Podcast: PTSD, Resiliency, and Military Mental Health With Commissioner Randall Liberty
Today’s podcast is a particularly emotional one. Trevor talks with Randall Liberty (02:14), commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections and a participant in McLean’s Deconstructing Stigma campaign.
Randall is no stranger to trauma. As a child, he watched his mother experience frequent bouts of domestic violence from his alcoholic father. As an adult, he has been witness to the scene of more than 30 suicides and 35 fatal accidents during his years in law enforcement. He has also pulled 19 bodies from lakes, rivers, and streams as a rescue diver, and endured unthinkable amounts of stress, loss, and traumatic events during his time as a battalion commander fighting in the Iraq war.
Randall talks candidly about living with PTSD, how he copes, and how it puts him in a unique position to help others. You really do not want to miss this one.
Trevor: Well, hello, welcome back. Regular listeners, yeah, I recognize you. Hey, how’s it going and how are you? How’s your dad? Doing well? I’ve never met you before. You’re a new listener? Hi, how are you? Yeah, yeah, it’s cold. It’s cold. It’s brutal. Well, hope you enjoy the podcast. Welcome.
Welcome to Mindful Things. For our regular listeners and our new listeners, thank you very much for joining us on this podcast journey. A little update about me, no update this week. We’re going to get right into the interview because, well, let me just break it down real quick. This interview is with an individual who goes by the name of Randall Liberty. Let me give you a bit of background on him. Randall Liberty is a participant in our Deconstructing Stigma campaign and commissioner of the main department of corrections. At the time when I interviewed him, he was the warden of the Maine State Prison for men.
Randall talks candidly about living with PTSD and how it puts him in a unique position to help others. And Randall Liberty definitely speaks candidly. This interview is really intense. We did it on the road, so we used a different recorder. It’s gonna sound a little different, and it was in a room with a fair amount of people. So you’re going to hear some questions from other people that were in the room. A bit of warning, again, this is some really intense material, you know, may be a struggle to get through, but I was blown away by Randall Liberty’s honesty, and I hope you will be too. So enjoy.
Trevor: You’re going to write during this interview, you’re going to take notes?
Randall: If I have a mental, yeah.
Trevor: It’s an emotional, it’s not a mental.
Randall: Oh, it’ll be both. Yeah.
Trevor: Let’s start there. Is there a dichotomy between the mental and the emotional or do they exist in the same place for you?
Randall: Same place for me, I think. I recognize the impact of trauma. I’ve been to a lot of counseling. I have done a bunch of research. I understand the whole phenomenon, I get it, but it’s still deeply emotional for me.
Trevor: I was never hospitalized inpatient, but I did the outpatient program at McLean a few times. And the thing that they keep having to hammer home for me and still to this day is that I need to change the way I think in order to change the way I feel and not the other way around. I’m used to doing it the other way around, and it never works. Do you feel that connection?
Randall: Yeah, so for me it was my treatment was outpatient also and I did that prolonged exposure therapy and a vivo and specifically for wartime stuff, and I found that to be very effective. It worked well. And I did that for about 16 weeks. Every Tuesday I’d go one o’clock and I do everything I could to avoid that because it’s painful is wartime, like I said is wartime stuff. And I had been back for a couple of years and I tried to manage that myself, but my symptoms really were quick to emotion and then quick to anger. And none of those, neither one of those traits were really with me prior to deploying.
And every once in a while, still today around Veterans Day or Memorial Day, if I’m engaged in a lot of veterans oriented events, public speaking events, or with other veterans, it kind of reopens that folder and it can be difficult. And the wife says, “You need to go get a tune up.” And I haven’t, but it still subsides over time and once we’re kind of away from the veteran stuff.
Trevor: I like what you said about quick to emotion. It’s a problem I have too. How did you express that?
Randall: I wasn’t quite too emotional prior to my deployment in Iraq, but now it is, even now just opening the folder now kind of it’s just difficult and is kind of a deep sadness or recognition of maybe sacrifice of some of the guys, not only mine, but guys historically that have served. It’s an emotion. It’s a deep sorrow, kind of a sadness. I think it’s because when you witness firsthand. It’s not abstract for me. It’s not something... it’s not a movie. It’s not something I just lightly witnessed, I experienced it firsthand. And for me it was primarily 18, 19-year-old marines. It’s difficult, the dying that happens in combat is much different from movies. There’s a lot of crying, a lot of moaning, a lot of calling of your mother. A lot of... is very difficult and you’re trying to save somebody that you deeply care about. And the relationships you build in combat are unmatched to anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s a deep love.
Trevor: People that I love, especially my mother, now I’m getting worked up to, I carry their pain with me. Why do you do it? Because I can tell you’re carrying not just yours, but a lot of other people’s pain. Why do you do that to yourself?
Randall: I think that is the burden of leadership. I think that in the military in particular—
Trevor: But I’m no leader, so what’s my excuse?
Randall: I don’t know. I can only speak to my experience, but my burden was deploying my soldiers and with the implied promise that I’ll bring them all home. And then leading the Iraqi soldiers. I had 772 Iraqi soldiers and the reality of infantry operations, offensive and defensive operations is people don’t come home. And when you lose people you feel that burden that could you have trained harder? Could you have planned better? Could you have obtained better weapon systems and equipment for these troops, would that have made a difference? You have to make calls that results sometimes in their deaths.
And then there’s the other piece of killing other individuals. And so, when we rolled into Iraq I’d been in the army at that time, 23 years, and I was very exposed to death and dying and I’d been in law enforcement corrections now 36 years, and at the time 20 plus years, but I’d never been exposed to the violence of war. The raw violence of war where people are daily trying to kill each other. And the reality is my experience was when you kill the enemy, the army does a good job of dehumanizing the enemy. We always have. I think every generation warrior calls the enemy, some sort of name and ours was—, we call them. ... But the reality is when you kill some of those enemy and then you roll down and search the bodies and you pull the wallet and their children’s pictures and wife’s pictures. The reality is where they are fighting and the reason he’s fighting and trying to kill me is because I’m an infidel in his country and he wants me out.
