General Speaks Out About Bipolar Disorder That Ended Military Career

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Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, president of National Defense University in Washington D.C. speaks with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey in June of 2014. (Courtesy Dept. of Defense; photo by Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton)
Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, president of National Defense University in Washington D.C. speaks with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey in June of 2014. (Courtesy Dept. of Defense; photo by Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton)

Gregg Martin is a born leader. He was an all-star athlete at Holbrook High School, and voted the Class of '74's "most likely to succeed." He went to West Point, then ranger and airborne schools.

Top brass in the Army saw Martin as a rising star. They sent him to MIT, where he got two master's degrees and a Ph.D. Then, he earned two more master's.

Martin ultimately became a brigade commander in charge of more than 10,000 soldiers. They admired him and tried to keep up with his round-the-clock workouts. He seemed to subsist on exuberance. "Mad Martin," they nicknamed him.

Then came the Iraq War. In 2003, Martin's brigade was part of the forward elements of the assault on Baghdad. He says it was terrifying to be in combat. But for the general with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, it was also the ultimate high.

Martin recently wrote about his experiences in Task & Purpose, an online news site that covers the military, and he's authored a forthcoming book. He spoke with WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins about his experiences with bipolar disorder.

Interview Highlights:

Gen. Gregg Martin: I felt exuberant. You know, I had a delusion that I was Superman, and I was able to lift up off the ground and fly and see the battlefield from up above. That's pretty strange. And it probably should have been some sort of a trigger. But when you go into mania like that, you don't have any idea that you're in mania, that there's anything wrong. It just all feels wonderful.

... One of the ironies about bipolar disorder [is that] my levels of energy, positivity, creativity were just way above my fellow commanders. Nobody can keep up with you. And so you're rewarded. You have a biochemical advantage over everybody else. You're solving problems faster. It's wonderful until you go too high, and then you become destructive and a problem — or until you've crashed into depression.

After the attack [on Baghdad] was over — and that took about three weeks — I was still on a high for several more weeks. And then when we settled down into these forward operating bases, which were big base camps. Then, I fell into depression. It was really debilitating. But I would force myself to get out in front of the soldiers and do physical training with them. And once I did that, I would lift up out of the depression, and I would be good for most of the day. But eventually, I started rapid cycling in Iraq, which means you're going from depression into mania, back into depression and maybe into mania again, all in the same day.

On his efforts to understand what signs of mental illness others noticed in him when he was a commander:

I've gone back and interviewed many of my subordinates and seniors and said, "Hey, you know, I found out in 2014 I had bipolar. Did you see any indication of that?"

For the most part, people said, "No, we didn't see any indication," until my bipolar got strong enough that subordinates started saying, "You know, now that you mention it, I did see stuff. Your energy was over-the-top. You weren't getting enough sleep. You were doing [physical training] all hours of the day and night. ... You'd have so many ideas, you couldn't keep track of the ideas. Your speech got very rapid and pressurized, and it seemed weird. ... You started mistrusting certain people when it made no sense. ... You started having imaginary delusions about people out to get you."

Another thing they said was, 'You know, you took excessive risks on the battlefield. You were too aggressive. You put yourself and your force protection guys at risk because you wanted to go everywhere, see everything on the battlefield." And they said, "you should have backed that off significantly."

On being elevated to rank of major general and becoming president of National Defense University despite his undiagnosed bipolar disorder:

Not only did it not stop me, I think it helped me until it stopped helping me. I went acutely manic, and then I was in acute depression. I should not have been in the military. I shouldn't have been leading. I shouldn't have had access to a clearance. I shouldn't have had access to weapons. That would have been a danger and a liability. So almost for two years, I probably took a dozen, 15 medications. None of them did a thing. And [then] the doctor prescribed lithium, which is a natural salt. ... And within about a few days, I started feeling good. I was my old self. ... I had to want to get better. I had to believe I could get better, and then I had to work closely, hand-in-hand with my doctor. And I'm doing great. Now, the bipolar is with me for life. I can't take a day off because bipolar can come back and kick my butt any time it wants to.

On what has prevented the diagnosis of his and other troops' mental illness while in the military:

"I think we have a military culture that derives great strength and power from respect for the chain of command, fighting for your commander. But it's a double-edged sword. ... We haven't figured out how to have subordinates who are going to be the first ones to see and detect a mental health problem. We haven't figured out a way for them to have an avenue to express it and to get somebody in a position of responsibility and authority to get the mental health-challenged person into medical channels for diagnosis.

On the aggregate effect of not diagnosing and treating mental illness on military readiness and performance:

The essence of the military is to take these wonderful young men and women who enlist and join the service, and train them so they're really ready to go deploy, fight, win in tip-top shape; and they win decisively, and they come home healthy to their families. Well, the more people with mental illness that are in that cohort of soldiers, you're going to weaken the fabric, you're going to weaken the trust. Some of them are going to be a threat to themselves and commit suicide or [attempt] suicide, which is a terrible epidemic as it is. And some of them are going to turn their weapons and their violence on others, their fellow service members. So to that extent, it tears at the fabric in the morale of the units ... and it degrades the capability to perform.

I also think that bipolar in many or most of these mental health conditions are treatable medical conditions, if diagnosed in the proper medical steps, are taken. That's the good news.

Resources:  The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and pressing "1." Or send a text to 838255. The crisis line can also be reached by online chat.

This segment aired on May 24, 2021.


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Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.



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