Struggling with PTSD can be lonely, most especially when you choose to put it in the closet for so long. Over time, many may even think that you got everything together, but the fact remains how, at one point, it wasn’t the case. Dr. Mike Smith is a former First Sergeant for the Thunderbirds in the United States Air Force. Mike is here to share with us his journey of overcoming PTSD—from the moment it dawned on him that something’s not right to finally breaking through the barrier and asking for help. Inspiring others to move out of their dark places, he then tells us of the consulting coaching company he is the president of, Kaizen Coaching. The struggle is real for many people; you just have to take off the emotional masks, reach out, and allow others to help unburden you.
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Overcoming PTSD And Finding The Voice To Help With Dr. Mike Smith
We love to have guests on here that inspire and motivate and give you stories that give you that information that you can take and have it tangibly in your life. Now is no different. Dr. Mike Smith, it is such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Thank you, Fireman Rob. I appreciate you.
I’ve known Mike for a while here and we came along the whole speaking route together and found our individual voices. I’ll give you a background on Mike. He was a 1st Sergeant for the Thunderbirds in the United States Air Force. That is a key leadership role. You told me at one time, how many 1st Sergeants have there been for the Thunderbirds over the history of the United States Air Force?
To put that in perspective, at any given time, there are 1,200 1st Sergeants in the active-duty Air Force. Out of that 1,200, there’s only one at a time that has the honor and privilege to serve as the 1st Sergeant for the Thunderbirds. When I was on the team from 2006 to 2008, at the time I was hired, I was the tenth 1st Sergeant in history. By now, they’re up to maybe 14 or 15 total.
That speaks to your ability in leadership. To me, I was in the United States Air Force. I wasn’t a 1st Sergeant. You as a 1st Sergeant, give the audience an idea of what you do as a 1st Sergeant.
As the 1st Sergeant, you go-between for the Commander to all of the enlisted troops. That’s the link between those two. In that role, we’re the big brother, the pastor, the counselor, a disciplinarian, a career guidance counselor. We’re responsible for the morale, the health, the welfare, and the safety of all the enlisted troops. We help implement the Commander’s vision. Make sure everyone is aware of policies and programs. Keep everyone on the same page in that bigger well-oiled machine.
In addition, one of the things that you and I have talked about a lot and the biggest thing that I like to bring out on this show is the extraordinary stories that people have, but they’re human too. You and I have talked about PTSD and overcoming PTSD. I had a gentleman on not too long ago, Eric Beach, that had talked about his struggles with PTSD. For the longest time, you put it in the closet and don’t talk about it. Can you give the audience an idea? You’ve worked for Berkshire Hathaway, you’re in the United States Air Force. Now, you’re a president at a consulting coaching company. You think this guy has everything together but at one point it wasn’t, right?
Absolutely not. That’s one of the things that I learned the hard way about myself and now try to incorporate into a lot of my seminars, training and speeches. It all started when I was stationed at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, my very first assignment. I was in the service squadron and part of our job was to do search and recovery. I call it that because that’s what it was a job. There was a lot of down Marine choppers at that time for exercises and various reasons on the island. This was back in the mid to late ’80s. You notice I said search and recovery because there was no rescue involved in it. At that point, I didn’t think a lot about what I was going through. Fast forward to 1995 my first deployment to Saudi Arabia, I’m still in service squadron.
There was a terrorist car bomb that was set off in downtown Riyadh that killed five Americans and one contractor. At that point, I was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the mortuary recovery team. We had to pick up the bodies and inventory the personal effects. Sometimes we suppress that and don’t even realize that we have PTSD or dealing with it. It wasn’t until 2017 that it hit me and everything culminated the stuff that I was holding inside finally was in there long enough and through circumstances and through different things in my professional, personal life, it surfaced of all those years later. Thankfully up to that point, I realized that there was something not right.
I finally broke through the barrier of thinking that asking for help was a sign of weakness when it’s a sign of wisdom and maturity. With the support of my wife, you remember this, Fireman Rob, you were part of my support group as well. I reached out for help. Through that help and going through the introspection of what was causing this stuff where it all started, I learned so much. It took me to another level of my program is breaking the mental sound barrier. It took me to that point where now with that understanding, being able to embrace it and realize that it’s not a sign of weakness.
There’s nothing weak about number one, going through that and number two, asking for help. Sometimes we try to keep that inside and some people might even consider it a badge of honor not to show weakness. That’s self-defeating and it could put us in a bad place. Through all those experiences, reaching out through help for help building those relationships and pressing through it, got me to the point where I am now. Once I was able to free my mind to that emotional baggage and clutter that I didn’t even know was there, it allowed me to focus on the bigger picture of helping and serving others in the capacity I do.
You feel like you have your own voice. I’ve heard you speak and I’ve seen your materials. It’s amazing to see that you’re speaking on things that are your experiences. It’s not anything that you created out of thin air. You’re speaking from this is why I’m still standing here and continuing to walk forward.
