Silencing the Stigma

It’s relentless. The influx of urgent information and the reality of disturbing situations create a stress our service members know all too well — and it’s relentless. While Department of Defense employees and civilian contractors are not immune to absorbing the complex weight of keeping our nation safe, Ed Rothstein (COL Ret.), Former Fort Meade Garrison Commander, knew his decades in uniform took some kind of toll on him, yet also hesitated to reach out. Like so many other service members and civilians, Ed was confronted with the stigma of asking for help.

With his experiences as a soldier assigned to Fort Meade and NSA, as well as deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ed is no stranger to the many sides of this stigma. It wasn’t until his 2011 assignment as the Fort Meade Garrison Commander, however, that he unexpectedly found himself referring some of his service members to resources for drug and alcohol treatment, stress management, depression, healthy living and family counseling. For a while, some of the situations didn’t make sense to Ed until he delved deeper into why some service members acted the way they did.

“I had an a-ha moment,” Ed shares, “and realized most service members don’t have the opportunity to decompress, and it adds up. That was the beginning of our discussions about building the anticipated Education and Resiliency Center.”

The Education and Resiliency Center, currently under construction at Fort Meade’s Kuhn Hall, will serve as a community hub providing vital resources, services and programs for service members, their families and the Department of Defense (DoD) community across the Fort Meade Region. This collective scope is also known as Team Meade. The Center remained a capstone project for Ed during his Command at Fort Meade from 2011 to 2013 as he continued to support the needs of Team Meade.

There are two types of intensities our service members and DoD community experience that warrant a human need to decompress: the visible soldier physically deployed into harm’s way and those serving in agencies and organizations who conduct discreet operations for national security. While the contexts are wildly different, each are on the frontline and carry a unique tension few understand. They are different battlefields, but the need to decompress is crucial in both scenarios. In many ways, Ed identifies with both.

Shortly after his retirement from Fort Meade in 2014, during a regular health physical, a Veterans Administration doctor recognized the impact 30 years as a service member had on Ed mentally and emotionally.

“I never processed some of my experiences from when I was in harm’s way. Add to that the stressors associated with continuous Stateside and other sensitive operations, it all just built up,” Ed says. “It was just time to talk about it. Honestly, for me, it was just time.”

The need for resiliency programs is a family matter. Without support, service members often shut down internally. Family members see it first, yet they also don’t know what to say or do in response, especially should the situation escalate. Often times, Ed mentally and emotionally isolated himself without others knowing it.

“My wife of 26 years and kids were impacted the most,” he says. “I wasn’t always readily available for them because I was shut down, and I wasn’t aware how I was affecting the people around me. I couldn’t engage with the people I love the most.”

Today, Ed does seek help and is in care. He takes time to process his experiences with people who understand, with people whose business is to understand.

“I feel a whole lot better today,” Ed shares. “I feel a lot healthier with my family, my wife, the community. Have I crossed the finish line? No, it will take time. But I have turned a corner of a pretty dark side that accumulated over time.”

Ed’s unique perspective — soldier, leader, recipient — on the importance of resiliency programs fuels his ongoing passion to see the Education and Resiliency Center become a reality. As a current FMA Foundation board member, he is also committed to bring awareness that resiliency programs reach way beyond the Installation as the 57,000+ employees who work there are also members of surrounding communities.

“We all need to be aware what our service members go through and to help pick folks up by the bootstraps and be sure they are ready and healthy to take care of their families and serve our Nation,” Ed says. “A majority of the Fort Meade workforce live outside the fence line, and we want them and their families to be healthy and ready to do the job they are being asked to do.”

Resiliency resources are currently available for service members, and no one has to wait until retirement to use them. Unfortunately, these important resources are also limited and spread out inside and outside the Installation — fragmented lives cannot be supported well with fragmented resources. In fact, a scattered geography of resources often makes it easier to hide amidst the hustle and bustle thereby fostering the unwanted stigma.

As we continue to move toward having resiliency resources and programs under one roof, not only will the opportunity to expand existing programs arise, but the Education and Resiliency Center itself will become a symbol of silencing the stigma.