, over the years, the depletion of spiritual resiliency, in his opinion, is partially responsible for the increase in PTS seen in the military members, commented Robichaux during his visit.
MARSOC's Prevention of the Force and Families program’s mission is to provide multi-disciplinary resources to prepare, preserve, and sustain personnel readiness by focusing on the mind, body, spirit and family. Readiness is enhanced by ensuring the establishment of preventative care, early identification of personal and family challenges, and rapid rehabilitation in the following functional areas: Human Performance; Unit, Personal and Family Readiness; Medical; Safety; Spiritual Performance; and Transition Management.