Major Terron Wharton is the author of the raw and powerful non-fiction book, High Risk Soldier. He spoke with The Havok Journal on February 16, 2017. The book review is here.
The Havok Journal: First, Major Wharton, thank you for agreeing to the interview. Can you tell our readers about yourself?
Terron Wharton: I’m from Indiana and I graduated from West Point in 2005, commissioned as an Armor officer. I’m married, we have one daughter, and I currently work at the Joint Modernization Command in Fort Bliss, TX. I self-published High Risk Soldier in March 2016.
HJ: Your book is quite powerful. What was the catalyst to write High Risk Soldier?
TW: I wanted to give a voice to an experience that a lot of us had that no one really talked about. There are a lot of war books out, a lot of PTSD books out, but a lot of it is written from a distance. These are the private thoughts. That was my hope. The more I talked to folks, the more I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt like this.
I’m also a part of four groups where the mental health stigma is real. I’m in combat arms, as an officer, a man, more specifically, a black man. In those groups, you don’t discuss mental health, you don’t get help, and you don’t go see combat stress.
HJ: Why, 16 years later, is there still this stigma around mental health care in the military?
TW: First, let me say I think it’s gotten better. But there is a cultural stigma. We learned it at West Point: an officer never fails a mission. We saw classmates work themselves to injury just to prevent mission failure. It’s engrained in our culture: officers don’t fail missions, officers don’t go on sick call.
It’s a unit thing too. A unit is never full, so when someone goes on sick call it’s more work for everyone else. Going to sick call for mental health is different than going “Jones going to sick call for a broken leg” or “Jones has a busted ankle.” “Jones is depressed? “Suck it up man. We all feel bad, and we’re all sucking out here.” Regardless of the reason, when you have someone out of the formation there are tangible effects.
This stigma happens outside of the military too. I grew up around family members who had mental illness and we always talked around it, never calling it what it was. That doesn’t help address the issue, and doesn’t tell people how to deal with it in appropriate and healthy ways.
I was a very high functioning depressive. When I finally started telling others I needed help, the response was, “What do you mean you suffer from depression? What do you mean you suffer from PTSD?” In their minds, they saw the stereotype of someone who was a nervous wreck, someone who couldn’t get out of bed, someone who just moped about. In their minds, someone with depression and PTSD was not functional. Yes, the Army’s gotten better about it. Recently, we’ve had Sergeants Major and Generals speak out about their own experiences, encourage others to get help, and that’s helped. However, once you reach a certain rank you’re no longer truly involved in Soldiers day to day lives, depending on what you’re doing.
HJ: So what served as the tipping point for the book?
TW: There wasn’t really one single tipping point: A lot of it coalesced over time. It was a series of conversations with some of my friends and some of my classmates. Frankly, it was conversations with other Soldiers. You realize over beers in a bar that this is a common story. People were feeling the same things I was feeling. I had been sending parts and pieces of the book out to people, to help folks, and someone made the old joke, “You should really write a book about this.” So I did.
The moment I realized I really needed to share this was after my 3rd deployment. I’d gotten back from Afghanistan, I was sitting drinking in my house, drinking a glass of bourbon and looking through my entries and I realized, “Hey, I’m kinda better.” That was in 2013 when I realized “I should turn this into a book.” I didn’t get serious until CGSC [Command & General Staff College] in 2015. It was the first time in my military career I could stop, think, and reflect. I finally had the time to edit, write, and publish. You’re busy as hell on deployment, busy as hell on a couple of training rotations per year. CGSC was a year of recovering from the fast pace of operations.
HJ: Why did you choose a published book vis-a-vis a blog, articles, or a different medium?
TW: First, I tried to go through getting a publisher and an agent. Let me tell you that, at least for me, this was nearly impossible. Writing about combat is a niche so you have to find the right publisher. Unless you have a blog and thousands of followers most agents move your stuff to the spam folder. I was an unknown first time author with no real social media following.
The Army Press was instrumental in getting the book published. While they did not publish it themselves, they gave an incredible amount of feedback and mentorship. They really helped nurture this thing from start to finish. Without them the book would not be here. After all the talks and discussions, the logical route was moving away from the traditional publishing model.
Ultimately, I chose to self-publish. I own the rights to the book, lock, stock, and barrel. I used my time at CGSC wisely. Once I was back in the force, I wouldn’t have time. So between CGSC, a Master’s degree, and the book, there were days I’d get out of class, drive to the coffee shop and write for 3-4 hours. Every Sunday for a year, I’d drive to the coffee shop and write 3-4 hours on the book or do CGSC homework. It was a significant time investment and that’s also why I didn’t go the blog route. I wanted to get the story out when it was still fresh and, lets be honest, still a relevant topic.
Veteran’s issues were a big focus in the last campaign and in the public in general. It was relevant now! The timeline between getting an agent, editing, and publication was nearly a year at best. In addition, you’d have to tack on the work of building a social media presence. In the end, the biggest drivers were time, control, and ease of getting it out.
