Margaret Suman: 5 Lessons I Learned From My Military Experience about How To Survive And Thrive During A Time Of Crisis


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I think that leadership carries great responsibility or the “ability to respond” with integrity and endurance. In my personal experience, the greatest leaders are highly skilled and attuned to both in themselves and others and cultivate the “ability” to “respond” in kind. It is an amalgam of knowledge, wisdom and discernment and of setting that example with one’s own life that defines great leadership to me.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crises and how to adapt and overcome them. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market. I had the pleasure of interviewing Margret Suman.

Margaret Suman’s (pen name) background in counseling inner city youth for nearly two decades while being a parent in a large, blended family challenged her to harness the skills necessary to manage crisis and challenges at multi levels. She strongly advocates for balance; the awareness that cultivating self-care in the midst of challenges is essential for well-being and healthy decision making. This includes reaching out and asking for help, a skill that she continues to refine in both her personal and professional life journey. Suman is very transparent that this book is written with anonymity to preserve the privacy of those involved and that she has utilized a pen name, but each story is based on the reality her family experienced.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I was raised to be creative, self-sufficient and adventurous and that no matter what the challenge, it could be met with curiosity and resourcefulness grounded in Faith. Beginning my first paid job at 13, knowing that I would seek higher education and that I would be responsible for paying for it, was accepted as the standard of hard but fulfilling work that I still carry forward.

I paid for 3 college degrees, working and raising a family. During my early years, I became very seriously ill with a grim prognosis, but I stayed in school and continued to work. I sought resources to enable me to move forward and while daunting, and even frightening at times, the strength of my Faith and adventuresome spirit challenged me to endure.

While my early degrees were not related to counseling, the knowledge and experience I gained from them and related work experiences, continued to build upon the inherent resourcefulness and creativity instilled as a child.

My final “call” was to become of service to others through counseling from which I practiced for over 2 decades and all which has drawn upon all previous experiences. Through barriers and obstacles that could seem daunting, I had learned that there is a way through. In fact, I found that “the way through” becomes the “teacher” and even when painful, it has the opportunity to guide me to some of my greatest life experiences.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I am a licensed mental health counselor with vast experiences in social services.

While my counseling experience began with high-risk, inner-city youth in the height of gang activity in our community, after retiring from that position, I chose to practice primarily with adult anxiety and depression. That quickly pivoted as my son’s war related experience (which included significant trauma) and my personal efforts to discover resources to support his healing, yielded opportunities to hone therapeutic skills and resources that were more extensive.

While my son was in Iraq, I had opened a private holistic office that included many non-traditional healing methods from yoga, to massage, to meditation. Unbeknownst to me, I was being prepared to seek out non-traditional and complementary healing processes that would become assets in our personal quest for him, but soon recognized as viable support services for veteran wellness.

Researchers and leaders in trauma would soon publish findings and theories that supported the necessity of including body, mind and spirit into the healing processes for trauma. As I continued to build my own resources for trauma based intervention, it aligned with the personal witness I was paying to my son’s combat related issues providing me with both personal and professional evidence of the many tenacles of trauma and the opportunity to be a part of global recognition of new and cutting edge (and the reminder of ancient ways like yoga, qi-gong, tai chi, and meditation) that had powerful healing offerings.

On a personal level, I was witnessing the depths of trauma. On a professional level, I was accessing more and more resources that were multi-purpose. One, to support my son into well-being, two, to offer my private clients cutting edge resources and finally, to use all of it as my personal “teacher” to be mindful of my own balance and self-care on the journey.

Can you tell us a bit about your background with the military? Any family experience prior to your son’s enlistment?

I am the family member of a legacy of military veterans. My extended family was large with a total of 13 aunts/uncles and their children from my parents’ marriage. Of those family members, 4 served in WWII, 3 in Vietnam, 2 in the First Gulf War and 2 in post 9–11 conflicts including my son (all who served in combat).

It was not until my son’s service and speaking of it publicly, that I became fully aware of the impact of combat trauma. It was only then that I learned the full extent of the suffering that my extended family members combat related issues that they held close and quiet. I recognized that my extended family was a microcosm and that all families who have been impacted by war, often carry similar invisible wounds, but those were silenced and often considered a weakness.

