Lead with the best version of yourself.

Post-Traumatic Growth: Reflections on PTSD and Thriving in the Military

by Ron Sprang

Eleven years ago I wrote an article in the middle of one of the greatest trials of my life, A Silent Warrior’s Struggle: PTSD and Leader Resiliency. I wanted to follow up on that experience, address the positive change in Army culture when it comes to mental health, and offer encouragement to those that have PTSD and others who are facing a setback in life. No matter how others may try to define you as a failure, failure is never final. Mistakes are never unforgivable. We fail more often than we succeed. We have more small failures than we have large successes in our lives. 

It gives me a lot of encouragement that in the baseball hall of fame, no one has ever batted 1.000, .500, or even .400. George Brett, one of my childhood heroes, had a .305 career batting average. He struck out more than he hit. 

We blow it. 

We can’t allow ourselves to be defined as a failure. Acknowledge the wrong and get up and move forward. It is never too late. The goal in life is to learn, press on and never give up. You may have recently failed or fallen and feel like you will never get up again. I know how that feels and I hope that my story can inspire you to stand on firm ground again and begin moving forward. 

Never, ever give up! Be strong. Be bold. Reject passivity and get back up, learn, embracing the best life has to offer. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), “is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape, or who have been threatened with death, sexual violence, or serious injury.” 

I prefer to think of my experience as post-traumatic growth. Richard Tedeschi defines post-traumatic growth (PTG) as a modality of thinking where “negative experiences can spur positive change, including a recognition of personal strength, the exploration of new possibilities, improved relationships, a greater appreciation for life, and spiritual growth.”

After almost 12 years of additional combat deployments, serving and leading Soldiers, I have come to appreciate my experience as I reached out for help, facing the stigma in myself and others. The Army has come a long way in how it views PTSD and trauma, increasingly understanding the healing process and growth that is possible. I am living proof. We as leaders must be willing to seek help and be willing to help others who are struggling with mental health concerns.

My chain of command at the time was supportive. My family and some friends stood by me as I went through the treatment process for psychological and physical injuries. However, there were several that expressed the stigmas at the time. They openly and loudly voiced their opinion that I was not worthy of being a Soldier and leader, I was ‘weak, crazy,’ actively seeking to have me fired as an instructor. They mocked my faith in God, because they wondered how I could believe in God and need help for PTSD. They were wrong and I think most leaders today have changed their mindset towards PTSD and Soldier behavioral health concerns. In retrospect, I am grateful for the negative treatment I received, because it challenged my beliefs to the core. With the help of those who believed in me, my faith and resiliency grew stronger. 

The rest of this article will address my lessons learned from my experience with PTSD and service.

First, listen to quality counsel and not your guilty conscience. Don’t give in to fear and discouragement of what others think and say. We fear what others will think. We fear we will do it again. Face your fear of failure head-on, embracing faith while you do it afraid. You cannot move forward in faith while holding onto your fears. Discouragement always looks back and reminds you of failure. Hope looks forward to growth and victory over fear. Victory over fear, doesn’t mean the absence of fear, but you are able to function successfully in the presence of fear. There is hope in healing and I found solace in the process, my faith in God, and the positive help from medical professionals, pastors, my wife and family. I learned valuable lessons in humility, empathy, and how to lead as I grew through the process of challenging my belief system and facing poor reactions from others.

Second, include others as you return to your responsibilities. Life’s battles are not meant to be fought alone. I could not have recovered, psychologically or physically, without the help of others. I am forever in debt to my wife, fellow believers, and leaders who stood by my side in the face of rejection. It takes a village for all of us. Others will stand at your side, lock shields, and help you shoulder the load of life. 

One of my favorite passages of Scripture says it best. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, “9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: 10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

Don’t become a loner because of your perceived failures, shame, or survivor’s guilt. We are weakest when we are alone. We are more vulnerable in the mind’s battlefield when we are alone. The voice of doubt and guilt can creep in to make us vulnerable. Attack. Take it on and keep a tight circle of three to four intimate friends who know you, can read you, encourage you and hold you accountable, and build positivity into your life. Then have another outer circle of eight to ten friends, your squad, and then a larger circle still of your platoon and your family. Warrior’s need others in their life, not just on the job. Those around us can help us maintain perspective while they shine the light of hope into our lives. We can be that light for others as well. Know your triggers and set conditions for success through accountability and positive reinforcement. 

Third, always be open to learn and grow throughout the healing process. You will learn new skills for leading and life. We are not meant to stay stagnant in life with our emotional intelligence and ability to socially connect. The ‘Golden Rule’ rang in my ears during every confrontation with those who propagated the stigma. Live everyday ‘Doing unto others as you would have done to you.’ Even if you are mistreated, turn the other cheek and live a life founded on character. Give grace to those who may not understand, afraid to confront the same issues in themselves, or who may not believe in second chances. Draw strength from your faith. Don’t reduce grace to probation. We are not on probation. We are forgiven. Claim the promise of forgiveness. Stop wallowing in self-pity and regret. Don’t allow yourself to be defined by others. Stand on a foundation of character and faith.

Fourth, be willing and ready to receive even more than you had before you fell. More opportunities. More grace. I would not be the leader I am today without the experience of failure and success in life. In the eye of the storm, I was stripped to the core and took the time to redefine my personal vision and purpose in life. I fundamentally believe that as we treat others with dignity and respect, that same treatment will return to us. Everything is not cause for a complaint or investigation. Allow your character, calm demeanor, grace for others, and performance speak volumes. It will be recognized as you set the standard moving forward. You won’t be perfect. I am certainly not, but a leader willing to learn from mistakes, accept responsibility, and take action to correct their own deficiencies is a valued leader who will be trusted with more responsibility.

Finally, in the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, “we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Keep pursuing life and happiness. We honor those we served with and lost by living our best life. Their sacrifice and the sacrifices of their families were not in vain. Honor them always through a life well lived. No one can take our dream or opportunity away from us. Don’t let others set limits on your hopes, dreams and future. For some, the challenges you face may require a different path in life. Don’t see that fork in the road as a failure. You can and will find a continuing purpose for your life. Regardless of the future, never allow others to define you as a failure and press on to a greater purpose.

I recently came across the speech of Chief Justice John Roberts. He was the commencement speaker for his son’s ninth grade class graduation. His words are rich with wisdom and rhyme with my themes and message. Learn from life and let the wisdom of the mistreatment you receive bring growth and fulfillment as you move forward. 

“Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.”

We are all valuable human beings. There is a plan for your life and value in the pain of failure. The scars you have earned and lessons learned from your failures give you wisdom that will assist you as you serve and lead others. I encourage you to fight to see the light of hope, from the darkest day and the deepest valley, you can rise up out of the ashes of mistakes and failure. When you find that victory, be willing to be a light for others who are struggling as well. We are imperfect human beings. We will fail again. It is part of being human. We can never live perfect. We can learn, grow, and be better today than yesterday. Keep caring. Keep growing. Keep leading!

If I can ever be of help to you or one of your Soldiers, please feel free to reach out. My email is ronald.w.sprang.mil@army.mil or 913-526-2283.

LTC Ron Sprang is a career infantry officer, with over 20 years of active service, currently serving as the Task Force Two Senior Observer, Coach, Trainer (OCT) at The Joint Readiness Training Center. His most recent assignment was as battalion commander for 2-12 CAV, 1st Cavalry Division. He was commissioned from The United States Military Academy in 2002 and holds two Master’s Degrees.