Author Interview with Tara Fields.
Tara Fields' debut memoir, Tracer Patient. sheds light on the critical issue of mental health in the military. As a licensed clinical social worker and former Army officer Fields shares her personal story and those of others who have been failed by the system. From climbing suicide rates to toxic leadership, Tracer Patient exposes hard truths, bringing awareness to and advocating for policy changes to create a better future for our military members and veterans.
According to Fields, it is crucial to shed light on the critical issue of mental health in the military and the alarming suicide rates. Service members and veterans are particularly at risk, without the tools to get help and toxic leadership exacerbating the problem. Her book explains why it is essential to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and advocate for policy changes to create a better future for our military members and veterans. Fields' book is a call to action for all to do their part to raise awareness and promote mental health advocacy to prevent further loss of life.
In Tracer Patient, Tara Fields shares her personal journey and those of others that have been failed by the mental health system. As a clinician, she provides insight into the critical issue of mental health in the military.. The memoir is a must-read for anyone interested in mental health awareness and advocating for policy changes to create a better future for our military members and veterans.
Continue reading for an exclusive interview.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I graduated from the Army Social Work program in 2013 (Fayetteville State University) with a master’s degree in social work. Prior to this, I was an Army Transportation Corps officer. Overall, I had nearly 12 years of military service (all as an Army Officer, 8 years Active duty, 4 years in the National Guard). I have worked as a contracted social worker for the Air Force and the Navy. I have had the experience of being a DA Civilian Social Worker working for the Army. I have been a licensed clinical Social worker (LCSW) since 2016. I have been actively treating patients since 2016 and currently hold an active license in Kansas. In 2021, I opened my private practice called T4 Therapy where we go from Trauma to Thriving through Togetherness and effective Treatment. I was an avid athlete and fierce competitor. (This is where the game changer part of my title comes from) Complacency kills (especially in my field as a mental health provider). I take the work ethic, drive and tenacity I applied on the softball diamond and on other courts, to my work today.
What was the impetus for writing Tracer Patient?
Going through the system as a patient gave me a whole different perspective and one that I knew must be shared. By sharing my story of struggle as a clinician, I aim to desecrate the stigmatization of mental health. Furthermore, watching as Soldiers were dying around me; I couldn’t stomach to watch this occur any longer. My goal or intent was never to write or publish a book. It wasn’t until I found myself the morning after what would equate to a suicide attempt of my own, did I find myself in a sterile room stripped of any and all personal belongings (and dignity), and somehow it was at that hospital that realized the story had to be told.
We were handed a composition notebook to journal in during our groups and such. This journal became the beginning of a manuscript for this book. Four years after this hospitalization, I am still baffled that this happened to me. Reflecting back, the words that poured onto the page poured onto the page so effortlessly because they had been pent up for years. While in that uniform, we cannot speak up or out against these atrocities that are occurring daily or we are marked and maimed; we are unsuitable for service; we are unhinged. The words that I dared not speak to any superior officers or leaders, now came pouring onto the page like the blood of our service members dying to suicide in the masses. My story, and many others’ stories will be told for us all to learn from so that our institution can start learning from its mistakes and self-correcting.
In 2018, I had transferred into to the KSARNG, and had already been warned how negligent and behind the times that it was (As reported by the National Guard Bureau Chief of Behavioral health two years prior) I now found myself on the inside of the broken system, this time as the patient. When I returned to my unit for duty, I would be met with outlandish and absurd accusations that I staged this hospitalization for the benefits of the book. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Coming out of the hospital, I poked the organization and senior leaders in the chest so to speak and stood my ground. Far too many soldiers were dying to remain muzzled any longer. So.my impetus and fury for writing Tracer Patient (and the continued mission) is fueled by the premature and preventable deaths by suicide of our military members and veteran population dying at the hands of a broken system and one which far too many lack trust and confidence in.
What were the biggest challenges of writing such a personal story?