Quickly I learned the previously unspoken stories of my linage and the silent suffering the veteran and family endured. Then, I began to explore the subject matter with my private clients by simply adding “veteran or family of veteran” on the intake and found repeated storylines from multi generations of the unseen wounds of war and the impact to the veteran and family.

The convergence of personal and professional experience was a revelation and beckoned an opportunity to bring voice to those who had been silenced and in so doing, awareness of more healthy and honoring ways to intervene and support them. Data of increased incarceration rates, homelessness, divorce and marital conflict and abuse were seemingly further evidence that wounded people, wound people and our commission, particularly with veterans is to recognize and redirect those wounds to lay groundwork for rich and fulfilling lives.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your time working to get your son treatment? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

On a very personal level, the most interesting and provoking story that I learned was of my ignorance in the systems of care for veterans. Until I experienced it over and over, I did not realize that obtaining veteran care is so complex, that I with 3 college degrees could scarcely navigate it. It was staggering to me that the system I believed offered easily accessible and comprehensive support was not doing so.

I was so surprised at first that I thought it was our unique experience, but as I learned of others, I recognized that it was not. I was in complete and utter disbelief when I witnessed veteran after veteran seeking help that was denied services or were given such limited and inadequate support that little over half even sign up for the benefit that they have earned.

Additionally, I was shocked at the ripple effect of the inaccessible and untreated wounds to the families who are also ill equipped an unaware of why their loved one is so changed and then how to intervene.

I began to discover that what I thought was available was not what was there and seemingly only the most stalwart could get the resources needed. I am happy to say that some advances are being made but attention to these issues seem most focused during war time and then the unworkable system can become stagnant. The biggest take away is that I believe there are much more efficient and honoring ways to support veterans and families.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism during your experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

One of the greatest heroes I ever met is my combat wounded son. I have never witnessed someone endure so much pain, at so many levels for such a long period of time with the decorum and honor he has demonstrated. He frequently tells me that the only way he has been able to do so was by isolating during his illness and also availing himself to get help when he stepped out of that isolation. He tells me that he does not know how veterans with families they support can do it…many don’t, thus the stats on their family life and the ripple impact to their children.

The heroism that was most noticeable in my son was his willingness to tell his story no matter how much pain he was personally suffering and his very deliberate care in sharing only what would be helpful. I did not witness him blame or complain. I witnessed great suffering, I witnessed him learning from it, and I witnessed him being willing to reach out to others experiencing the same as he continued to navigate his own healing.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

There are 2 words that come to mind when I think of my son and his acts of heroism. They are integrity and endurance. He endured(s) tremendous suffering and from it, he grew. In that growth he moves forward with integrity for himself and with others.

At one point, my son told a high-level administrator that I, as his mom, was his hero. During a subsequent meeting with that individual, he pointed his finger at me in front of my son and said “you are not the hero, your son is”. I was then told he was using “tough love”.

Disparaging remarks are spared in a hero’s journey. Hero’s, whoever they are, uplift and encourage and stir awareness and momentum in others.

Do you think your experience dealing with these setbacks helped prepare you for leadership in this or any other field? Can you explain?

I think that leadership carries great responsibility or the “ability to respond” with integrity and endurance. In my personal experience, the greatest leaders are highly skilled and attuned to both in themselves and others and cultivate the “ability” to “respond” in kind. It is an amalgam of knowledge, wisdom and discernment and of setting that example with one’s own life that defines great leadership to me.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I believe that I demonstrated heroic qualities as did my son. We both were determined to rise above insurmountable odds and push forward, not only for ourselves, but with a deep commitment to others. I also believe that heroes do not act in isolation. Any heroic act that I engaged in had the encouragement and support of my family and the determination to create a meaningful path of healing for my son.

My son’s remarkable 17-year journey of healing had the support of our family and some superb professionals along the way.

Both my son and I would attribute our courage to my parents, his grandparents and my husband who never, ever, ever gave up in their encouragement and support, whether it was providing transportation one of a multitude of doctors, to being present when I spoke about the challenges facing families of veterans, they were steadfast.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in a crisis. How would you define a crisis?

A crisis is an event that significantly derails momentum, creates obstacles that have never been faced, and is seemingly insurmountable; where no known action is available on which to draw, and every action and step forward is made with Faith.

