Meaghan Mobbs always knew that her father, a highly decorated career Army officer, saw intense combat in Vietnam.
“He saw catastrophic injuries and loss of life, but it didn’t change who he was,” says Mobbs, a Teachers College clinical psychology doctoral student who is the David and Maureen O’Connor Scholar at TC’s Resilience Center for Veterans & Families. “And that idea – that you could go into the military and, regardless of what happened, still come out as yourself, has been with me since childhood.”
Mobbs is a former Army Captain who attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and subsequently commanded an aerial delivery detachment in Afghanistan, delivering food, water and ammunition to fighters in remote regions of the country. She still believes that, with the right kind of preparation, the right kind of person can handle the most extreme experiences “over there.” But when it comes to “back here,” Mobbs – again, influenced by her father’s experience – has modified her thinking.
“You were running village stability ops in a developing country, and now you get back home to, say, a small town in the Midwest, and you’re qualified to stock shelves or be a barista. You try to reconnect with your friends, who were having their first beer while you were getting shot at in Fallujah, and there’s this huge dissonance.”
“It was when my dad retired, after some 30-odd years in the military, that he struggled. He has a Silver Star and numerous other honors for valor, but at the end of the day it was the loss of his military self – his sense of purpose and shared identity with others – that gave him pause. Even though he transitioned into a high-ranking job in the corporate world, it was still a totally different kind of experience for him.”
Today Mobbs is focusing her research on the “transition stress” that veterans face in reentering civilian life – the unfamiliar pressures of living on one’s own, raising a family, working jobs that lack the drama and meaning associated with combat (and are often low-paying, as well), and functioning without a tightknit community forged under the most dangerous and trying circumstances. Many vets are still in their twenties, a vulnerable period called emerging adulthood.
“You were running village stability ops in a developing country, and now you get back home to, say, a small town in the Midwest, and you’re qualified to stock shelves or be a barista,” says Mobbs. “You try to reconnect with your friends, who were having their first beer while you were getting shot at in Fallujah, and there’s this huge dissonance.”
In a paper in the February issue of Clinical Psychology Review, Mobbs and her mentor, George Bonanno, TC Professor of Clinical Psychology and Resilience Center Director, argue that transition stress – and not post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects a much smaller percentage of former military personnel – should be the primary basis for research and treatment centered on veterans’ psychological health. Their paper is nothing less than a call for a paradigm shift – a bold move for a 31-year-old doctoral candidate who describes navigating a pretty dramatic cultural transition of her own in arriving at TC as “an atypical student, without the extensive research background most people have here.” But bold moves were precisely what donor David O’Connor envisioned when he funded creation of the TC Resilience Center, and paradigm shifts are stock-in-trade for Bonanno, who has gained international renown for upending conventional wisdom about human resilience to grief, loss and psychological trauma.
[ Read a story about this research by Mobbs and Bonanno. ]
“I’m so thankful that George looked at me as a whole person and that David has given me the space to be novel and to ask the questions that weren’t being asked,” Mobbs says.
Then, too, Mobbs has more than fulfilled expectations. In addition to absorbing all the relevant current and historical research on veterans, she has read just about every memoir, novel or article published by members of Generation GWAT – military parlance for those who came of age fighting the global war on terrorism. She’s also made a study of the literature on autobiographical memory, a fascinating field that has given her insight into how nostalgia works for veterans – the majority of whom describe military service as the best time of their lives. This month she’ll begin writing a blog for Psychology Today called The Debrief: Tackling Modern-Day Veterans’ Challenges.
“My hypothesis is that it’s the people whose service involved more combat-oriented job sets, which is collectivistic work where you rely on comrades who are genuinely willing to die for you, who will turn out to have the most difficulty acclimatizing to civilian life. They don’t miss being shot at, but they do miss that heightened sense of purpose and community, which is something the ancient Greeks talked about.”
And this coming spring, thanks to her adroit negotiations with the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Mobbs will launch and lead a three-year study that will follow some 600 men and women from all branches of the military from their final months in active duty through their transition into civilian life. The first effort of its kind, the study will try to correlate vets’ military experiences with their subsequent levels of resilience to the different psychosocial stresses of transitioning.
“We have measurements of flexibility, trait optimism and other attributes, and we can match that against where people stand on combat exposure scales, amongst other measures” Mobbs says. “My hypothesis is that it’s the people whose service involved more combat-oriented job sets, which is collectivistic work where you rely on comrades who are genuinely willing to die for you, who will turn out to have the most difficulty acclimatizing to civilian life. They don’t miss being shot at, but they do miss that heightened sense of purpose and community, which is something the ancient Greeks talked about.”
Mobbs remains deeply connected to military life. Along with her father, her mother is a former paratrooper who was deployed to Grenada during the 1980s, and her husband, Mike Mobbs, is an infantry officer who currently teaches history at West Point. Still, through her research, and perhaps as the mother of two small children, she has had occasion to ponder some of the philosophical questions around war and service.
“The human condition is both beautiful and ugly, and I wouldn’t be doing due diligence if I wasn’t thinking about why this research is necessary,” she says. “It’s made me question how we select people to do certain jobs, and why. The military has very robust criteria for special ops – but we don’t for the average 18-year-old in the infantry. We pretty much say, ‘Shoot in this direction and good luck.’ So my hope is that we can develop preventive measures to ensure that we’re putting the right people in the right jobs, and that we can improve programming for transitioning to civilian life so that people are prepared, emotionally and psychologically, for what lies ahead. Because we have a responsibility to set them up for success.”