Tracer Patient with Clinical Social Worker, Therapist, Former Army Officer, and Author Tara Fields.
by Ashley Foster
Suicide Rates for Active Duty and Veteran service members continue rising to an all-time high. Tara Fields’ memoir, Tracer Patient is a clarion call signaling the need for and importance of effective therapy and or treatment in the military for the pandemic of suicides they are experiencing. All people who die by suicide have an underlying - and potentially treatable — mental health condition. I had the opportunity to talk with a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and former Army Officer Tara Fields about her book Tracer Patient which she hopes will be used as a tool for change in the mental health services throughout the military.
Through her work in helping soldiers and their families navigate mental health issues and the loss of their loved ones to suicide she hopes to bring change to the military and destigmatize mental health. With her own experience of hospitalization due to mental health reasons, she shares this book to let you know that you are not alone. Calling those in leadership to be the change for the better, and those who are struggling to get the help they need. Congratulations on publishing your first book! Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself and what led you to write this book, “Tracer Patient”? Thank you. Absolutely. So, I was in the Army for almost 12 years. One night I became a patient. I was a Clinical Social Worker & Therapist. My last year was in the Kansas National Guard. I knew how negligent Kansas was before I got to Kansas. When we were in the Virginia Guard, I was talking over lunch to my husband one day complaining, for the lack of a better word, about the National Guard treatment. It was a Lieutenant Colonel that approached the table and wanted to connect me to his best friend at the National Guard Bureau. She was a Colonel who oversaw all mental health aspects across all 54 United States & Territories. Motivated to bring awareness and change to the Virginia NG where I was serving at the time, I presented concepts the Colonel spoon-fed me to the VAARNG leadership. They didn’t want to fund such programs. Then I arrived in Kansas. I was hoping to be able to bring some of the systemic changes to my home state with regard to mental health treatment in our state National Guard. I was so naïve. When I was in the VAARNG, after meeting with the Colonel at the National Guard Bureau, I returned to my formation in the Virginia Guard, eyes wide open and very eager to bring some change. The NGB Colonel said they were four states & territories that didn’t (at that time) have any mental health assets. Virginia and Kansas were 2 of those 4 states. I thought, what are the odds of that? I’m in Virginia and am from Kansas originally. During the seven remaining months in the Virginia Guard, I was putting slides & presentations together to share just how deficient we were to try and get us on board. I put together 37 slides for the General. It fell on deaf ears; they didn’t want to fund it. This was incredibly frustrating because we were seeing soldiers die by suicide and nothing being done to address the systemic constraints and failures that were gravely contributing to increased suicide rates. As my time in the VAARNG came to a close and I intrastate transferred to Kansas, I was already frustrated with the systemic failures of the national guard mental health system. Then when I got to Kansas, we had a cluster of 6 suicides in 6 months. I felt like the system had become so desensitized to suicides that they just expected the clinicians to continue stepping over dead bodies and looking the other way. I don’t have the ability to do that, not as a provider, and not as a human being. I wrote this book to bring change. Can you tell me a little about what the book entails? Sure. I’ve got a preview story for you. In the midst of writing this book, I received a phone call from a soldier I treated while in the VAARNG. His name was PVT Richardson. He had been hospitalized the month before I transferred to Kansas. After his psychiatric hospitalization, Richardson’s unit would forget about him totally. He started to receive hospital bills for over $16K because the guard failed to file the proper paperwork. And that wasn’t the worst part. I had asked him if he was still in the National Guard. He stated that he didn’t know if he was or not, but that he simply stopped going to drill. He was attempting to purchase a home but