HW: An adjective to describe your book is “raw.” Why did you decide to include controversial subjects such as drinking and you suicide attempt?
TW: By leaving things out, I’m not honoring the Army values and I do a disservice to the military. Yeah, it sounds a bit cheesy, but moral courage is a big part of being a Soldier. It’s about doing the right thing in spite of what it may cost you. And if it’s not raw, it’s not real. This is real life. This happened. Another part of it was to cleanse myself. I didn’t want to have secrets anymore. People will find out about it not because someone else told them but because I wrote about it, I put it out there. It was catharsis. I was terrified of it, I was terrified writing it, and in a way part of me still is.
Here is the biggest misconception about suicide. People think of you as crazy. They think it’s a momentary break. It isn’t. It is a rational decision. Your survival instinct is one of the strongest instincts you have. You make a conscious decision to override it. Whether in the course of battle or in the course of weighing the pros and cons of your life, it is a rational decision. It does it a disservice to those struggling or seeking help to reduce it to a moment of weakness or panic.
HJ: Do you continue to journal about your experiences?
TW: At the moment, no. Most of the writing I do now is focused on political science. I just had a piece published in Armor magazine on NCOs mentoring officers. When I return to the operational Army I’ll likely resume. It is important to remember and honor those experiences.
One of the valuable things about the book is the reader gets to see the growth of an Army officer from his time as a platoon leader to his time as a commander. It is useful professionally and personally. I look back on it and say, “Wow, I actually did grow and develop.” I’m going to keep on with this as I grow up and go higher.
HJ: So what’s next?
TW: I’m staying in Operations. It is important for people to know there is a dark side to all the war stories you hear. There was a dark side to the war stories we heard as cadets. There is a difference between going back to combat and knowing what that cost is, and being the dumbass who celebrates the idea of combat because they have no idea of the cost. If I never see another shot fired in anger, I’m good with that. I’ve been there, done that, and I’ve got the t-shirt. However, when we go to war again I’ll want to be right there in it. It’s the job I signed up to do. No one becomes an Armor officer to sit behind a desk. The difference is that now I have perspective, and that perspective will help me make better decisions. It will also allow me to better support fellow Soldiers who may struggle with their experience.
HJ: What words do you have for Officers who struggled as you did?
TW: First, I would say that you are not alone. You are not the only one struggling despite what it may seem. Second, getting help is not a sign of weakness. Get help. Talk to someone, anyone. There are many more resources now, especially outside Army channels, then before. Army OneSource was a great help to me back in 2008 and it’s still one of the quickest and easiest ways to get help (I used it again in 2014). It’s completely confidential from your Chain of Command. Third, never give up. Getting better is not a quick fix or a direct, linear process. You will have good days and bad days. You will move backwards at times. However, if you learn from every step, then even the setbacks are not wasted.
HJ: What are your thoughts for other veterans interested in publishing their experiences?
TW: I was not able to get a book deal. I read about literary agents, talked to people in the industry about publishing timelines and what support I would receive as a first-time author, and the overall process and had two thoughts: First, I wanted to retain complete creative control. Second, I wanted to publish on my own timeline. That pushed me to self-publish via Amazon. Honestly, I was surprised how easy it was. There are countless resources online for self-publishing: cover design, editing, marketing, you name it. Like any other big task it can seem intimidating. I broke it into chunks: Take the cover photo, edit this chapter, write your bio, etc.
Next, editing is harder than writing and an editor and editing software is invaluable. There are several programs and sites that offer great writing aids that will do more than spell and grammar check. They’ll give suggestions for over repeated words, rework sentence structure, etc. I had a team of friends helping me edit, to include my wife, two English majors (one’s a professor), and six others. I found a typo on the first page of the book right after I hit publish! Editing is hard, it takes forever, and it’s a giant pain, but it’s the most necessary part of the process. Compared to the finished product, the original manuscript is nearly unreadable.
If I could do it again, I would consider paying for a technical editor (focus on grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc) to give a final review—after all the editing I did with friends—before it went to print.
HJ: Finally, what can people do to help change some of the obstacles you encountered?
TW: Be open about your experience and be willing to share with others. Yes, this is hard. However, PTSD and mental injuries are no different than a broken leg. If you break a leg and it heals, no one, including yourself, behaves like your leg is still in a cast. Mental health is the same. This helps combat the stigma that mental health issues are permanent disabilities instead of something that can be overcome. Second, know the resources out there and fight for them. Work with your Chain of Command in establishing your treatment plan, but ultimately, you are your own best advocate. Do not be afraid to stand up for the care you need.
Finally, remember your experiences and help those who come behind you, especially if you end up in a leadership position or another position of influence. As a troop commander, I pushed for changing how we did high risk soldier reviews because I believed the current method violated Soldier privacy. It worked. It wasn’t a massive change by any means, but, for a little while, I was able to make my corner of the Army a little better.
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