So it’s much more complex than just killing the bad guy from a distance. For me in an urban environment when you’re fighting, that’s up close and personal. And yeah, I think it leaves some emotional scars, and we did a lot of killing and my guys were killed. I think that’s where I am today emotionally.
Trevor: You said something earlier, a phrase, it’s something about the raw expression of violence or raw violence. You said that about a minute ago.
Trevor: What is that raw violence?
Randall: So the army, America’s very good at waging war and we have a lot of weapons that are at our disposal. And so the damage that a 50 Cal machine gun does, that round fires 3000 yards. And when you’re fighting in an urban environment, you’re kicking those rounds off, those rounds don’t stop until they hit something. And we also had artillery from camp Fallujah. We could drop our artillery rounds on a dime. Yeah, we did a lot of damage with indirect and direct fire, and it’s just raw violence. Killing the enemy with any means necessary. It’s just a very violent.
And the other thing that weighs on soldiers is the unattended deaths and the unintended consequences of waging war in an urban environment where unintended people they get killed. And some of the operations might be, receiving sniper fire from a rooftop, and one of the methods we use is we maneuver a squad, five guys lay down suppressive fire on the house and another team maneuvers or you can roll a tank and put around in the house and soften the target before you go in. Well, the problem is, is if there’s a sniper on a rooftop, by the time you’ve maneuvered all those assets 20 minutes later the sniper’s gone, but the residents in the home are still there. And so sometimes good people, unintended people get killed and that’s a burden.
Trevor: How many directions is your brain going at any given time?
Randall: Yeah, it’s on hyper-drive some sometimes. I think one of the coping mechanisms for trauma, I’ve been involved with is stay busy, stay just rocking busy all the time. And I still do that.
Trevor: But isn’t that also a way of not allowing yourself to emotionally process a situation or is it a way of maybe just putting it on the shelf for now because I’ve got this situation that I need to take care of and I’ll get to that later?
Randall: Yeah, I think it’s very common with a lot of folks. I think that the Vietnam vets are experiencing that now where they came home from Vietnam, had families, worked a bunch of overtime, stayed busy, and now when they retire in their sixties, they have time to pause and reflect. And I think that’s been a difficult time for them to... when you’re not busy. And so I stay busy. I’m rocking whether I’m on duty, off duty and that works for me.
Trevor: What if you stop rocking? What happens?
Randall: I don’t know. I don’t stop rocking. I just stay busy. And—
Trevor: Are you afraid of stopping?
Randall: I’m not afraid, but I don’t like to dwell on it. Unfortunately, I made... My family of origin struggled and there was a lot of domestic violence there and a lot of alcoholism and broken homes and all that stuff and poverty. And then I joined the army and I did the law enforcement thing. So, all of those things produced environments where trauma was the result.
And in the law enforcement, I did a whole bunch of death notifications, and I was a rescue diver for 15 years and I pulled a bunch of bodies in lakes, rivers and streams over the years.
Trevor: How many bodies?
Trevor: Do you remember all 19?
Randall: I do. And those are difficult for a few different reasons. I’d be patrolling, I’d get a call, drowning victim, drowning in progress, whatever. And I’d have my dive equipment in my trunk, and I’d have 10 to 15 guys that were certified with me, and we’d scream to the scene. Often there’d be a mother on the bank screaming, “Save my children,” and get out of the vehicle quickly. Pull your vest off, sometimes leave the uniform on, throw A, B, C and tank on, and away you’d go. 80 feet of water pull, 18, 19-year-old kid. The last one I pulled was 19.
Just awful scene. Pull them, bring him up on shore and find some place to do compressions and try to save this kid, and you don’t save them, you just don’t save them. You try, and there’s the all ugliness of frothing at the mouth and bleeding, and you’re breaking the ribs trying to save them and there’s just no saving them.
And other times it was, I’ve done five tanks looking for people, and again 50, 60 feet of water, total darkness, and then startled when you see them. You’ve got to handle the bodies, dark, the skin is kind of green colored hair waving in the water as you pull them, if they’re in a vehicle, some with multiple people in the vehicles, and you have to handle the bodies, and it’s unsettling, is difficult. But I felt as though critical to try to recover those bodies for the families.
Trevor: It sounds like the path that you’ve chosen and life is constant exposure therapy. Is constant subjection to situations that are going to push you through your limits, push you to your limits. And it sounds like that’s the place you want to be in, but it also sounds to me like it’s the place where you think you deserve to be?
Randall: For me, I feel as I’m very willing to grab a rifle, I’m very willing to grab a tank and dive. I’m very willing to... When I was sheriff, when I was chief, and I was staff sergeant and there was a death notification, I felt it was very important to leave the scene and go to the home and talk to the 55-year-old parent and help them through that. I didn’t think that it was appropriate that a 20-year-old young deputy who may still live at home deliver that message. I thought that those were all important things to do, and I still think they’re important things to do. I just think that there’s a—
Trevor: But why do you have to do them? I get why they’re important, but why do you have to do them?
Randall: I guess I feel like for me it’s just a reality check that as a society when we decide to do something like go to war or when there’s an unmet need like retrieving victims, drowning victims or doing the death notifications, somebody needs to do that. And I think I am well equipped to do all those things, but I just feel as though I know that there’s a burden as a result of those things, and I’m willing to accept that. For me, it’s just the way it is. I’m okay. I have some demons, and I’m okay.