Fearing how I would be judged by my comrades, by my mental health and social work colleagues, specifically surrounding the desperate act of resorting to wrapping a cord around my neck. I hold so much shame for what I did in that restroom that fateful evening. This is the one part of this overall story that nearly, on more occasions than I can count, had me second guessing even continuing to pursue writing this book. But I also know from over seven years of clinical work with many high-risk patients that have had suicide attempts, I knew I must put my fear aside to allow others to gain a sense of understanding of how very vulnerable and susceptible everyone is to a moment like what I experienced. You have no idea how you will respond in moments where your brain simply won’t shut off and your body becomes so overwhelmed to the point you just cannot bear anything more. I pray that when your moment in life hits like was the case for me in the restroom that fateful night, that others around you extend to you some grace and understanding and withhold their judgments because their day too will come.
I still cannot believe that I was capable of what I did in that bathroom.
I can only deduce by the mere act of desperation, that in that moment I had allowed myself to be defeated-to let the enemy win. I was no longer able to take on any more duress. I needed a break and I needed to reset. The biggest challenge in writing this very personal account, is fearing how others will judge me. And from there, the next biggest challenge was settling my fear and my nerves enough to finish the project. Fear debilitates, but when we learn to conquer our own fears, it is amazing and the tremendous growth and learning that occurs on the other side.
What surprised you most about writing the book?
At first, and with many drafts of the manuscript I was so infused with anger and I wanted to call out the leaders and the institutions. But I would come to realize that this would only result in these folks and readers dismissing it as a rant from a disgruntled former member. I had to choose my words, my tone and tact very carefully.
I also was very surprised by How triggering it was (and still is) to read and edit. Book 1 and reading the heart of the book (Brandon Caserta and Zachary Schaffer stories) is still very hard for me to bring myself to pick up and read. Truth be told, I couldn’t stomach one more round of edits and so this book will not be perfect in that sense. And that is okay. We need to focus, not the words or the semantics, but the people and their stories. Zachary Schaffer’s blood will forever fuel my fight to expose broken systems, failed toxic, and in some cases, criminal leadership, and bring accountability so that we can begin to clean up our man-made mess that has resulted in a mass burial ground across our military that I refuse to continue to attempt to cover up!
I also found that through the process of writing this book, I learned a whole lot about myself and spent a lot of time reflecting. There are days that I think I could have finished and just kept my mouth shut. But I quickly realize that I value human life above anything else! If something is infringing on human life, I become a lioness ready to pounce. You have to remember that I spent nearly 12 years in the military and I have drunk the Kool-Aid. I have played by the rules, but then I realize that some of the rules need to be rewritten because I can see the damage they are doing. I am not some woke activist looking for fame and fortune. No, I am a simple Kansas girl placing the highest of value in our people because I can see the damage our creeds and outdated policy and culture is having on our institutional health and wellness. I took the uniform off so that I could effectively put the mirror in front of the institution without being demolished by the institution. I would have ended up in Leavenworth and charged with some heavy and punishable offenses (my military standards and UCMJ) had I spoken up in the manner I have in this book. It was absolutely necessary to leave the organization to do this. Finally, I became very surprised how much I miss the organization and serving my nation. But I came to realize that my service uniform looks very different, but make no mistake I am still serving my brothers and sisters every day! I have to come to terms with that and it is okay to have a sense of pride in our service.
Suicide has become such an issue in the military, do you have statistics you can share?
In the Army alone from 2013 to 2020, there were over 4200 deaths by suicide. (Defense Suicide Prevention Office) In 2019, The New York Times reported that more than 45,000 veterans and service members had died by suicide in the previous six years.
20% of deaths by suicide in the United States are by veterans. In a 2019 article, “More veterans have now committed suicide in the last decade than we lost in the Vietnam War, totaling over 60,000. Our nation has spent $1.68 Trillion in death gratuities and SGLI death benefits in the past 8 years.
What message would you like your readers to take away from reading the book?
1. If you have a brain in your head, we all have mental health challenges-accept it and seek help for whatever you are challenged with at the earliest onset! Help exists. You want the help. Calm your ego and realize that not one of us will make it through our lives without the assistance of others.
