5 Questions with Kim Dozier on Resilience and Hash Brownies

April 14, 2014

This is the latest edition of our Five Questions series. Each week, we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy. Well, four of the questions are topical.  The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week we spoke with Kimberly Dozier. Kim is a contributing writer for The Daily Beast, focusing on special operations and counter-terrorism. She spent four years on the intelligence beat for The Associated Press. And she was recently named the 2014-15 General Omar N. Bradley Chair in Strategic Leadership, a joint initiative of the U.S. Army War College, Dickinson College and Penn State University Dickinson School of Law and School of International Affairs.


1.  Kim, thanks so much for doing this. There have been a lot of changes in your professional life. Congratulations on your new roles. Can you tell us what you’ll be doing as the Bradley Chair?

The chair was started in 2001 to foster civil-military relations, especially between liberal arts institutions like Penn State Law and Dickinson College, and the U.S. Army War College – the highest institution of army learning.

So in the fall, I’ll be teaching a course at Dickinson to juniors and seniors on the intersection between media and national security, with case studies like coverage of the Iraq and Afghan wars, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden.

In the spring, I’ll be teaching a similar course at the graduate academic level – one each at the War College and at Penn State Law in Carlisle, this year’s chair lead.

During the one-year chair, I’ll be working on a book on resilience and the special operations and intelligence forces, drawing on lessons learned from twelve+ years of war – lessons those communities will need to take forward for the next decade and beyond. It will include the anonymous stories of the operators and officers, commanders and NCOs, counselors and family members, running the gamut from coping with losing friends and loved ones, to being prosecuted for doing a task like interrogation, to being ignored by a U.S. public ready to be done with war.

The stories will run chronologically, interspersed with the timeline of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the growing conflicts in Horn of Africa/Africa.

Finally, I’ll be keeping my sources up to date, contributing a couple stories a month to The Daily Beast on intelligence, counterterrorism and special operations, though not necessarily in that order.

2.  So if anyone from this community wanted to reach out to you, how can they get in touch? From the initial research you’ve done so far on your book, what has surprised you the most?

Folks can always reach me via my oh-so-originally-named website, www.kimberlydozier.com or kimberlydozier@kimberlydozier.com. (Yeah, I know, that’s long. I really wanted people to work for it to email me.)

From my book research so far, I am struggling to reconcile the two dueling narratives out there on the combat-exposed/hardened.  One narrative says the force overall is more damaged than we as Americans are yet ready to acknowledge or help heal. The other narrative cleaves more closely to my own recovery experience – that it can be a long, hard slog to heal physically, spiritually and for some, mentally, but that ultimately, when you “process” the toughest parts of the experience, you are the stronger for it and have more wisdom and experience to offer to others.

From my personal experience, I’m a bit perplexed that every bit of hangover from war gets labeled automatically as “PTSD.” There’s short term post-traumatic stress which lasts 4-6 weeks after any traumatic experience, like hyper-vigilance, nightmares, flashbacks and a very short emotional fuse. If that becomes your cognitive way of dealing with stress, and those symptoms last longer, interfering with your daily life, okay, then you’ve got PTSD, and like a bone break versus a sprain, you gotta stop, deal with it, and give it more time to recover. (Don’t ignore the sprain either, though.) I had PTS for three weeks, and dealt with it head on, talking incessantly about everything I could remember from my particular incident. The nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, etc. stopped.

But the harder parts of “coming home” for me ranged from the survivor’s guilt over those from my team who I lost in Iraq and those we were patrolling with when we were hit in 2006, and a more selfish grief over losing my foreign TV reporting career, when I realized that my injury prevented me in the eyes of my TV news colleagues from returning to the job I loved, alongside the news team I thought of as my extended family.

Finally, I feel almost guilty somehow that what doesn’t bother me is the standard fare of war – seeing dead bodies, or being near an explosion or hearing gunfire nearby. I’ve been back to Afghanistan and other places where I’ve seen some of that, and I reacted as I always have – sadness at the losses, or in the case of gunfire, a startled jump and a quick scan to see if taking cover is necessary. And then you go on to the next thing. I’ve talked to troops who say the same. Being in the fight doesn’t bother them. It’s being helpless that does.

