(And How To Fix It)
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I’m glad that transitioning out of military service has gotten easier. I worked with Gulf War veterans and Vietnam veterans for many years, and the programs we have today are infinitely better than during those campaigns.
But these transition programs can’t cover everything. We were trained on how to speak civilian. We were trained on how to convert our military experiences into relevant military experience.
We were trained to get our medical records so we can file our service-connected claims, should we choose to do the work.
What I don’t remember being trained on is how to sleep like a civilian.
No one knows more about bad sleep for a veteran than a fellow veteran like me. The story of how bad my sleep was during service and after I separated is why I wrote this book.
And trust me, I know it all too well! My first horrible sleep experience was during the Kosovo Air and Space Campaign, which was part of NATO’s Operation: Allied Force.
I was barely two years into my Active-Duty Air Force career as a jet engine mechanic on the flight line. I worked on C-17s, which were primarily responsible for moving cargo to and from Albania, the Czech Republic and surrounding areas via our European air bases.
I was home stationed at Charleston Air Force Base (now known as Joint Base Charleston) when I was tapped to deploy. We first went to Lajes Field in the Azores, which was a handful of islands off the coast of Portugal. A few days later, they moved us to Rota Naval Air Station in Spain. Two weeks after that, we went to Ramstein Air Base, Germany and stayed for a month and half.
That was 6 different time zones crossed back and forth in less than two months. Combine that with never having the same place to sleep and different work shifts, my body started to negatively react with the inconsistent sleep schedule.
I had 3 roommates in the Azores, then two in Spain. When we moved from location to location or waited for our coworkers to get off work since we only had one transport vehicle, I slept on the C-17’s cold, metal cargo floor a few times, bathed in aircraft fluids and showered in fluorescent light. The smell of unwashed soldiers, used aircraft oil and soiled gear bags isn’t the most pleasant form of aromatherapy. And there was always high-decibel noise going on, to the point where I can comfortably sleep in airport hotels because the flyover noise might as well be crickets compared to this deployment. This “sleep setting” was one to be repeated, with small alterations, throughout my career.
We napped on our gear bags for a few hours in Germany while we tried to find a place to stay, which ended up being a bare bones bed and breakfast for a few days. It was conveniently footsteps away from church bell towers that rang every hour and 6 times at 6 am. Eventually, we got housing on Ramstein Air Base and shared rooms with different personnel from other bases who were also working different shifts.
After an ever-shifting deployment relocation schedule and time zone jumping, my body gave in and “rewarded” me with a sleep paralysis episode after coming off night shift.
If you don’t know what that is, it’s when your body feels like you’re being buried alive, yet your brain is awake to feel it happen. That first episode was one of the scariest things to ever happen. I had no idea what was going on, and I didn’t know what my roommates would see when they came back. Was I shaking? Foaming at the mouth? Screaming?
Fortunately, I woke myself out of it two hours before they got back. Physically, I was fine. But mentally? Not so much. With every next planned bedtime, I was paranoid and jumpy about being buried again. It was easier to face the inherent dangers of working on a busy, war-time flightline than I was going to bed!
Sleep paralysis also “gifted” me even further with sleep anxiety, insomnia and panic attacks in the middle of the night for years to come. Who wants to go to bed when you’re feeling like you might not wake up because you’re drowning? Even though it made no logical sense, the feeling and anxiety still lingered on because your brain in those moments is reacting as if you are dying.
I didn’t tell anyone about that for years because I thought I’d get medically boarded, which is when you get discharged from military service due to medical reasons. I didn’t want that to happen. Whatever severance or retirement wasn’t going to be enough to support my wife and children. I wasn’t prepared to look for work elsewhere. So I kept it quiet for years. My wife didn’t even know what I was dealing with because when I came back from that deployment, I mostly worked the 11pm to 7am shift. Most of my sleep took place while she was on the other side of the house with the kids.
Eventually I did tell my doctor, and she really couldn’t help me much because there isn’t a pill for sleep paralysis. All she could advise was that I get on “day shift” and not sleep on my back.
For you fellow veterans reading this, you could imagine the challenge of telling your supervisor when you need to work!
So I didn’t. But miraculously, they moved me to day shift 3 weeks later, due to staffing changes and personnel getting stationed elsewhere.
Going to day shift was when my wife started to see my attacks and told me what she observed. Thankfully, it wasn’t foaming at the mouth or screaming. But it was enough to make her concerned. She could see my face tense up. She heard me moaning. And she saw me trying to shake a body part- usually my feet- to get out of it. My wife would start shaking me to help.
Now my sleep paralysis was keeping her up!
Yet the sleep paralysis, sleep anxiety, and ensuing periods of insomnia didn’t end. They lingered on throughout my service (I got out in 2008 to pursue a mental health career), and never completely went away until years after I served. Even when I worked banker’s hours with my civilian desk jobs and ended my days by 10pm, I still would stay up all hours, afraid of another sleep paralysis attack, despite having dealt with it and surviving since 1999.
When I separated, I worked as a federal civilian while attending grad school to become a counselor. That gave me access to any peer-reviewed journal I wanted, so I decided to do some research on sleep issues. It took my own research and dedication to get rid of them nearly completely BEFORE I became a certified sleep science coach.
That took me 10 years.
I don’t want it to take you 10 years.
Fortunately, for all the clients I’ve worked with, it’s taken them as little as two weeks to see improvements in their sleep. Getting certified helped me understand the science behind the things I did right and develop a working system that can help almost anyone improve their own sleep.
But, as a veteran, things are different. We have a whole different set of experiences that contribute to our sleep issues. They are hard to understand as a veteran, so you can imagine trying to explain it to a civilian without them immediately jumping to “you have PTSD!”
Here’s a newsflash: not every veteran has PTSD!