When I open that folder though, and I see those bodies, whether it be in combat or diving or many, many suicide victims, all of those things, fatal accidents, that’s the nature of the business I’m in as an infantry man or as a law enforcement officer, as a corrections officer. We know that going into it and I’m willing to accept that as a reality in those professions.
Trevor: ... I’m not trying to put you through something difficult, but I’m just trying to find the emotional process when retrieving a body. The moment you show up on scene to the moment that you go in, where do you put yourself emotionally to get through that situation?
Randall: Yeah, it’s like in combat. When I was in Fallujah, I only broke down one time. Because I was a Sergeant major, I don’t have the liberty to be emotional, to cry, to show any weakness. An infantry Sergeant major has to be following me boys. We’re good to go. And we worked with Charlie one three Marine Corps company, who was about 300 meters away from us in the city. They were in one school house, we’re in the other. And we fought together for about six weeks. And in January when things slowed down the Marines pulled out, and we covered down on their battle space, and they took off. And Dustin Shumney was the lieutenant that I hung out with the most on patrols, and their chopper was shot down. 24 guys were killed, all 18, 19, 20-year-old kids. And Dustin Shumney was probably 27. He was the adult supervision really there as a Lieutenant.
The way I worked in the city is my 10 man, American team had 150 minutes on our satellite phone to call our families. And so that meant we had, each of the guys had 15 minutes to call. And if the first guy used 20 minutes, the last guy got 10 minutes.
Randall: And so that’s what we had on a card. And I called my brother that day after they were killed, and the chopper was shot down. He’s a retired E-7, Sergeant First Class infantrymen. And I called him, he was southbound 95, drinking a latte and listening to BLM headed to work. And it was really... it was so obvious to me that the army is at war and America’s at the mall. And “Hey, how are you doing already?” “Really good.” I told him the story and he said, “That was your guys?” I said, “Yeah.” I broke down. But it was just so stark to me that the America wasn’t engaged really, it’s those people that are fighting. But once that conversation was over, white lies and turned it off and let’s go get them. And that was the same with any of the fatal accidents, any of the diving incidents until the event was over.
I’d pull up in this dive scene, pop my trunk, put my stuff on and jump in the river. That was pure business mode, searching, finding until you accomplish the mission, pull the body, and then when once rescue takes over and takes the body away.
Trevor: So what happens? You go numb emotionally numb?
Randall: You go automatic, you go muscle memory. Just like in combat when, excuse me, taking fire, as squad leaders, platoon leader, as the battalion Sergeant major, you’re giving commands, “Alpha team, lay down suppressive fire, Bravo team maneuver.” It becomes muscle memory with all of that stuff. But the difference in the army is we never really sat down, processed it. How do you feel about that firefight? We don’t do any of that. We just suck it up and keep fighting.
In the law enforcement world, we did a lot of debriefs and so for the dives, it’d be a lot of, there’d 10 or 15 of us in our inner circle debriefing with the chaplain, and it’d be a lot of folks crying and wishing they’d been there 15 minutes earlier, why didn’t they have more air in the tank? What could they have done differently? If they patrolled over here or if they’d been more ready or whatever it may be. Maybe they could have saved somebody. So is a lot of regrets sort of that way, which was unfounded for the most part. But yeah, to answer your question, most of the stuff that I’ve done operationally, muscle memory, do the mission.
And then we came back from Iraq then it was, when we were back here, everyone returned home, the game was over. That’s when it became more emotional and more able to contemplate and process all that happened. And that’s when you really start to feel the deep sorrow and all of that.
Trevor: Do you think soldiers would benefit from a de-briefing emotional process or do you think that would compromise them?
Randall: It takes a while. I was an army drill sergeant too, and all part of that indoctrination of taking an 18-year-old child really, the kid that we don’t trust the car keys, and we’re going to make them a war fighter and the whole process of indoctrination really about sucking up and drive on. I’d be in the open bay with the privates, and their first couple of weeks they’re homesick, and I’d walk through at night, they’d be crying because they miss home, and I would say things to him like, “Don’t contaminate my army with your weakness, that kind of thing. You can’t be weak, you can’t show emotion, you can’t be... you just—
Trevor: Are emotions weakness?
Randall: Yeah. I think in the army, in that environment, they are. So it’s all about mission first, that’s what the army says, mission first, get the job done first. And you can’t do that if... In that environment you have to shut it off because there’s so much violence, there’s so much killing, there’s so much of that happening that you have to put on this armor of bravado sort of and mean it. I mean you have to be the... My mentality when I was over there, I’m the baddest dude in the valley. You want some come get it.
Trevor: Has your arm armor of bravado ever been shaken?
Randall: Only when I pause, and I open the folders, and I stopped doing that. No. The Iraqi soldiers they called me the, probably the best compliment I ever got, that I’ve ever received was in the Arabic world they call you by your name until you have a son. And when you have a son, they call you Abu, your son’s name. So Abu Michael and you’re the father of Michael. And so Ahmed, my interpreter, said as I was maybe 10 months into the tour, and he said, “Do you know what the Iraqi soldiers call you?” Because those are my troops, and we fought and slept and ate and cried and laughed together. And I said, “No, what do they call me? God knows what they call me.” And he said, “Abu sabatash father of the 17th Battalion. Which to me was a huge compliment because it felt like they know that I cared about them, and they cared about me. And we were doing what we had to do when we did our missions, and I laid it out there for them, they did for me. And it just, we had each other’s backs, and that’s the way I wanted. I didn’t want to be a robot just killing and all that. I want to be a leader to them. I want to be the guy that they could come to, and they could count on, and they know I was there for them.
Trevor: I’m going to jump to something else. Warden, you have a family?
Randall: I do.
