A talk with the general

Interview with Jon Reichelt, former Head of the Medical branch of the Norwegian Armed Forces


Main theme: Psychiatry at war

 

Jon Reichelt, you are a psychiatrist, and have recently retired from the position as Surgeon General and leader of the Joint Medical Services Norwegian Armed Forces. You have had this position since 2018 but have been in the armed forces much longer. What was it that attracted you as an MD and psychiatrist to the armed forces?


I think the fact that I started out with Officers Candidate School at the age of 18 was important. I spent a couple of years in the army, and that made a lasting compassion for being a soldier. The hardship, but also the comradeship and leadership. I was out of the armed forces for many years but kept in contact with several serving soldiers. As a young psychiatrist I worked for a couple of years at the Norwegian Radium hospital, helping people with cancer to cope with condition. I remember being surprised by how well most of them coped with this serious threat towards their lives and integrity. This reminded me a lot about the soldiers I had worked alongside and knew well. I got very interested in how «ordinary» people cope with challenges, and if it is possible to learn from them. This actually brought me back to the armed forces and led to me searching for an understanding and knowledge to help people cope with challenges in life. The short version is that I found valuable theory and knowledge in stoic philosophy, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. I spent 18 years as a military psychiatrist, a very interesting experience, and published a «Handbook of Military psychiatry», in Norwegian, now waiting to be translated into English, in 2016.


What would you say has been the most interesting tasks in the job as a leader of the medical services these last years?


It has been a quite demanding period. With the withdrawal from Kabul, the Covid pandemic and finally the war in Ukraine. Leadership is "working through others", and I have tried to lead by intentions and letting people do what they are good at. Being a leader is all about having the responsibility! That is both great fun, but at times quite scary! I knew that if one of my soldiers was killed in Kabul, I would have to go to his funeral and meet his or her next of kind. A sobering thought.

You have been the leader of people from many different medical professions. What is your view on the role of psychiatrists in the army?


I think my background has been quite useful. It gives an understanding of people, and their ways, and the fact that we are quite irrational at times. You kind of expect "weird" thinking, emotions, and behavior with my background! And have means to respond to just that.


There is an ongoing war in Ukraine. Norway is not actively military involved, but in your experience from many years in the army, in which way can psychiatrists contribute in times of war?


War means that people/soldiers are put through experiences that you would normally advise against going through! Soldiers need guidance and advice from psychiatrists and psychologists, and we work alongside each other in the armed forces. Being a good clinician gives you a very good background for giving advice and taking care of normal reactions towards abnormal events! And maybe as important; React and treat when the reaction is no longer normal.


War in Ukraine. Image by Blue/Yellow.
War in Ukraine. Image by Blue/Yellow.

Many of the readers of The Nordic Psychiatrist are in training to become specialists in psychiatry. Would you recommend the army as a career path for young doctors?


Yes, but only if you have a sense of humor, and if you have sympathy for and kind of like the military culture. It is quite different from a psychiatric outpatient clinic. But it can give you trips to interesting places you would not visit as a civilian, a possibility of trying out demanding activities and working alongside people with a "no nonsense attitude" who are not troubled with worries, and have a basic idea of being able to cope. That is both enjoyable and something you will learn a lot from. I do not regret having spent the last 22 years with such people.