But many veterans, like I did, still had sleep issues after service. And if you’re like me, it’s hard to ask for help without turning to pills or potions that really don’t work all that well.
I can help you. But first, you need to understand why veterans suck at getting sleep and ways you can start to fix them!
I’m going to break down the top 3 reasons why we suck at sleep. AND I’m also going to point you towards some solutions to those reasons that will be easy and effective IF you are consistent. There are no magic pills to fix these sleep issues. There’s no “Vitamin M” you can take for temporary relief. But if you stick to your plans, you’ll get the sleep you deserve.
Chapter 1: We Were Built To Always Be On Alert
Us military veterans know we’re different while we are serving. But after separating or retiring, the differences in mentality can feel jarring. We have to learn how to speak “civilian” again since 97% of the population doesn’t have the same experiences we do. Recent scientific studies demonstrated that military members have predictable onsets of insomnia. When they tested veterans, they reported 5 percentage points higher than active duty and reservists/guard members in 2013; and twice as high as those populations in 2016.
As part of my master’s in counseling program, I spent 6 months working with veterans transitioning out of homelessness. They lived in a transitioning shelter as they awaited benefits due to them thanks to their service. Most were Gulf War veterans. Even after being housed and cared for in ways they hadn’t experienced in years, sleep was still problematic for them. They went from trying to sleep after getting out of service, to sleeping in cars, on park benches, and even in storage units. Their battles only magnified after service. It made me grateful for whatever sleep I was getting, but still emphasized to me the differences between sleeping as a civilian and sleeping as a veteran.
Let’s take a moment here to outline the bare bones of how sleep is “supposed” to work once your eyes shut for the night. Learning this as a Sleep Science Coach was a huge light bulb moment for me.
Stage 1 is when we are just nodding off. You’re still sensitive to touch or noise, but you’re well on your way to sleep.
Stage 2 is the beginning of deep sleep. Your body temperature drops and you become nearly catatonic.
It’s setting you up for Stage 3, when your body releases growth hormones to restore and repair cells.
Stage 4 is the REM stage, where your brain figures out what today’s memories need to be kept for long term, and others that can be discarded.
On a good night, these cycles go virtually uninterrupted three to 4 times a night in 6 to 8 hours.
We need to go through the major differences between military life and civilian life to show where our sleep problems generated from. One big difference is how often we experience “fight or flight” and what happens to our sleep cycles through repeated exposure.
The “fight or flight” response system is one that, if we are in danger, will help us either stand and battle or GTFO.
When it’s activated, we get pumped with the high energy hormones adrenaline and cortisol. They give our major muscle groups an extra surge, and give our brains increased focus for potential threats.
What do those threats look and sound like? Bigger than normal. Deeper voices than normal. Louder than normal. Not a peaceful quiet, but an eerie quiet, before a jarring surprise.
Civilians probably have this system activated in their lives maybe a dozen times. Us veterans, however, are trained to ride at the edge of this system throughout our service.
It doesn’t matter what branch of service you were in. Basic training was not a couple of months at the spa, with Zen clocks waking you up, and deep tissue massages helping you sleep.
Everything happened at the speed of yesterday, and every drill instructor resembled the very threats that activate our fight-or-flight systems.
It’s tough, but it makes sense, because we are going to handle weapons systems to defend our country and way of life. The more we can have that ingrained into us at the start, the more prepared we will always be throughout our service.
But it’s beyond that. Not only do we have to be ready to fight or leave, we have to preserve the mission AND people around us! This isn’t easy, yet it’s why we are the greatest military in the world.
But that doesn’t leave immediately when you separate from service. After basic training, you’re still taking that mentality through your specialty training schools. At your duty station, you constantly go through training exercises, natural disaster exercises, and major attack exercises. While deployed to foreign locations, you must be on alert for any potential attacks, physical or psychological. Yes, psychological. Foreign deployment locations are where our adversaries like to find ways to gather information by using every day, human interactions. You have to be mentally prepared to engage with the local public peacefully while looking for bad actors. It’s not an easy task to carry out day-to-day. Is the local bartender making friendly small talk, or is he trying to find his way into your good graces and start getting more intel from you? Is the old fruit stand lady giving you an extra apple because she’s kind and caring, or is she drawing you there to her stand every day so someone else can track your movements?
Even in peacetime operations, securing your location and consistently checking for threats to losing classified information or vital resources are daily events. There are gates, locks, boxes, windows, egress passages to check every day- even if your main mission is a desk job! Surprise inspections and exercises can literally happen any day.
Yes, basic training’s intense “sleeping on the edge’ is only a few months, but your entire career is full of repeat performances at almost no notice.
Therefore, we don’t sleep like normal people do, where you progress through sleep stages that lead to deep sleep, physical healing, and memory repair. We sleep at the edge of being awake and alert within seconds of being alarmed, because the cortisol flowing through our brain won’t let us drift off too deep.
Even if you get on civilian hours and sleep on a civilian schedule, that military mind still lingers. It’s going to take time to undo all that.
It’s not pretty. I know. But it’s a foundational reason as to why we veterans suck at sleep. Our brains are re-wired at the start.
Now, let’s move onto solutions for this!
You can get out of the “alert” mindset by creating some practical pre-sleep checklists.
Checklists can help put your mind at ease so that you sleep without worrying that you “missed” something. Besides, it’s something we’re used to doing. Every inspection you ever had was based off of a checklist that may or may not have been realistic to the actual mission.
And now you can finally run checklists that are pertinent to your mission of getting better sleep!
The first checklist is a Home Security Checklist. Even though you are likely no longer guarding classified information, you probably have some sort of security system or emergency system for your house that a higher-ranking individual isn’t reminding you to do daily- with the potential exception of your Off Duty Supervisor.
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