One of the things that I like to say, this is profoundly true, it’s such a simple statement, but when you look at society now and when you start getting out there and talking to different groups or even coaching individuals. Generally speaking across the board, we all have the same types of issues. Maybe not the exact same issues but the same types of issues in our lives that cause us to go on that emotional roller coaster. One of my favorite sayings is, “That which is most personal is most universal.” I reflect on that with everything I’ve gone through and where I am now and helping others. One of the things I realized, and you coined these phrases, your story gives you power.
Looking back over my journey, there are many things that I’ve been through and I’m thankful that I went through all that stuff. Not realizing it at that time, but they say hindsight’s 20/20. When you look back over the road that you’ve traveled and the journey you’ve come through, you can see how the pieces all fell into place to help you become the person you were called to be for this time. Some of the stories I’m able to share, what I hear someone like on a one-on-one executive coaching, I coach a lot of executives and senior pastors as well. When you hear someone tell your story, struggle, or something they’re going through that they can’t quite wrap their head around. All of a sudden, I find myself being able to dig down deep inside me into that well of experience and pull out that one moment in time where I went through a similar thing.
I can look back and see how I overcame it, made it through it, over it, under it, around it and I’m able to give some insight and advice to help them get there on their own while partnering with them side-by-side. You’ve had this discussion before but I was feeling sorry for myself and was curled up in my corner. “Why did this happen to me? Why am I going through this now?” I don’t say that proudly. With all humility, it was something that for some reason I felt that I was being picked on or everyone else has it made and I don’t. You were the one that made me stop, sit down, and write down all the accomplishments that I had achieved. The things that I had gone through versus focusing on, “Why is this happening to me?”
You shifted that lens and that perspective and said, “Take the time. I’m going to call you back in two hours. I want you to write down everything that you’ve accomplished. Pull out your old performance reports if you need to. Look at your old letters of recommendation, commendation, whatever. Write all that stuff down. When I talk to you in two hours, I want to see where your head’s at.” I’d forgotten about all that stuff. You don’t tend to focus on that when you’re in that emotional battle when the heat of the moment. If we don’t have self-awareness and emotional control around those things, it’s an almost unhealthy comfortable place to be.
A lot of people can relate to this. A lot of times, we put ourselves in success and failure based on what other people do or what is trending on social media or what the society thinks is successful. At the end of the day, you look at yourself and all the things that you’ve been through and other people as well. It doesn’t have to be grand successes. Its little things that make you who you are and it’s those failures like you were talking about. That’s such a huge thing to talk about, the dark moments in your life. For you to get to that point, what would you say are two things that you could give people an idea of what brought you to even speak about those dark points?
One of the first and most impactful realizations that I came to that I would say helped in this is realizing that which is most personal is most universal. When I got outside of myself and realized that the struggle is real for many people, it’s there. It’s that sometimes we put on those emotional masks and go through the process of emotional labor. We pretend to be something we’re not. We pretend we’re okay. We tried to put on that facade because we don’t want to let others down. We don’t want others to think we’re weak. Generally speaking, we all have that to some degree to some level, some more than others. That was the first thing. The second thing I came to understand after I surrounded myself with extraordinary people like yourself and John Mattone and Isaac Stegman, who is our CEO of Kaizen Coaching. I came to the realization of individually, all of us, is that what we accept and allow ourselves to tolerate will dominate our thinking, our actions, and ultimately our results.
You notice in that statement, I said what we accept and allow ourselves to tolerate. That implies that there’s a choice. A lot of times we don’t realize what we’re doing to ourselves and the fact that there is a choice. It boils down to at the end of the day, mindset, perspective and objective reality versus delusion which a lot of times we paint those bad pictures in our mind, but I’ll share a quick story with you. This is an example I use all the time even at my seminars. How many times close to the end of the day has someone out there gotten an email from their boss? They read the email and they’re like, “What did I do wrong?” It’s because of the way you perceive and read the email. You go to your boss’ office at 3:45, they’re not there, and they’re in a meeting. You go back to your office, you sit down and you read the email again. You go back to the office at 4:20 and they flipped out early because they had to go to a doctor’s appointment. Now, that email is on your mind. You didn’t have a chance to talk to him before the end of the day. How well do you sleep that night?
Not well at all.
You go in the next morning, get up early, stop by Starbucks because you need that shot of espresso to get your edge because you’re all ready to address this and take care of it. You go to your boss’ office, “Boss, you got a second?” They say, “Yes, come on in.” “I wanted to talk to you about that email.” They say, “What email?” How many times do we do that? We interpret and perceive tonality and meaning to something that it’s not even there. For whatever reason, we create that picture in our minds. That’s one of the stories I use, but it happens so often. That’s self-defeating instead of putting that email aside and wait until you can talk to them face-to-face and see what was meant. We go through all the turmoil and anxiety that we create for ourselves.