More to follow, and I’d like to hear the thoughts of your readership.

3.  It seems like this is a great extension of your long-standing interest in wounded warriors and veterans affairs, a field where you are very active. How has your work with charity organizations evolved over time?

I’ve focused mostly on organizations that help out the combat injured like Fisher House, WoundedWear.org and the Red Cross’s assistance for military families and also for organizations like NSWKids.org. I met the founder of that group, NSW wife Suzanne Vogel, and was struck by the simplicity of her mission: get special operators’ kids the testing not covered by Tricare to see if they would be helped by tutoring, or in some cases, autism-spectrum education, and if they do, pay for that tutoring.

In terms of veteran’s issues, I would not pretend to understand the bureaucratic mayhem they face in their departure from the military, or their battle to get benefits after coming come. I can, however, speak to my own feeling of dislocation in U.S. culture when I was returned stateside most unwillingly, and the reaction I found from the U.S. public – the assumption that I was permanently broken in body and mind. My message to them: “80-90% of those who return from combat emerge stronger and more resilient. They are the people you want to hire. Do not cast them all as that crazed, PTSD-time-bomb character you saw on the last episode of NCIS or similar.”

I especially try to pitch in with organizations where I most understand through my own experience of recovery from trauma and major injury. That helps when emceeing galas or giving remarks at fundraisers, to be able to articulate the recovery and resiliency experience to audiences that are trying to better understand returning U.S. troops and anyone who has survived combat zones.

4.  You’ve worked for a number of different media organizations and I imagine all of them have been unique. What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed so far moving from the AP to The Daily Beast? Do you expect your reporting to change?

AP is the largest news organization in the world. A single AP story can reach up to a billion people. That’s fantastic reach.

It also comes with great responsibility to the AP members, almost every major news organization in the world. You don’t Tweet a breaking headline before it goes on the wire. AP’s members get the news first. And AP reporters must keep their own opinions to themselves. When I went on TV to do interviews about a story I had covered, for instance, I had to carefully stick to answering questions only on what had run on the AP wire. When anchors would ask me “What do you think,” and I’d demur, it could get mighty awkward.

Daily Beast founder Tina Brown once asked me just such a challenging question, in crosstalk on an MSNBC Morning Joe segment, and she was none too pleased when I hemmed and hawed and dodged the question. I ended up blushing furiously in abject discomfort, my neck basically striping like a red-and-white giraffe. Not good.

The next time I was asked back…was more than a year later, when word broke on the Huffington Post that I was headed to The Daily Beast.

Gotta love symmetry. (And note to self: for next live shot, wear a turtleneck or a lot of makeup on your neck, until you get comfortably back in the TV game. I should probably track down that video for my own personal nightmare reel. Yeah, I’ve got a shelf full of TV awards, a Peabody, Murrows, and yet, watch this… Always good to stay humble!)

5.  From the Balkans to Iraq to Afghanistan and more, you’ve spent no small amount of time conflict zones. What is the strangest experience you’ve had in a war zone over drinks?

It was last March in Kabul. I’d met up with an ex-militant contact, who is also one of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s close friends and a major businessman. After he firmly explained to his other pals in the room that I was a friend of his wife’s and his family and not a mistress, the proprietor brought out a fine selection of scotch, and we started talking/debating politics.

At the end of the evening, the proprietor brought out a plate of brownies. Odd, I thought, but reached for one, and had nearly gotten it to my mouth when I realized everyone was watching me, poised to see if I’d take a bite.

“What’s up with the brownies?” I said, a bit bemused. They replied, laughing, that these were “special” brownies.

I still didn’t get it. Yes, I did every sort of drug in the hospital, as prescribed by trauma docs, but I hadn’t had a very adventurous youth.

One of the men said, “Kim, you Americans can invade our country, and impose your idea of government and even culture on us…but you’re not going to take our hash brownies.”

I put it back down.

So I’m headed back to Kabul this week, visa permitting. Purely out of curiosity, I’ll check with my pals to see if it’s still on the menu.  Research.


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest and the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: U.S. Army