Q&A with Gayle Tzemach-Lemmon, Award-Winning Author and Member of the Veterans Advisory Council
Gayle Tzemach-Lemmon, a New York Times bestselling author, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Chief Marketing and Policy Officer at AI for national security firm Shield AI, is a member of the Veterans Advisory Council (VAC). We had the opportunity to speak with Gayle about why she joined VAC, current issues facing Veterans and how to change the narrative around PTSD and TBI.
What or who inspired you to join the Veterans Advisory Council supported by CVB?
Brian Losey, whom I respect for his service and his service to the Veterans community, encouraged me to join the Veterans Advisory Council (VAC). I also was inspired by the service members I met while writing the book Ashley’s War, published in 2015, which is now in the process of becoming a film. The Veterans community (service members and families) is not new to me and their service to our country inspires me to look for ways to serve them and actually make a difference in their lives.
One of VAC’s strategic priorities is to address the underlying causes – Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) – of suicide among military service members. How do you believe CVB and VAC can bring awareness and educate policymakers on brain research challenges – particularly with respect to advancing a research agenda to help prevent suicide?
This challenge is what’s so exciting to me. There has been a great deal of discussion about PTSD and its societal impact, its impact on families and its impact on service members yet almost nothing about the science. We’re coming up with scientific solutions for so many of the health challenges facing us today, but this one (PTSD), that we have known about and that surrounds all of us, has not had the attention it deserves. The conversation around solutions for PTSD, particularly its underlying causes, requires a better understanding of the science. If I can make an impact, by helping “open up” the scientific dialogue, I will feel like I’ve done something that really matters.
In your opinion, what is the most important insight policymakers can learn from organizations such as CVB about the challenges of brain trauma and suicide?
There’s real science behind this. It’s not just a societal question – it’s a question of science and, unfortunately, we have not seen the science prioritized. We need to use the science to learn more about brain trauma and why it often results in suicide.
We need to learn who has risk factors, what can we do about it and how can we address it so more people aren’t affected. If we can make brain trauma a scientific issue, rather than only a societal or mental health issue, we will have done something.
How can CVB, through VAC, reach new audiences and educate them about the importance of prioritizing brain research?
I believe stories are what connect us and what make the biggest impact in making issues that are far away more personal. This can be through books, media and social channels. In this case, we need to understand the people brain trauma is affecting and we need it to feel personal.
Based on your unique experiences with servicewomen and women who have experienced trauma in other walks of life, are there specific ways you would like to see VAC and CVB support women?
You can’t count what you don’t see. And so making sure women are part of the conversation, part of the research and part of the solution is important right from the start. So often women are an asterisk at the end or a peripheral issue at the beginning. They need to be “front and center” in the conversation and in the crafting of a solution.
From your perspective, what are the barriers soldiers face when seeking care for the “invisible” wounds of war” (TBI, PTS/PTSD)?
Less than one percent of this country has fought one hundred percent of this country’s wars for 19 years…with far too few people paying attention. So when soldiers return, there is a lack of understanding, a lack of appreciation and a lack of being able to say – even without saying anything – what these service members saw and experienced. It’s much easier to stick with the status quo than to create new models of how we see people who serve. And I hope through VAC, we can reshape the way people are thinking about it and ultimately advance a better understanding of what our service members need after combat.
As someone with a history of telling incredible stories, how can CVB and VAC change the narrative around TBI and PTS/PTSD?
I would say far too often the victim narrative trumps everything. This isn’t about people who are victims, this is about getting resources to people who served, and how can we better support those who answered their country’s call. How do we take this issue out of the abstract and make it deeply personal? And how do we get actual dollars, to improve our healthcare support of people who deploy and suffer from trauma. These issues to me are the critical questions.