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Removing the ICE: An answer to veteran suicide and successful reintegration into civilian life

Stories | 05.07.24

By Amy M. Fitzgerald
Online Campus, Master of Arts in Military Psychology ‘22

It was late winter of 2017. I had worked in the mental health field since 2002, and was in private practice in Franklin, Tennessee, as a trauma therapist. To say I was the most unpatriotic person you had ever met at that time was an understatement. Even though my father was an Air Force Vietnam veteran, he had rarely ever spoken about his experience in the military. As far as I knew, the United States military was a group of people who fought wars, and we had parades for on July 4th.

Photo of Amy and Marty Fitzgerald

Amy and Marty Fitzgerald

Then, between the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, three veterans came to see me for various reasons. As I worked with them, I noticed patterns I had not seen with civilian clients. The veterans appeared to present a narrow range of emotional expression and awareness. They usually had to be busy. They struggled with emotional connection in relationships to some degree. They made sure they knew two ways out of my therapy office the door and busting the window if they had to. They found most people to be incompetent. They expressed feeling some sort of emotional numbness. What stood out to me the most was their incredibly high tolerance for putting their needs and wants aside and taking care of everyone else, even to their detriment. I was watching them suffer in dysfunctional circumstances, and it was like they COULD NOT leave or stop doing something they felt responsible for, even to the point of being suicidal. I saw these veterans suffering, silently dead inside, physically alive. They all shared that no one in their personal lives knew what they were really experiencing, and they couldn’t and wouldn’t tell them. I was determined to find a way to help them, and the modalities I had been using with civilians didn’t seem to cut it.

Recognizing patterns, identifying needs

I began asking them more intentional questions trying to figure out what I was missing. My first lightbulb moment was when I realized that even though these veterans were technically civilians, they were engaging in the civilian world from the identity that had been instilled in them from the military. As they talked to me, I realized that military and civilian cultures functioned from an opposite mentality with vastly different values.

In the military, the mission comes first, the team second, and the self, last. In civilian culture, it’s the opposite. Interestingly, it didn’t seem to matter if the veteran had been out of the military for five years or thirty years — they all were approaching life with the same mindset, and it was not the same as a civilian.

In August of 2019, I decided to enroll in the Master of Arts in Military Psychology at Adler University. At that point, it had become an all-consuming passion for me to learn everything I possibly could about the military culture and veterans. I chose Adler University because the program was an online and almost exclusively taught by active-duty military members and veterans. I also valued the social justice approach that was deeply embedded in their program.

What I learned during the program exposed me to all of the current research articles on the military and on veterans and the extensive facets of how it worked, including the differences between the branches, military history and progress, challenges the military and veterans face, and the help that is currently available. I was able to see what was being written about and studied, as well as what was lacking. It seemed that the research acknowledged the higher suicide rate veterans had compared to civilians, as well as the difficulty transitioning into civilian society. Still, no one seemed to quite know the root cause.

There were many articles connected to post-traumatic stress disorder, moral injury, addiction, lack of resources, military sexual trauma, etc. Even with this understanding and research, the suicide number continued to be high to the point where the Veteran’s Administration began asking for ideas and help from the civilian world to come up with possible solutions. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 6,392 U.S. veterans died by suicide in 2021, an increase of 11.6% from 2020. That increase is nearly three times more than among non-veteran U.S. adults, which saw a 4.5% suicide rate increase during the same period.

In 2020, I figured out what I believe is a significant root cause of veteran suicide and the difficulty veterans have transitioning out of the military culture and thriving in the civilian culture. In essence, a military identity is created in a service member when they go into the military through a series of programming. However, this programming is never reversed when they come out. This lack of reversal means veterans are sent back into a civilian culture that operates from a completely different mindset and set of values than how they were trained to function in the military.

Booklet cover of They Made Us WarriorsTo make matters worse, an aspect of this military programming creates an internal disconnect in the service member, removing their ability to access any feelings they have that could get in the way of carrying out their job and instead reinforces their ability to put their job responsibilities before their needs. This is necessary in the military but can be debilitating when trying to thrive in the civilian culture where the self comes first, the team second, and the mission last.

I describe this disconnect as Involuntarily Cutoff Emotionally or ICE in the theory I developed with my husband Marty — an Army veteran himself. Called the Fitzgerald Freedom Theory, it is copyrighted and published in our booklet “They Made Us Warriors,” which explains the ICE, the issues that veterans are dealing with, and what causes these issues. In 2020, I figured out how to recalibrate the military identity/programming and reverse the ICE successfully.

How is this done?

Early in their enlistment, service members take on an Oath of Enlistment, which is then reinforced with more oaths, creeds, chants, and implanting of military mindset and values in their respective branches through various means during their time serving.

I recalibrate the military identity/programming and reverse the ICE by identifying all the oaths, creeds, values, and orders a veteran had become in agreement with when they were reciting them out loud in the military. I then rewrite them in a way where they can give themselves permission to release themselves from having to continue to carry them out. In writing this, I include that they give themselves permission to internally keep anything the military gave them that was good, and release anything that no longer serves them.

I read what I wrote to them, and they repeat what I am saying back to me. It is powerful and effective in removing the disconnect and giving veterans back access to what they gave away when they entered the military.

Essentially, they are giving themselves permission to complete their mission once and for all and take off their uniform for good.

Since my discovery in 2020, I have recalibrated the military identity/programming and reversed the ICE successfully in over 60 veterans who have served in either the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. These veterans have served combat deployments in all recent major conflicts, from the war in Vietnam through the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT).

And our work is being noticed. Today, we’re collecting data and assisting Ph.D.s and researchers who have begun studying our work.

Photo of the Fitzgerald Freedom Ranch

In 2023, Amy and Marty opened the Fitzgerald Freedom Ranch in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee.

In 2022, I graduated from Adler University. About a year later, my husband and I went live with the Fitzgerald Freedom Ranch, our nonprofit organization located on a 114-acre ranch located in Mount Pleasant, Tennessee. We felt compelled to create the nonprofit out of a sense of both gratitude and need. We wanted to share our solution with the world, pioneering a completely different approach to veteran care. Here I work with veterans at no cost to them, to recalibrate their military identity and reverse the ICE.

If you would like to see what we offer at the Fitzgerald Freedom Ranch and read our theory, you can go to our website fitzgeraldfreedomranch.com. A copy of “They Made Us Warriors” can be found on the site under “The ICE” section of the main navigation.

In the end, this once ungrateful, unpatriotic, and ignorant American civilian ended up having an awakening that began in a small office, in a therapy session with an army veteran in 2018, when he looked at her and said, “I can’t feel joy.” She looked him straight in his eyes and said, “I can help you find it.” Then she did.

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