Trevor: Yeah. How many children do you have?
Randall: I have two biological daughters, they’re 29, 27 and two stepsons 24 and 19.
Trevor: Have any of them shown any signs of emotional or mental illness?
Randall: No. They do well. Brogan and I talk, she’s the oldest, and she’s a case worker in the trauma unit in MaineMed. So, she manages the social work piece, the families and all of that, When somebody is rushed in with life threatening burns or injuries. So, she deals with some the trauma on a daily basis too. So we talk about that. I keep checking in with her. She’s a new mom. She has a 10-year-old son.
Randall: Thank you. Now my daughter Tasha is married to a soldier, and they’re in Korea right now, and she has a 22-month-old son also. She struggled the most when I deployed, they were 10 and 12 when I was gone and so very difficult to say goodbye to them.
And when I was in Kukush on the Iranian border is very quiet and there was no news. But when we were deployed to Fallujah, Anbar province, Ramadi, Fallujah and Haditha, that area was in the news all the time. And she was very worried about it and she had to get some counseling for anxiety and that kind of thing.
Trevor: Did you ever talk about it with her?
Randall: Yeah, yeah, we talk about that and how difficult it was and the burden of that. Her husband deployed to Afghanistan and so I helped her through that. That was a challenge. My wife Jody, she worked for child protective as an investigator.
Trevor: Oh my gosh.
Randall: So she did that for a while.
Trevor: That job is no joke.
Randall: Heavy, heavy. And then she transferred from there to adult protection, and so now it’s, the two most vulnerable populations are the children, and the elders that are neglected and abused and exploited. So she works for that. We’re able to talk to each other, both her client are my clients. Same folks. We know the same people. I know most of the people she deals with, and the people that are exploiting them. So we chat about that a lot.
Trevor: When you were there for your daughter, when her husband was deployed, how were you there for her?
Randall: So she came home for a bit, and we’re able to process that, and she did well with it and when she went back to Fort Polk, where she did most of the time there, the area is gone. Talked to her every day, texting, messaging, that sort of thing. So I get it, she gets it. We all understand that. We went through my deployment and his, and he’s a mechanic, so he wasn’t directly engaged daily. But she told—
Trevor: That job is hard.
Randall: Yeah, it is hard, and they were doing a lot of convoys and convoys get hit often. Yeah. We got through it. I think that he’s okay and so is she.
Trevor: So what brought you into corrections?
Randall: 1985 when I came off active duty. I did three years in active duty, and I knew I needed to go to college and that was my intent. When I enlisted, when they asked me what I wanted, I said, “I want to be a military policeman. I want as much money as I can get for college. And I would do a three year gig.” And they kind of worked it out for me. And so I did, but I recognized in the army early that the way to advance is combination of hard work, dedication stick-to-itiveness and education. And so I did, I came off active in 85, and I stayed in the guard in reserve, and I did an additional 21 years in the guard in reserve.
But while I was in school, I had to work, and so I worked at the Fairfield Police Department as my first municipal law enforcement job, and I also worked at the Somerset County jail. And so that was my first non-military correctional environment, was that Somerset County. And I worked there for four years when I was going to college. And so that was my first exposure to civilian corrections and while I was there, my dad was there, so I applied for it for the job and—
Trevor: Is your father still alive?
Randall: No, he’s passed. And so sheriff Wright was the sheriff at the time, he was a former marine and so we hit it off, and he said, “How are you? Do you have any questions for me?” And I said “Yeah, just one. My dad’s in the jail right now, and is that going to be a problem?” And he said, “Not a problem for me if it’s not for you.” So that’s what I did. I guarded him for three or four months there in Charlie Delta pod.
Trevor: Do you have an official diagnosis?
Randall: Post traumatic stress?
Trevor: How does PTSD manifest itself in this job, being the warden of the Maine State prison?
Randall: It’s beneficial in that this industry has a lot of folks that are impaired with post-traumatic stress. Some of them are veterans, some of them have been here for, in addition to the combat tours, they’ve also endured the violence here. In the last month we’ve had three staff assaults, one stabbing of a staff member, and these guys are working in an environment where there’s constant compression, always looking over your shoulder, who’s following you? Worry if someone’s hands, when we’re on the mile, when someone approaches you, take your hands out of your pocket. So it’s a consciousness of that. So, it’s a benefit that I’ve had that exposure, and I have—
Trevor: And it’s something that you impress upon to people here?
Randall: Yeah. We talk about it a lot, and we talk about the fact that we need to talk about, we need to process and when you bring peers in, we to do mentorship. It’s a natural response to being involved in a correctional environment with these dangerous folks. We’ve got a lot of guys that here for homicide and significant violent crimes and these guys live with them every day, and you never know when something’s coming. So it’s beneficial that way.
As far as how... I don’t think that impairs me at all. I’m involved in everything I get my hands on, you know, so if anything is going on, I want to be involved. I want to help the guys. I want to back them up. I want to jump in if I have to. I want to be involved in all that.
Trevor: Do you think you being be so open with your history, your past and what you suffer with helps?
Randall: I hope so. Yeah. Yeah. And I won’t say suffer.
Trevor: Really? You wouldn’t say suffer? Oh my gosh, I’m 10% of the man that you are—
Randall: No, no, no. I’m okay. You know what I mean? I’m all right. When I open some folders, I get emotional, but I function very well. I’m good. In my off time and professionally I do well. I’m okay.
Trevor: I’m not looking at you suspiciously. I’m just in awe of this.
Randall: I don’t know about awe, but I’m telling you I am good.
Trevor: I need some of what you have. Can you put it in the glass and get it to me?
Randall: I don’t know, but I’m all right. I’m okay. I enjoy this job. I enjoy leading. I enjoy being involved in the industry. I’m good. It feeds me.