couldn’t get a home loan because of an outstanding debt due to hospitalization. When he told me this, I was irate. I contacted the VAARNG the next day. And then the coverup began. You can read more about this in the book. Another service member that I go into depth in the book is the story of the KSARNG soldier, Zachary Schaffer. Zach divulged to command that he was struggling with substance use and would enter a drug rehab facility in July of 2018. He missed the July drill due to treatment. The day he got out of the hospital, he was supposed to hang out with his best friend (also in the military) who was celebrating his birthday. Zach forgot to call and go hang out with this particular friend. That night, his best friend would end his life. So, Zach, already high risk, was even more at risk following the news that his best friend ended his life. This began a downward spiral for Schafer. I chronicle his story in my book. Schaffer later became the very reason I would resign from my commission. One night I became the patient. After calling on members of the support staff for assistance in treating Zach, which the calls and text messages all went unanswered, I “lost my shit for all the right reasons”. After coming out of the hospital, now a high-risk soldier myself, I was ordered that I couldn’t treat soldiers. I referred Schaffer and others back to the deficient and defunct state medical team. Schaffer would end his life 6 months later, but what happened after his death is precisely why I resigned. Weeks after his death, I would learn that the KSARNG retrospectively discharged this servicemember from the KSARNG on 19 Jan 2019. He took his life on 23 Jan 2019. I divulge why the state would do such a thing in my book and I urge the reader to stand with me against these atrocities. I met Schafer at the viewing and funeral on 5 August 2018. I spoke to him next to his friend’s coffin and I was like, “Listen, I know you have a lot going on, but I’m worried about you being the next one. And just calling a spade a spade. I want you to know you are not alone, and I could give two shits about the army right now. I care about you as a person.” He had never heard an officer talk to him like this before so he just looked at me. But I talked to him every day until August 13th. The 14th, 15th, & 16th, no contact. I went to my unit commander on the 16th, and I said, “Sir, this kid is going to be our next suicide, he is the most high-risk soldier we have, I need his address, I’m prepared to go locate this kid. My commander had lost 2 soldiers in the span of 3 weeks. He tells me, “Tara, you are wasting your time, he’s a dirtbag we are just trying to get him out. We don’t have an address for him.” I lost my shit. For the 2 weeks leading up to this I had been spending them with suicide victims’ families, talking to kids who now don’t have their dad or mom anymore, and to be met with the complacency of my command, I was livid. I just started bawling. I am holding the weight of this kid’s life. How do you not have an address for one of your soldiers? I have no way to give law enforcement what they would need and so I am left with, well I hope he doesn’t die. I told my husband, “does one more f****ng person need to hang themselves before somebody wakes up in this State?” My husband has never heard me talk like that. I said, “Well maybe if I took some of that rope to that rafter, I could wake somebody up.” He called 911 because he didn’t know what else to do. The cops ask me if I think I am a danger to myself or others. I inform them “No, I’m angry, I’m hurt, I’m scared, but I’m not going to hurt anyone.” They still had to do an evaluation. I was now in the hospital, experiencing every emotion under the sun. Stewing in it all, I bypass the front desk to go to the bathroom. I was there for 23 minutes. If they were so worried about Tara Fields and her evaluation, where is everybody? If someone was really suicidal, 23 minutes is more than enough time to kill oneself. The system is so broken! There was a cord on the wall, it read: “Pull for help”. I started laughing hysterically at the irony of it all. I never had a suicide attempt up to this point. I pulled the cord and wrapped it around my neck. Now, I am not proud of it and almost did not write this book because of this. But at the same time, I sit with patients day in and day out with these same types of moments that they can’t explain. I get it…It’s hard for me to put this very act into words or that I would even be capable of such an act as this.
