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Compassion Fatigue for Military Defenders with Wrongfully Accused Clients

Military defenders face an invisible threat known as compassion fatigue.  The America Bar Association simplifies the definition of compassion fatigue as the “cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effect of exposure to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity, combined with the strain and stress of everyday life.”

Compassion fatigue is not burnout.  Rather, those suffering from compassion fatigue are being harmed by the work that they do and often can find themselves experiencing intrusive imagery.  Yes, images of trauma can flash into their minds without ever having seen the actual trauma.  Repeatedly receiving first hand accounts of trauma from an accused or from interviewing an alleged victim takes its toll.  In addition to second-hand reports of trauma, military defenders often are faced with horrific images of child exploitation.  Ask any military defender to do so and he will be able to picture in his mind any number of images of child pornography from cases; often the same popular series of photographs shows its way into a number of cases.

Also termed “Secondary Traumatic Stress” (STS), a more precise definition of compassion fatigue is ““natural consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other—the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help ato those seen in PTSD, i.e., re-experiencing images of the traumas of the person receiving aid, avoidance of reminders of this material, numbing in affect and function, and persistent arousal.  Those affected by STS “come to doubt deeply held beliefs about safety, the inherent kindness of others, and [even] intimacy.”

The military does an abhorrent job of healing its healers, especially among military defenders. The Army JAG Corp’s leaders do little more than provide its approximately twenty Special Victim Prosecutors(SVPs) with an annual one-hour block of instruction about the existence of compassion fatigue. Though I had heard of “vicarious trauma”from a colleague in 2010, I will admit I was skeptical.  How could I be impacted by hearing about the trauma of others in the same way that a person would having experienced the actual trauma?  Vicarious trauma is a form of post-traumatic stress and can occur after one case or from the cumulative effects of many.

I remember early in my career as a military prosecutor hearing one of the more experienced uniformed defense attorneys refer to himself as “dead on the inside.”  Certainly when you have faced repeated accounts of child physical abuse, child sexual abuse, and other traumatic crimes, those in the business of handling violent felony military trials find ourselves leaning on others with shared experiences, recounting our war stories to peers and colleagues.  We make inappropriate jokes that among different company would surely bar our presence at future social events.  Mostly we do not even realize how a “normal citizen” would recoil at the mention of our experiences.  I recall during a weekend between training weeks of the Career Prosecutor’s Coursein 2010, a group of the Army’s first SVPs decided to tour Fort Sumterand as usual we began to share stories of cases.  As we spoke in normal tones of voices, those around us must have shuddered in the atrocities we discussed as naturally as the weather or the most recent local football game.  Soon, we found ourselves virtually alone on the one side of the vessel.  No one wanted to be anywhere within earshot of our conversation.

Often those that experience vicarious trauma do not realize that they are impacted until it is far into the experience.  I began writing this post several weeks ago after hearing of a military colleague that attempted to take his life in an incredibly violent manner.  Though none of us may come to understand what builds in a person to lead them to brutal self-harm, I cannot help but reason that a contributing factor must have been the day-to-day recurrent strain of hearing and experiencing vicarious trauma.

On top of the compassion fatigue associated with representing guilty clients, the added pressure-cooker of handling the defense of those that are innocently accused can seem inescapable.  The military is not doing enough to heal the healers among its military defenders.

At Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, I had grown concerned about our defense office’s coping skills.  We were practicing in the Army’s then busiest jurisdiction, and we were at least four bodies short, handling week after week of cases involving sexual assault and child sexual abuse, among others.  At one point every member of our office was handling a premeditated murder defense. Alcohol was chief among our coping mechanisms, and we seemed to be keeping the on-base pub in business.  I went to our supervisor and expressed my worries about the collective wellbeing of our defense counsel.  He acknowledged that it might be a good idea to have someone from behavioral health come to the office to conduct a class on coping skills. A few short weeks later Major Nidal Hasan, a then Army psychiatrist, shot and killed more than a dozen people blocks away from our offices.  We never got our class.  All of the attention of behavioral health focused internally to help heal their healers, the military’s psychiatric providers.

But there is a reason that lawyers are known also as “counselor.”  Those of us in the defense bar are on front lines of healing. We help each client through what may very well be the toughest and most stressful time of that person’s life.  As we prepare cases in mitigation, individual military accused often relate personal childhood trauma.

My first concrete appreciation of the Army’s failing in this arena came when, as an intern in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office Special Victims Unit, I visited one of the offices across the bay.  There, the county attorney, required each of his prosecutors to undergo psychiatric care if ever required to view even one image of child exploitation. I have seen thousands of such images and dozens of videos and never once was I required or frankly encouraged to seek out help, let alone was I ever asked how I was coping with the repeated risk of compassion fatigue from the stress of military practice. Without doubt, my superiors had probably never been educated about the risks.

With evident data on the risk factors, military leaders must do more to ensure that not one of its uniformed defense attorneys succumbs to the suffering of vicarious trauma.  A one-hour block of instruction for twenty of its prosecutors is not enough. Not hardly. Not even close.