Trevor: Explain that?
Randall: I need to be... I what I do—
Trevor: Do you need to be on that edge at all times? Is that your competence zone?
Randall: I don’t know about edge, but I mean, as far as I need to be doing something that has meaning and purpose and—
Trevor: I do understand that.
Randall: Yeah. And that’s one of the things I told my kids all the way through their childhood and adolescent. I tell them that today. That is, I need and they need, they should seek out things that have meaning and Brogan and Taj have lived on that. Taj, my youngest daughter is a nurse, and they find meaning in that. My wife finds great meaning in the work she does. I don’t want to go to a J-O-B. I do not want to go to a job and, and earn a paycheck. That is not important to me. And so I feel like here in the correctional world, it’s our duty to, I think guys arrive here because they have mental illness, they have substance abuse issues, they have trauma, they have learning disabilities. Any combination of that describe them and us. And I feel like it’s our duty to try to identify those things and fix those things. Not only for them but for their families.
The whole criminal justice system is a family affair. If someone’s addicted, the previous generation and the next generation are impacted by that. And I think that any of the work that we do here that we can avoid them from making the same mistakes and traveling down the same road that brought them here, helps their mother and father, helps the children and has good meaning, and also doesn’t revictimize folks in the community. Most of these guys are going to get out, and so I find meaning in that. I do, I find meaning in that.
Gerry: Can I just ask one question is do you think it’s a coincidence that your whole family ended up in some sort of service, public service?
Randall: Yeah, I don’t know. My mother dropped out of school in eighth grade, she was pregnant at the time. So she had Ron at 15 and a half and me at 17 and 19 and 22. My dad was in and out of jail. But anyways, in the end, she went back and picked up her GED and then she went on to go to school, and she became a consultant for young mothers. And so she would travel with KV cap to homes of young mothers and teach them how to be mothers because usually there’s a break in the generational, maybe grandma wasn’t around, maybe mom wasn’t around. How to nurse, how to care, how to deal with a colicky baby.
She had five children of her own and so that was her thing. And so, she felt like it was a perfect job for her and she did that. So a lot of us have done a lot of the public safety stuff. My four brothers, three of us in the army, one was a combat medic, paratrooper and in fact he got out of active duty and did the same thing, went to college, and he’s a nurse practitioner, he who works here. And then my brother Ron retired 20 years service, and we laugh about my brother Ryan, he’s the only one that didn’t go in, and we laugh with him, I should say.
All of us have had this exposure to a lot of trauma in our careers, and he’s in executive sales. He’s a virgin to all this. Really, he’s has no exposure to it.
Trevor: And do you treat him differently because of it?
Randall: Yeah. He’s a different guy.
Trevor: He’s a different guy?
Randall: Well, no. He’s a great guy, great father and all that, but it’s a different world. When we talk, it’s just different. I talk about a stabbing that happened today, and he looks at me like what?
Trevor: Like I’ve been looking at you throughout this whole interview?
Randall: Yeah. You scored a big account. Well done. I don’t know, but for him... and he always talked to my daughters and to all the nieces and nephews about, “Don’t do the teaching, social work, cop stuff. There’s no money in that. Get into business. That’s where the money is.” And I’m like, “What? Who cares where the money is? It’s not about that. When it’s all done, who cares?”
So we always had that, and my mother was very much, “Get into social work, teach,” to all the, all the daughters and her grandchildren and they’ve all done that. One’s a PhD, so psychologist now and the others are nurses and social workers. So it’s a victory for her.
Trevor: Do you think that’s a problem overall? That there’s too many people going to where the money is.
Randall: Obviously it’s about balance, but some of the benefits of traveling overseas. I spent 14 months in Korea and I was an 18-year-old kid, and my daughter is there on her second tour now with her husband, and the Koreans... It was really transformational for me. Small things like just appreciating life. So like a spider would go across the floor and Americans will be jumping, killing the spider or teenage boys have BB guns, shooting all the birds, and they can kill, whereas the Koreans, “Whoa, stop,” pick up the spider, walk it outside. It’s life. They appreciate it and the depth of that.
Now the depth of appreciation for elders. My, roommate Hung Son, the Korean soldiers would make $5 a month, literally $5 a month, and I was making 600, so I was loaded, 609. As a military policeman, he was my translator. We would go into villages, and we’re working.—And I’d buy him lunch, and we’d go back to the—and they’d be Korean national police and security guards in that jack. And he would go to the elder and say, “Would you like some of my lunch?” And we may do that as Americans, but I’m thinking, I hope you don’t take any because I want the whole thing.
And the elder would take the whole sandwich and then he’d find the next one, and he’d take the apple, and he’d take the chips and then until it’s all gone. And I’d say,—what are you doing? Why would you do that? I bought that for you.” And he said, “Korean custom, we honor our elders, and we mean it and I’ll eat later,” and he wouldn’t eat all day, and he’ll eat tonight. Just truly respecting elders and each other and being more thoughtful and mindful. Just a stark contrast of what we see often here in America.
Even the Iraqis were leading some leading simple lives. I think that their average wage was $2,400 a year when I was there, and we were paying $400 a month. And they had multigenerational homes, grandparents living with them, the elders were respected. They would help raise the grandchildren to be their mentors, and they live very simply, but they live rich lives as opposed to us racing off, working 60, 70 hours a day and a week. And trying to find that balance all the time, never having time to do those things that maybe are more important and more beneficial to the community and the family and that. So, I was trying to strike that balance, I think.
Trevor: Anything here at the prison that you see or experience that you find to be triggers?
Randall: No, I don’t think so.
Randall: Yeah. No, I’m okay.
Trevor: I know you’re okay. You proved that within the first five minutes.