It’s the reality and going back to your dark moments in identifying that PTSD was part of who you are now. That’s that reality check. It’s like, “This is happening because of something else.” It’s that owning the bad moments as well as owning the good moments.
Get that ownership, first responsibility.
You have started this great adventure now and I’m honored to be a part of it as well. You are the President of Kaizen Coaching. Tell me a little more about that.
Isaac Stegman is the Founder and CEO of that company. First of all, Kaizen is a Japanese word that means continuously improving, constant improvement, getting better all the time. That’s what we adopted as our theme and our mantra. At Kaizen Coaching, we are a coaching and training company that focuses on the holistic view of the individual and the organization. There are several things within the company that we’re still working on and 2020 is going to be an exciting year. We are getting ready to put some things in place and implement some things that are going to set us apart as a world-class, top-notch coaching and training company.
The website for that is KaizenCoaching.com. You can go there and check it out. We’re going to do some great things. We truly care about the vision and mission of serving and helping others in a much larger capacity to make a global impact. Not to be cliché with that saying but we’re on a mission and a journey to do. We’ve got some great people on the team that has different areas of expertise. At the end of the day, we’re all on the team for the same reason and we’re all like-minded. I appreciate you mentioned in that giving us a shout-out.
The impact in this world and a lot of times people think it has to be this huge grand gesture, but realistically, it takes a strong voice and a story that is true and real. The honesty and passion can be felt when you talk about it. That’s what I saw with Kaizen Coaching. That’s what I see with you as well in your message. Can you tell us a little bit more? If people want to find you, where can they find you? You’d be a great asset to have as a speaker at a lot of conferences.
I can be reached on the Kaizen webpage. I have my own page there with the email and cell phone number. As well as I am on LinkedIn. The other way would be to reach out to me directly. My email is Mike.S@KaizenCoaching.com.
Your message for individuals and breaking the mental sound barrier. Tell us a little bit more about the essence of what you speak about.
Breaking your mental sound barrier boils down to seven high-value targets. You’ve talked about this but I’ve done a lot of research and boiled down all of these mental and emotional barriers, blocks, and maybe false beliefs to seven true things. If we address these and raise the level of self-awareness around them can totally remove that emotional baggage, let us become who we’re called to be. A couple of those things are strategic decision making, emotional control, ownership and personal responsibility, things like that. It’s down and dirty, the bare bone minimum. If you get to the core of something that’s causing an issue in any area of your life, 9 times out of 10, it can be traced back to 1 of these 7 barriers.
The greatest part about it is that they’re all based on your experiences. People can take away such valuable little nuggets and it’s not taking away the whole thing as an aspect. It’s taking away little parts of it and incorporating it into your life and see how that changes. Changing a life is not about in essence like overhauling, knocking down the house and rebuilding it. It’s taking each room as it comes.
There are some things that you want to get rid of. You’re right. The things that are inside of you and your mindset that’s shaped and formed by your environment, your upbringing, and your landscape that you live in. At the end of the day, it boils down to self-awareness, reframing and moving forward. Crafting that clarity and that vision and ultimately, it’s leveraging your strengths and improving on your gaps or your weaknesses.
Mike, it’s been a pleasure having you on. I know you’ve got a short amount of time because this man is in demand. If you want to get ahold of Mike, it’s Mike.S@KaizenCoaching.com. Mike, we’re going to do the rapid-round questions for you. I’m going to give you two things. All you’ve got to do is say one of them. Paper or plastic? Soup or salad? McDonald’s or Taco Bell?
That’s an answer. I like that. Camping or hotel?
Fly or drive?
Wake up late or sleep in late or wake up early?
Run or walk?
Partly sunny or partly cloudy?
Fire or water?
Use a porta-potty or continue or run to the next physical bathroom?
The next physical bathroom.
Coke or Pepsi?
Go big or go home?
I love it. Mike Smith, thanks for being here. I hope everybody got great little tidbits from Mike. He will be on this show again as we move forward. Mike, thanks for coming on.
Thank you, Fireman Rob. I appreciate your time and your audience.
LinkedIn – Mike Smith
About Mike Smith
With a genuine and authentic purpose and passion to help teams and individuals significantly improve in the areas of effectiveness, efficiency, and impact, Mike brings his years of hands-on experience and education to organizations across the states. While serving as a First Sergeant for an Aircraft Maintenance Squadron of almost 1000 Airmen & Officers and then the USAF Thunderbirds, Mike gained invaluable perspectives and insight into the areas of leadership, followership, culture, people, and production.
Additionally, during his time as a corporate safety leader for a Berkshire Hathaway Energy company (post-military), he was responsible for the safety, culture, human performance, and mentorship of approximately 2600 employees across the entire state of Nevada. All of this experience is supplemented by a Masters Degree in Human Relations and a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology with a specialization in Leadership Development & Coaching.
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