By Staff Sgt. Thomas Mort, U.S. Special Operations Command Europe
The name of the game for Special Operations Command Europe’s Preservation of Force and Family program is accessibility and continuity of care. The program aims to build and implement a holistic approach to address the strain of the high pace environment and mission on the special operations force.
The availability and capability to take care of U.S. forces are critical and a top priority. For the SOCEUR POTFF team, this is seen in the timeliness, quality, and specialty of care. One of the advantages of having an internal team so close to help service members is the immediacy to meet with patients. POTFF programs and initiatives are based on four key domains; Psychological Performance, Human Performance, Social Performance, and Spiritual Performance. Providing behavioral, human performance, social and spiritual services, allows for SOF service members to be best supported so they can focus on their mission as well as extend the length of their careers.
“Being embedded in SOCEUR allows me to be uniquely positioned when and where I’m needed most,” explains Dr. Roger Schmidt, the POTFF psychologist assigned to SOCEUR. “When the stress becomes a strain, when people feel overwhelmed but aren’t willing to talk to their chain of command about it, and when functioning is starting to deteriorate personally and professionally.”
Due to the internal connection of the POTFF team, service members have the ability to be seen at an expedited pace as compared to traditional sites.
“If it weren’t for the POTFF program I wouldn’t be having the conversations I am right now”, said a recent patient and member of SOCEUR. “I’ve needed to have these conversations for years but resisted. If it wasn’t for POTTF, I’d probably continue holding on to it until after retirement.”
The Psychological Performance Program (PPP) is a POTFF program designed to improve the cognitive and behavioral performance of the force. Important aspects of this include helping service members cope with stress and improving the resiliency of SOF and their families.
Despite being elite, high yield performers, most operators are exposed to exceptional pressure every day, which brings a lot of emotional and psychological strain. Schmidt says it’s his job to mitigate the impact of these stressors so mental performance and health are firing on all cylinders.
“There are unique demand characteristics in special operations,” says Schmidt. “While as a group these folks seem to have another gear to be able to manage the stress, the reality is that everyone has vulnerabilities and a threshold to which performance declines.”
The PPP is the area among all POTFF services that is most affected by a sense of stigma. One of the primary objectives of PPP is to decrease this stigma as no operator wants to stand out negatively or give anyone reason to doubt their ability, adds Dr. Schmidt.
“For this reason, I am embedded in SOCEUR and not connected to the behavioral health clinic,” Schmidt concluded.
The Human Performance Program (HPP) is designed to meet the unique physical needs of the SOF operator. This conditioning is accomplished through a holistic pre-habilitative physical training program that involves focused strength and conditioning, performance nutrition, and physical therapy. Having a psychologist, nurse case manager and physical therapist has allowed for much more immediate access, explains Joseph Adamchak, POTFF physical therapist. Adamchak’s role is to provide the most appropriate and up to date interventions and strategies to treat a service member’s current limitations. He would like to provide patients the tools to maintain healthy movement long term.
“This program has been invaluable,” says one SOCEUR service member, when asked about his experience with the HPP. “My last unit, if I would’ve had this injury, I probably would’ve been ostracized as the black duckling [due to injury].”
Taking advantage of the benefits of the POTFF program, he was told to get in and get it fixed.
“I injured myself in October, I didn’t think it was that serious at the time and I went away to school and I was able to kinda maintain the pain,” he explains further. “I came back and the cold weather was kinda buggin’ it so I thought, well it’s time to get checked out.”
The service member said he went in and saw the SOCEUR doctor, had an MRI the same day and surgery three weeks later. The quality and fast implementation of care enable the elite ability of SOF to be ready and postured at all times.
The Social Performance Program (SoPP) incorporates family resilience programs designed to enhance the standard service provided programs. These programs are adapted for the uniqueness of the SOF family. POTFF is providing dedicated staff and programs for SOF families that will enhance communication and improve relationships.
Typically, in a healthy environment, the SoPP would hold events and unit functions to help boost morale and family ties.
“Since we cannot hold events [due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time], my interactions are limited to digital and telephonic versus conversations and in-person training”, said Jess Donnelly, the family readiness coordinator assigned to SOCEUR. “I am hopeful as soon as gathering restrictions are lifted, we will be able to host social programs such as a family resilience camp, spouse’s conference, marriage retreats, and newcomers orientations.”
According to various surveys and forums, the SOCEUR community definitely misses the social events provided by SoPP.
“Venture walks, marriage retreats, and other fun and informative events help maintain a family environment in the unit,” explains Donnelly. “COVID-19 has limited that family feel and I believe people are missing the connection. I hope that we can be back together as a SOCEUR family soon.”
The Spiritual Performance Program (SPP) is designed to enhance core spiritual beliefs, values, awareness, relationships and experiences. These elements form the basis to promote healthy living, sound decision-making, meaningful relational interaction, sense of transcendent life purpose, and meaning. This is accomplished through chaplain led or chaplain supported programs for service members and their families.
“For me the POTFF program means teamwork”, said Dan Rice, the chaplain assigned to SOCEUR. “I see it as a great unifier for resources. We can do a lot in the spiritual domain, but I think POTFF does a good job bringing in the mind, body, family and spirit together so we all work together to help our service members.”
Humans are more important than hardware. People make the difference, not equipment.
“We focus on people,” Rice adds. “POTFF, especially during COVID-19, we still have resources here in the building that we can refer other people too.”
The right people, highly trained and working as a team, will accomplish the mission with the equipment available. On the other hand, the best equipment in the world cannot compensate for a lack of the right people.
“I might be talking to a couple about their spiritual life and I realize, hey they could use the help of a psychologist,” Rice adds. “Well next door to me is our POTFF psychologist, I can actually walk them over there and say, ‘hey Roger, here’s someone who could use help from you.’ With the continuity of care, we’re one team taking care of our team.”
POTFF before, during and after COVID-19
The level of service from the POTFF team here at SOCEUR has not wavered, even during COVID-19. Before COVID-19, Alicia Murphy, the nurse case manager assigned to SOCEUR, says the ability to see patients was understandably much easier. Patients could come in during sick-call every morning, make an appointment, or just walk into the office. Once COVID-19 was in full swing, patients were attended to by phone or email. The focus turned to track patients and family members in isolation/quarantine and screening for COVID-19 symptoms by phone. With the gym closed, Adamchak transitioned to managing current patients with emails, phone calls, and some video chats.
“I was able to create and progress home exercises for them as well as give recommendations on activity modifications,” Adamchak said.
POTFF services will adjust and continue after COVID-19. During the height of the pandemic, most interactions with patients were strictly about COVID.
“Now people are getting back to their normal health questions and concerns,” explains Murphy.
The POTFF program brings essential continuity of care. Patients are able to move from one provider to another in a more unified manner. Working as a team cooperatively for the ongoing care of each service member enables the POTFF team to provide a more expedient and higher quality of care over time.
“The POTFF program is great,” concludes Murphy. “I am so thankful and honored for the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing program that helps service members and family members in the SOF community.”