Randall: No, no, no. Nothing really bothers me here.
Randall: I’m good. Yeah. What I don’t like to see is I like to see my staff get assaulted and that sort of stuff.
Trevor: Talk about that some more?
Randall: For me it’s difficult. One of the challenges of, the unfortunate sides of climbing up the chain and gaining rank is I’m sitting here, and I’m watching the monitor, and so one of my jobs is I’m supposed to, when things get stupid and there’s a fight, or an assault that happens, we call it an ICS and it goes over the radio, and we all hear it. And so everybody has a job. It’s kind of like we’re in Iraq, when we get hit, there are things called battle stations, everybody has a place to go, and a mission to do it right.
My job here is to make sure that if something happens, an emergency happens, I set up a command post. And so here I am with all the resources, I communicate with central office. They bring in resources, we all communicate about how we should do whatever. One of the things I do poorly is I don’t do that. Don’t tell him, he knows this. When that happens, I yell to my deputy and say, “ICS on the happen. I’m going in.” So that’s what I do. I feel as guys in the pod, the way we do corrections is—
Trevor: I’m sorry. Could you explain the pod?
Randall: Yeah. A pod is say a pod of say 74 people, inmates in one unit. And so what we do is, the way to corrections is run today, the best practices is we do direct supervision. So you have one officer who is in a pod with let’s say 70 inmates, and they’re all in their cells. And what typically happens at six in the morning, they pop all those doors. And so you have 70 inmates with this one officer, and often the officer is a 19-year-old, 20-year-old kid, and he’s trying to manage those inmates. And even the most difficult inmates up until, I don’t know, six months ago, one officer was in there and assault happened, and it’s very difficult. So I feel like I want to be down there. If something happens, I want to be in the mix.
Trevor: You feel trapped up here sometimes?
Randall: No, because I go, I just go.
Trevor: You go?
Randall: Yeah. And then my shift commander comes up and says, “Warden, what are you doing? You’re supposed to be... You know I mean, I said, “Ross has it.” Or if we happen to be inside and something happens, “When did he get out?” So we have somebody outside, and I always saw my deputies out.
Trevor: Aren’t you compromising the chain of command by going in?
Randall: No. They can do this. They can manage this. You know what I mean? I’m telling you, you go in that, everybody in this room will know that it doesn’t make any sense to put one 20-year-old kid with 70 the most difficult inmates in the state of Maine. Proven violent offenders, guys that committed homicides, some have committed multiple homicides. And so if the budget warranted that, we should have three or four people in there. We should have three or four people in there managing those inmates. And it’s not beyond best practice, that’s what we do nationally. We throw a 20 year old kid in there and that’s what happens. But that doesn’t mean that we’d want our son or daughter to be in there.
Trevor: So why isn’t there more than one 20-year-old kid in there?
Randall: That’s the way it is. That’s the industry. That’s just like when I worked in law enforcement in the county, 890 square miles, 30 communities, seven of the communities have police departments. So, they got—They have police departments. So there are 23 towns and how many police officers do you think in those 23 towns? Four, two troopers, two deputies. And at midnight the troopers go in, you have two deputies out for 23 communities. And so we divide the river, and you’d literally be 30 minutes running lights and siren for backup. So does that make any sense to have a 22-year-old cop out there, domestic violence situation or shots fired, and he’s out there by himself? No, not really. No more than asking a 20-year-old lance corporal to run 10 men in Fallujah by himself, two o’clock in the morning with a bunch of teenage boys running around. So it’s just that nature. It’s the nature of the job.
So I feel like I want to be there to help in any way I can. Sometimes we have an ICS that happens in, an event, or a fight happens in the gym, you go in there and there are three officers back to back at center court, there 300 inmates in that court and you make eye contact with them, and some of them are looking like maybe we want to do something.
Trevor: I imagine if you have to go in there, you have to go in there with a look on your face?
Randall: You have to go in the alpha male, you have to go on there. And if you’re in the center court, there’s two other officers, in particular, those two officers have to look at you, whether that’s myself or—whoever’s in charge inside there, they have to look at you like I look at them and say, “Follow me. I got your back. We got this.” They have to know that.
Just like in combat, when I’m on the berm, and I’m looking left and right, I’ve got 18-year-old marines, and they are scared. They’re scared because they know people are going to die. You look him in the eyes and say, “Follow me, let’s go.” You have to have that mentality. If they sense fear in me the war is lost. You have to be that leader that provides that confidence for them. I’ve got your back. I’m there for you. I’ll suffer and endure with you. I’ll lay it out there with you.
Trevor: Do you like ice cream?
Randall: I do. Every night I lay in the recliner and sit on my belly.
Trevor: What flavor?
Randall: Why? Do you see this?
Trevor: No, I don’t.
Randall: Butter pecan last night.
Trevor: Is that your favorite flavor?
Randall: I mix it up. Yeah.
Trevor: You like pizza?
Randall: I love pizza.
Trevor: What’s your favorite pizza? I just got to like—
Randall: Hamburg onion.
Trevor: I got to lighten this up somehow.
Randall: It’s been a good life. It’s been a good life up to this point. And we’re just getting warmed up really.
Trevor: So what’s the future, warden?
Randall: We don’t know. That’s the big topic right now, DOC.
Trevor: What’s the future for you warden? And I’m not talking about job.
Randall: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m 54 now, so I may have 10 more years, and I don’t know what the future holds, whatever it brings is going to have meaning and purpose, and it’s going to... I have to do those things that are important to me and that’s what we do. I love that. I love having meaning and purpose and get out of bed, and this job feeds me that way, the army fed me that way, whatever I was doing. And I had 23 years of army prior to going to combat.