2. We are all a part of this problem, and all part of the solution. Use Tracer Patient as a mirror to self-assess whether you are representing part of the toxic 20% or the exhausted and ill 80%. Either way you need help. If you’re exuding characteristics of the toxic 20%, you need to first gain insight and awareness into the damage you are having on others around you (and yourself). You need help. And for those of you exhausted and I’ll because we’ve opted for far too long to look the other way, you too need help in standing up, asserting yourself and recognizing that our inaction is just as costly and deadly as what the toxic 20 is doing! We must recognize we have the numbers and will be in good company if we all rise together!
3. This book will be a wake-up call to our federal government and our politicians, that our Republic is in jeopardy if we continue to look the other way, continuing to worry more about our image and our liability and culpability.
This book is meant as a clinical tool for us all to assess ourselves and the impacts we are having as individuals on others around us!
4. The vignettes and stories are real. I did not make up notional places but I also attempted not to headhunt or go after any one person or organization. For the stories that are told in this book, there were many others whose stories were withheld because of fear and retribution by the individuals that the organization would reprise against them. I honored their wishes to have anonymity. But make no mistake, books will be mailed to individual leaders (governors, General Officers, and so forth) exposing hard truths so that we can identify and clean up some downright toxic and, in some cases, criminal behavior. We do not need to put people on front streets to make spectacles of them. That does nothing but put people in a threat response and thus shuts us off to the critical learning we all must do!
5. Until policy changes are made and are updated to match the times we are in and the culture, it doesn’t matter what the peons at the bottom are doing…we are merely chasing our tails, growing frustrated and internalizing the negligence and failures of the system. These are the ones that are succumbing to death!! It’s time for our institutions and senior leaders start to recognize how the failure to shoulder the burden and take ownership and fruitful and everlasting actions (policy changes, addressing HIPAA, Rescinding and doing away with the Feres Doctrine, revamping the military promotion systems, honoring and validating the whistleblowers and holding toxic and criminal leaders accountable, and much more) will we continue to chase our tails and see suicides continue to rise!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me over the past 4 years how this endeavor and mission will affect my husband’s career…I would be a millionaire. The truth is that I am terrified that this could potentially affect his career negatively, but what is even more scary to me is knowing that if I do nothing and look the other way out of fear, that other sons and daughters will die at the hands of our broken institutions and systems. This is not about Tara and Cody Fields. This is about principles and getting back to the basics of human decency and respect for one another. Perhaps more people need to stop worrying about themselves and their evaluations, and start being more aware about how selfish that has made far too many in our organization. To those people that have asked me how this could negatively affect my husband’s career, I say this: I remain hopeful that the organization I love so much, my Army, and its leaders, can utilize this tool, Tracer Patient, as a way to self-assess themselves, and the organization, too, can utilize this tool to begin the necessary efforts outlined in the book to tend to our deficiencies. For then, we can collectively begin to bring forth everlasting change. And I remain hopeful that we (My Army and all of its members) are certainly capable of growing in insight and allowing ourselves to learn and change for the better. I anticipate there to be a period of discomfort, for then we know that we are forging new paths. My biggest fear is that our Army continues on this trajectory and it continues to negatively impact great people. I refuse to let that be the case. I have to allow the confidence in what I propose in Tracer Patient, to override the fear of retaliation or worse. Something has to change the trajectory of the course we are on. Perhaps this is what it means to offer selfless service. And some days, I try to talk myself out of falling on this sword, but if not me who is going to do this?
If you wish to donate to this cause of placing one copy of Tracer Patient in the hands of 585 politicians (senators, governors and congressman at the national level), please donate at www.GoFundMe
This is not a destination. From here, I will be working on achieving policy changes, Senate hearings, and continue in my advocacy and seeing change through. I also plan to enter the political stage because I continue to say, “we can all sit and bitch and complain, or we can start standing up to the plate and doing our part to bring change and change the very troubling trajectory we are on as a Nation.