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By Melanie Conner, APUS Alumni Affairs Liaison and Michael Washington, AMU Graduate
Seattle firefighter and Marine Corps combat veteran Michael Washington’s story is a tale of extraordinary courage in unexpected places. In Starbucks’ Upstanders video series, Michael spoke about some of his most painful and personal struggles and triumphs over PTSD, stress and suicide. He bared his soul to encourage others to seek help.
Michael, Class of 2010, graduated from American Military University with a master’s degree in strategic intelligence. He wants to share his story with as many veterans and first responders as possible, so they can relate to him and seek the help they need before reaching the same crisis point that he did.
We asked him about his inspiring story and how his time at AMU has helped him to continue a career in service.
What have you been doing since you completed your master’s degree from AMU?
I served 23 years in the Marine Corps, 12 of those years as a counterintelligence agent. After I retired, I was able to put my counterintelligence training and experience to use in the emerging field of fire service intelligence as a Seattle firefighter.
In 2009, I was selected to be a part of the Interagency Threat Assessment and Coordination Group at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in McLean, Virginia. I attained a Master of Strategic Intelligence degree while I was there. On my return to the Seattle Fire Department, I became the fire service representative to the Washington State Fusion Center in Seattle.
How would you describe your career now?
I have been a firefighter for 30 years. I worked for five years in San Diego County and worked for 25 years with the Seattle Fire Department. I spent 23 years in the Marine Corps – seven years of active duty and 16 in the Reserves. My career is service.
What inspired you to pursue a career in this field?
As far as the fire service is concerned, it was a natural extension of the Marine Corps. It was a chance to serve in a different capacity because it melded the concepts of teamwork, camaraderie and esprit de corps. But in the end, it was simply service.
As for counterintelligence, I was fascinated by the versatility of the field. There is a strategic component, a tactical component and a technical component.
The counterintelligence field presented a unique opportunity to help shape strategy. But the best thing about counterintelligence was the chance to protect Marines in the field from unconventional warfare attacks.
How did you prepare to enter this field?
My preparation for counterintelligence started with reading the existing Marine Corps Counterinsurgency and Intelligence manuals. Much of the Marine Corps doctrine for counterinsurgency and counterintelligence originated in the “Banana Wars” in Haiti and Nicaragua from 1915 to the late 1930s.
I read everything I could relating to military and civilian intelligence. I combined my personal readings with formal Marine Corps and sister services counterintelligence training.
My military training provided the basis for my civilian fusion center service at the NCTC. My training for the fusion center involved local, state and federal law enforcement agencies as well as civilian intelligence organizations.
Has the knowledge you acquired for your AMU master’s degree assisted you in the field?
Absolutely! Much of the master’s program focused on emerging trends, including terrorism, which is the focus of the fusion center. The part that is largely unsung when discussing the merits of the master’s program was the caliber of the students in my course.
My fellow students came from a variety of backgrounds within the law enforcement and intelligence fields. They provided a wealth of information regarding the structure and procedures of their various agencies.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your role?
The role of the fusion center is to provide local, state and tribal law enforcement and first responders with information of a terrorist nature shared by the federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. In essence, the goal is to get the most useful, pertinent and relevant information to keep police officers, first responders and citizens safe.
Conversely, the fusion center shares information observed or encountered on the “street” and pushes it up to the federal authorities. The biggest challenge is to keep the threat of terrorism relevant to the decision makers within the first responder community as well as local state and tribal governments.
Increasingly, scarce budgets dictate that monies be spent on situations of a more immediate and pressing nature. Terrorist attacks are, thankfully, rare.
However, when those attacks occur, they have the potential to be devastating. Our struggle is to provide the decision makers with the information they need to make the best decisions they can for the citizens.
What advice do you have to give for people seeking a career in your field?
I would advise them to keep pursuing their education, both formal and informal.
You mentioned to me that you are now interested in pursuing a master’s in social work. What made you decide to change?
My service and my family’s service came at a price. Over a 30-year career in the fire service, four combat tours in the Marines and service with Team Rubicon, a volunteer veteran-centric disaster relief organization, I have seen a lifetime of pain and suffering. I have had the pain of losing a family member when my son, Sgt. Michael T. Washington, was killed in action while serving with the Marines in Afghanistan.
My pent-up pain, sorrow and stress was never exposed and never dealt with. It came to the surface and pushed me to the brink of suicide.
My first step in battling PTSD was admitting that “something” was going on and I was unable to manage it on my own. Recognizing and accepting that you are experiencing something abnormal and it is affecting your life is the key first step.
One of my first “public” displays of PTSD occurred while I was on a Team Rubicon deployment to the massive tornado that destroyed much of Moore, Oklahoma in 2013. The breakdown was identical to Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan.” It was not a cleansing emotional release, but an implosion that was uncontrolled and incomprehensible to me.
I thought that I just needed to pull myself together and handle my business. I was in the Marines, spent decades in the fire service, and experienced multiple disaster deployments and death of my son. My attitude was, “I’m THAT guy. I don’t ask for help. People come to ME for help.”
It was one of my fellow Team Rubicon brothers who saw that I was going through something he recognized because he has been there. That was the beginning of the understanding that I needed help beyond what I could do for myself.
I went to a veterans’ and first responder retreat called “Save a Warrior.” With their help, I began to break down what had occurred in my life, including sexual molestation as a child as well as the war and fire service traumas that took their toll on me. Afterward, I finally registered with the VA and got a counselor.
When I work as a peer counselor and Critical Incident Stress Debriefer for the fire department, I encourage firefighters to practice self-care. I advise them to eat right, sleep and detach from the rigors of the job. I practice those same measures. It’s important to do what feels good to you, whether that’s working out, hiking or learning.
I continue with counseling as needed. Even if I don’t think I need counseling, I check in anyway.
Counseling has helped me to grow after my PTSD and understand what was occurring to me, both psychologically and mentally. Now I understand the cause and effect; I know I’m not crazy or weak.
Most importantly, you should share your stress as it occurs or when it does not dissipate. Help can come from a counselor, servicemembers or veterans, as well as your spouse or significant other.
The biggest factor in my recovery was my wife, Valerie. She supports me unconditionally, without recrimination.
What is your greatest accomplishment to date?
My greatest accomplishment has been to share my story, openly and honestly, in order to help veterans and first responders who feel like they are alone in this struggle. Since the Starbucks video, I have been asked to speak about my journey. It seems to resonate with so many veterans and first responders.
Also, I was named Healthy Baby of Hawaii 1965!
What do you do in your free time?
I help any first responder and veteran who calls me to access help for stress, PTSD and suicide. I was there and I can help show them the way to wellness.
I am growing my business as a public speaker. I am a motivational speaker as well as a speaker on the concept of post traumatic growth. But I also speak on military history, as I am a docent at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Finally, my wife and I are ballroom dancers. It’s a great way to relax.
If anything in my story sounds familiar, I ask you to seek help. Help comes in a lot of ways, but talking to someone is a great start. Verbalizing your stress and pain is important.
You don’t have to suffer in silence. You served your country and you’ve done things that for most people are just dreams.
Now it’s time for you to take care of yourself and live that happy, healthy and fruitful life of service after the service. There are a lot of us out there. If an old, crusty Master Sergeant like me can say “I need help,” then so can you.
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