I was a military policeman, I enjoyed that, but I felt as though I wasn’t a real soldier. And so as soon as I was able, I did my three year enlistment, then I joined the infantry after that, and I did 21 years in the infantry, and I felt like I was home there. That was like I was born to be there. And then I was a drill sergeant for seven years, and that coaching, mentoring, being with those young children because they’re kids, they’re 18-years-old. Working with them was great and then I taught at West point for three years, and those kids are super sharp kids and really the best America has to offer.
And then I did the year in Iraq, so it was all meaningful, purposeful, I great assignments all the way through. Same in law enforcement, whether I was diving, or I did a lot of drug work, I felt there’s a lot of meaning in that. I did some programming in the jail for a substance abuse, mental health for veterans that were incarcerated that was meaningful to me. I’ve been blessed with great opportunities to serve and do some meaningful work, and it’s been wonderful. Really.
Trevor: What advice do you have for people that are suffering from PTSD?
Randall: I wouldn’t suffering. I would say—
Trevor: Wow, really?
Randall: Yeah, I don’t suffer.
Trevor: But some people do.
Randall: They do. And I would say that people that are exposed to trauma, and combat and law enforcement corrections don’t have a monopoly on the trauma piece. So whenever I speak publicly about post-traumatic stress, I always talk about we don’t own that, it’s a trauma from a vehicle accident, trauma from sexual assault, trauma from domestic violence. All of those traumas are equally as important as damaging, but for me, as it relates to law enforcement, corrections and military, I would say that the thing that’s been most successful for me is pairing with a mentor. And I’ll give you an example, there’s a group that’s called house in the woods. Paul and Dee House lost their son in Baghdad in 2007, and as a result, they’ve created this hunting, fishing camp, resort experience for any veteran and families that wants to go.
So they taught me to go up there, and they wanted me to go bear hunting and since I came back from Iraq, chasing animals to the woods isn’t what it used to be, to kill them. But anyways, I went and so there I was sitting in a lawn chair with a bag of donuts hanging from a tree, I’m like, “What am I doing here?” Making noise so the bear doesn’t come in because I don’t want to shoot anything. Anyways, but the value of that was when I drove in there, the guide was a Vietnam veteran, and so what they do is very much on the light. It’s just fellowship and mentorship. That’s all they do. No formal counseling, clinical work.
And so we’re driving along, and I think it was deliberate, they went with the long way. “Hey Randy, how you doing?” “Good.” “How did your tour in Iraq go?” “Good.” “And how are things going since then?” Just light probing and, “Good.” And he said, “Yeah, when I came back from Vietnam, he said, I had some relationship issues. Everything going okay home?” I said, “Yeah, better now.” “What do you mean?” Well, I came back and six months later I was divorced.” What about you know... So we talk like that. And so he gave me his advice of the journey he traveled, and his advice to me was, “Don’t take 30 years to go get some help. Don’t take 30 years to realize you have a drinking problem, or you have anger problem or whatever the circumstance is,” and that mentorship from my era of veterans, priceless from the Vietnam veterans. And so that was important.
And then the other thing is to group up and talk to people who’ve had shared experiences, and we do that with the veterans pod here. We have 51 veterans in one of the pods and it’s the veterans pod, and they have shared experiences, same culture and language, and the understand each other, and they—
Trevor: Do you go talk with them?
Randall: Yeah, I’m out there a lot. And I show that off to anybody I can because I believe that when we send guys and gals off to war that we have a duty to help them transition back, and sometimes that transition back is decades old. And some guys and gals come back lightly impaired and don’t forget someone deploying their various levels of deployment from me. And so it’s like going to Fenway, right? You’re familiar with Fenway?
Trevor: I am.
Randall: You go to Fenway and because you’re there, you could be selling peanuts, you could be cleaning the urinals, or you could be the pitcher. And so I kind of feel that way, and I’m very biased to the infantry, but I feel that because you deploy and let’s say you’re a cook, and you stay on the base the whole time, and you’re in Baghdad in the Green Zone and you have a swimming pool outside, and you’re have a PX and a Cinnabon and Burger King, that’s one experience. And the other experience is the infantry and marine that flies into Baghdad, gets us equipment and then goes to Anbar province and fights for seven months. That’s a whole different experience.
And so not all veterans have endured the same sort of burden of war, so it’s important to remember that too. For me it’s about getting a brotherhood together and being with them and having a safe place to talk and work that. And we even do that here. I’ve a veterans group here of employees that we meet here and talk and that’s a liberating for some people, I think. And I think that the free talk of post-traumatic stress about, “Yeah, me too man. We’ve got some demons, and we’re okay. Let’s just take care of each other and fight through the fight and we’ll be okay in the end.”
Trevor: Mm-hmm Do you think of your life as blessed?
Randall: It is blessed. I have a great life. I’ve many blessings. I say that a lot. And I tell that to everybody. I know the difference between the poverty in some of the areas in Korea, the poverty in Iraq. I’ve had the benefit of being able to... I’ve traveled to, I think I’m up to 15 countries now. We just came back from Thailand in the spring. I know real poverty, and we’re blessed in this country to have the food and the warmth and the comforts that we have here. I’m also blessed to have a wonderful family.
Trevor: Do you think you could have gone easily gone in a different direction?
Randall: I clearly would have gone the other direction. Growing up, my father was very much... he had criminal thinking, pure criminal thinking. That’s what he did. He was always... I’ll give you for instance, so like, probably in 1976, Christmas morning there were no gifts under the tree and there are no gifts because he doesn’t work. And if he did work, he was drinking it up and chasing women. And so, wake up Christmas morning, no gifts, and so what he does is he looks across the street, and he sees a 10 seat toboggan, beautiful one, Walnut maple, fancy padded. He goes over on the porch and grabs it, brings over the house, Merry Christmas kids.