To survive a crisis is to recognize that you are in the midst of one. It is to admit that you have no previous knowledge or experience on which to overcome the obstacle and tap in the reservoir of strength/Hope that resides within us all.

To survive and thrive is, in acknowledging those limitations, reaching out to trusted individuals to ask for help and doing so relentlessly yet humbly and with dedicated passion to move forward; trusting instincts that guide us, even if we have not walked that path before and doing so with wisdom and discernment.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

Fostering individual creativity and intuition can be excellent character traits in times of crisis. Encouraging honesty, working as a team and honest communication are all excellent character traits that can be drawn upon in times of crisis.

Having a strategic exit or management plan is one aspect of crisis management, but as important are fostering and encouraging the soft skills of individual character and community.

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

I was in a large hotel building in a large city 15 years ago. There was a lobby, then an open mezzanine full of people. Suddenly, sirens went off in the entire high rise building and lights were flashing emergency warnings. I was on the mezzanine. The escalators stopped operating. The elevators stopped operating and people were panicking. As I looked around, it was reminiscent of 9–11 and my first “instinct”- intuition so to speak, was to exit the building immediately. As I descended the escalator, I could see people everywhere looking for someone to tell them what to do and where to go. Again, reminiscent of 9–11.

As I neared the bottom of the escalator, a man told me to turn back and that I couldn’t descend. I looked around and saw the entire lobby was flooded and he was standing in about a foot of water…yet, he was not electrocuted, so I descended and immediately exited the front doors and walked as fast as I could away from the building as I heard the emergency responders converge.

I did not know what was happening. I had never experienced anything like that before. My intuition and awareness told me to “get out” to safety.

In crisis, we have often been taught to save others before ourselves. I have learned that taking personal responsibility for my decision, following my instincts and of course, always being willing to share whatever I can with others is often helpful. What was framed once as “selfless service”, I have reframed to “self and service” because I believe that you can live in both.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis, or even just the difficulties our veterans have obtaining the proper care?

I believe one of the biggest character traits is a strong sense of self; not in the sense that we must convince other people of our thoughts, actions or feelings, but in a sense that we have gotten intimately in touch with them and are able to recognize, “I am in danger”, “something doesn’t feel right”, “this isn’t safe”…acknowledging it and speaking out about it; not with the intention of convincing others, but with the conviction of self-knowledge that claims it, stands in it and then is willing to move forward in Faith.

A great opportunity for our veteran community is to learn to follow orders, AND to recognize how to follow and stand in the “inner knowing” that we are all born with, when crisis occurs.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

One of the greatest contemporary examples I can think of is MLK Jr. He did the hard work of self-awareness. He stood in the truth he experienced. He invited others to think beyond their habitual patterns of behavior and into greater depth and opportunity of community at it’s finest and he did it with deep conviction and Faith.

Did you have a time during this situation when you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

There was more than one time over the past 17 years that we faced crisis. It may be an unknown medication reaction that my son had that led to further illness or uncharacteristic behaviors. It may be that we did not have the money to get him the help he needed. It may be that I was asked to make presentations about the very subject matter I was right in the middle of, it may be that I was walking into unknown territory and felt alone and afraid. Every single time, I responded to what my body/mind/spirit and trusted others advised. Facing the situation head on with honesty and trusted support created safety nets for navigating rough waters.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your experience, both with your son and in counseling, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Admit that there is a challenge.
  2. Identify trusted support to face the challenge.
  3. Do not put a timeline or expectation on the challenge. Explore “pausing” and experiencing balance and if you can’t, seek wise counsel before moving forward trusting your intuition.
  4. Keep seeking, with abiding and patience, even when it seems there are no options. There is always an option, and our first response is often a learned reactive one so having self-knowledge and wise counsel are essential.
  5. Learn about your own intuition and how to trust it. That “inner voice” that we often ignore can be a voice of great Love and Guidance.

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I hope our story brings to light the daily challenges heroes face upon their return home and that this awareness brings about a much-needed shift to tedious and outdated processes.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has demonstrated the most human, humane and steadfast voice of meeting crisis. He demonstrates courage and honor and following his intuition against seemingly insurmountable odds.

How can our readers follow you online?

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.



Authority Magazine Editorial Staff
Authority Magazine

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