Our mental health can change in an instant. This book became a mirror. I talk about toxic leadership, how we promote it in the military, and the pandemic of suicides, and try to dissect what goes into this. I also go into the policy changes that we need. I approached the book about how I do my patients. I talk about my hospitalization to destigmatize mental health because it doesn’t matter who you are. If you have a brain, you have likely experienced mental health issues at some point in your life. Schafer ended up committing suicide on the 23rd of January 2019. The state retrospectively discharged him, aka the State tried to cover their ass. When he committed suicide, they stamped his discharge packet on the 19th of January, which was Martin Luther King weekend so no one was in the office to stamp on that actual date. This book became a Rolodex of evidence, emails, and a letter to the governor that attempted to sweep it all under the rug. Tracer Patient is the title joint commission, an entity that investigates hospitals for accreditation purposes, who becomes a notional patient and investigator. They try to find areas of negligence before real patients are mistreated or die. This book sounds like a very emotionally charged read, what was the hardest part of getting this all down on paper? Just what you just said, the emotion. Sons and daughters are dying, it kills me that we have become so desensitized; at the policy level, and all the way through. I mean, I was on the post today and the soldiers are there, heads down, looking so depressed and defeated. For me, that’s why I do this. This isn’t personal. I’m not out to make anyone look bad, but this nonsense cannot continue. Not from a national security standpoint, and not from a personal standpoint. These sons and daughters swear to serve their country, they deserve to serve in effective and efficient systems, not broken systems and systems in which everyone is so fearful about saying anything or elevating these concerns. So many senior leaders are worried about liability and culpability and image. But it turns out that when that is the focus, they are creating more liability and culpability…and a whole lot of death that permeates. Calling them out was very difficult but it’s needed for there to be change. That’s why I took the uniform off. I am now able to speak up for the marginalized, the quieted and muzzled. I am speaking of what even the senior officers and generals cannot do because they wear the uniform where it is expected of everyone to just shut up and endure it. This madness must come to a halt! Suicide has become not only a big issue in the military but in general. Do you have any mental health tips you could offer our readers on what they can do if they or someone they know is struggling with that? Whether you are in the military or not, you cannot prioritize anything else above yourself. And that’s not selfish, it’s vital. You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anybody else or any other system. If you are struggling, go get the care. If you are in the military, and they are telling you that you can’t go off base, go off base. TriCare will pay for it. They will take care of you and they will see you. If you see one of your loved ones whether in service or not and they are struggling, but don’t see it for themselves, render that care. Support them. Escort them to get the help they need. Take action. Sometimes you can see better than the person struggling because they are not well. What do you ultimately hope readers take away from your book? I hope they are inspired to stand up, because people are fighting their own battles, in whatever broken system it may be in. I encourage them to speak out against these things or we will be the demise of America. My favorite chapter of the book is titled, “The Toxic 20% vs the Exhausted and Ill 80%”. It’s not the toxic ones that are killing themselves, it’s the 80% of good people that just want to go to work, and do right by their morals, values, and ethics. We start seeing the toxic people trampling their buddies just to promote themselves and then we (80%ers) are questioning our integrity, our morality, our ethics. But it turns out that the shame, doubt, and guilt, are displaced and belong to the toxic individuals that are consumed with self at the demise of the team around them. It’s time that those individuals are held accountable. These good people (Exhausted and Ill 80%ers) are soaking themselves in the bottle, doing drugs, doing whatever to just try and drudge through the day. This book becomes a mirror. A question the reader may ask themselves is, “Am I excluding some of the qualities that Tara talks about that are toxic?” We have all done toxic things. Make no mistake. But the good ones have this thing called a conscience. Toxic leaders can hang their hat every night on that toxic hook and sleep well knowing the toxic things they’ve done and dismiss it. As a clinician, this book is a tool to help toxic leaders gain more insight through reading this book. All of us, 20 vs 80 should be getting help.
Do you have any other upcoming projects or events that you would like to tell us about? Oh my gosh. Book signings, I’m working with different organizations, a coalition. The Brandon Act, I work with them, really, there are so many facets of all of this. I’m working on senate hearings. I am sending 585 copies of this book to every senator, governor, and city council representative member. In the near future, I am looking forward to making this into a documentary via a program called Books to Film to capture all of this. I am also a therapist and own a private practice. I see 30 patients a week. My family is getting ready to move this summer. A LOT going on to say the least. For more info on Tara Fields please visit https://www.t4therapy.org/. I am also soliciting
donations for funding the project to send this book to members of our government. You can donate at www.gofund.me/a7d72b94.