Friday, February 6, 2015

Negotiating with War Veterans

BY:  Samuel A. Farina, Jr. 

Sam Farina is the President of the
New York Association for
Hostage Negotiators (NYAHN)
On December 22, 2013, FoxNews reported a story of a standoff lasting more than 24 hours between police in northern Kentucky and a military veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who barricaded himself and his three children inside his home. During the course of the negotiation, the veteran had his three children in his residence but released them without injury.

Such headlines are rather common across the United States, given the increasing number of military veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. In terms of statistics, over 1.8 million veterans have served overseas over the past 12 years and it is estimated that over 300,000 returned with diagnosed and undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In addition, there have been over 300,000 contract civilian employees who have served in combat zones that have been impacted equally in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their adjustment back into society has been challenged and alerted by the effects of war, exposure to death and devastating injuries, the constant threat of one’s mortality, a constant state of hypervigilance, and the need for dehumanizing others as a survival mechanism.

So the question that is often asked of police negotiation teams is:

Are we ready to properly deal with a veteran in crisis in a barricade or hostage taking situation?

The simple answer is yes, given our training and experience with any person who may be in crisis, however there are a variety of important approaches that every negotiation should be cognizant of when speaking with a veteran in crisis or suspected PTSD.

First, empathy, respectful communication, and patience are paramount during intervention techniques with veterans. The negotiator needs to be aware of the fact that: the veteran may be bothered by combat situations where they feel that they did not do enough to carry the load; feelings of failure, inadequacy and regret over unfinished business may be prevalent; rigid thinking and inflexibility may be present and the veteran may be at a high stage of arousal, awareness and they know the tactical game.

Second, whenever possible, the negotiator with a military background or experience should be used, as most veterans tend to relate more effectively with “one of their own” who have similar military experiences. This may not be possible in all instances and the negotiator can use the para-military aspects of policing as a means to find common ground.

The negotiator will note emotions shared by veterans returning from war that consist of Shame, Anger, Embarrassment, Guilt, Sadness, Fear and Frustration with re-integration.

Focus on these emotions with active listening and empathy building will be an important part of establishing understanding and rapport.
The fundamentals of crisis intervention and communication remain the same as in any barricade or hostage situation with someone who has lost their coping skills and ability. Stay true to the process of suicide intervention or crisis intervention (behavioral change stairway), emphasis on patience, time to gain understanding and supportive communication for hopeful resolution. Your best ally in these situations will also involve the use of resources from the local Veterans Association where a wealth of services, assistance and intelligence will be offered.

The importance of having a symbiotic working relationship with the tactical unit during situations with veterans is critical given their knowledge of policing tactics and war time experience. In the event of the need for tactical intervention, the propensity for police injury is increased exponentially. Given this variable, the importance of successful crisis negotiations is imperative to the safety of all involved.

It is recommended that, as part of negotiator training and preparation for veterans who are in crisis, negotiators gain the veterans’ perspectives in a training environment by those returning from war who have suffered PTSD. This will provide the negotiator with real perspective that can be utilized when called upon. This in-person reality based understanding will prove useful when building empathy necessary for rapport building.

An additional relational approach that must be included during any crisis intervention that opens the door to rapport building is the expressed appreciation for the veteran’s service, given their ambivalence with their perspective that they are unappreciated given the VA medical problems and inadequacies, the difficulty with re-integration (unemployment, relationship hardships, etc.) and their war time guilt (especially when team members were killed or injured).

Our veterans who find themselves in an acute crisis episode have a complexity of war time related precipitating events that are the root cause. Crisis negotiators must make an extra effort to use specific empathy building intervention tactics that are grounded in a keen understanding of the aspects of war and the effects of PTSD on our veterans in order to have the tools necessary for a hopeful positive resolution.