And so that was his thinking, take what you want. And the law enforcement officer shows up and knocks on the door, and my dad opens the door, and he says “Hey, Ronnie, got to talk to you about, did you take a toboggan?” He says, “Do you have a warrant? Get the F out of my house.” That’s it. So that night we threw the toboggan on the back of the truck, and he had an old junky truck, and we went out to some back roads in Kennebec County and he pulled us behind the toboggan and the truck going 50 miles an hour. We thought was the greatest thing, up and down the roads, but he was just a criminal thinker.
My brother Ryan tells the story of my dad came home and said, “Hey, Ryan. You want to make some money?” And Ryan’s 10 at the time, “Why dad?” He said, “I just stole a change jar off one of the counters in one of the stores, and the cops are chasing me. So I ran up the tracks and threw it in the bushes. You go get that, I’ll go halves with you.” That kind of just... And the charge he, and it was on the light, I mean, I remember as a first grader, he was on the, we had an apartment on the second floor, and he had 30 aught six out the window, the police officer was running radar, and he felt as though the law enforcement officer had wronged him, disrespecting him somehow, and he’s going to shoot him. So all those kids are like, “Don’t shoot him Dad. Don’t shoot him.”
Last time he was at the house, he was probably 77, he came home drunk, and he said, “Trina, I’ve got bad news.” And my mom was like, “What is it now, Ronnie? And he said, “I got a girl pregnant.” So domestic ensued, police showed up and that’s the first time I smelled mace. They maced my father and hauled him off, so there’s a lot of that. He was in jail the last time when I guarded him. He stole a truck, and he had gotten arrested for that, and then the witness that had turned him in, he went and broke into her house and killed her animals. Yeah. Not on the light. This wasn’t light stuff, and a lot of domestic violence, a lot of beating on my mother and all that stuff, you know. So we talk about blessings and all of that. I feel like I have many blessings, and live the life that I have now—
Trevor: Did you ever get in the middle of him beating your mother?
Randall: Too young. I was always five, six, seven-years-old, something like that. So we were always too young to be able to really get in the way of that.
Trevor: Do you regret that?
Randall: No, too young.
Trevor: Too young.
Randall: Put that one aside. Nothing I could do as a five, six year old. But my father was always very loving and nurturing to us, and so yeah, it was bizarre. He was so aggressive with my mother. Never spanked us, never raised his hand to us, didn’t raise his voice to us, hugged us, loved us till the day he died. “Give me a hug. Love you.”
Trevor: Did his father beat his mother?
Randall: We’re a multigenerational mess. And so my grandfather Romeo, I never met him, severe alcoholic, domestic violence in that home too. Ran off on his wife. They had seven children, they lived in deep, deep poverty. He died an alcoholic on the streets of Boston. They went and retrieved his body I think in 67, 68, something like that. Yeah, so there’s a lot of multigenerational dysfunction, alcoholism, broken homes. My mother was adopted, my grandfather was adopted.
Trevor: Did you make a decision that this insanity stops with me?
Randall: For us, I don’t think it was a conscious decision, but I think my brothers, and we are fortunate to have coaches, football coaches and track coaches, basketball coaches, and along the way, these are well-meaning, well-intentioned men. As a young man, as a teenager, as a younger boy, I look at these guys and like, wow, look at the way he talks to his wife with respect, and he’s articulate, and he has a job, and he’s late for practice today because he had to work an overtime shift. That’s how real people live. And then we were fortunate to—
Trevor: Are you ever late for a shift?
Randall: No, I try to be the first one here.
Trevor: I’m sorry. Continue.
Randall: I leave my house 5:50 to get down here. I’m doing an hour and 15 down here. So my brother Ron is the oldest and so he joined the army his senior year and then I did the same thing. And so I went to visit him at Fort Devens, Mass, which is just Devens now. Right?
Trevor: Mm-hmm I did seven years with the DOD branch, so I’ve—
Trevor: ...I’ve been at Devens.
Randall: Yeah, I want to drill sergeant school there. So went out to visit him, he had a barracks room, and he had hot water even, which we didn’t have. So it was just, he lived well, and his second year in he bought a Ford EXP, which is tiny little Ford. And the first time I smelled new car smell, and my uncle signed co-sign for him, and he was living in good. So I’m like, “I want part of that. So my senior year, November of my senior year, I joined also and then my brother Rick joined. And so that gave us, as teenagers, formative years, we had that positive male role modeling as a drill sergeant and other noncommissioned officers that were in charge of us and that set us, I think. We all were in at least till we’re 21, and then we had the college money we took off. Yeah, it was good after that.
Trevor: Do you like music?
Randall: Yeah. On the way in here I was listening to Springsteen and who doesn’t, right? And ACDC, Aerosmith.
Trevor: So what’s your favorite song?
Randall: I like 41 shots. Springsteen’s a good one. I’d just listened to that on the down here.
Trevor: And you listened to that a lot, that song?
Randall: Yeah, I pull that one out. Yeah. You like that one?
Trevor: I’m not that familiar with it. I do like Springsteen.
Randall: That’s the one where he got in some trouble with the cops because they shot, I forget the black kid’s name, but they shot him, the cops shot him 41 times, and the lyrics are just beautiful, the way that the mother has to talk to the son about—
Trevor: The son about what?
Randall: About... You did well with that one. It’s about law enforcement shooting a young black man, unarmed, and he pulled up, and is it a wallet? Is it a gun? What is that? And so the mother talking to the son about if the cop stop, you don’t run, be respectful, keep your hands out, that kind of thing. Pull that up, you’ll see what I mean.
Trevor: I will. I promise I will—
Randall: It’s a good one. It’s powerful.
Trevor: I know this is meant for an audience, but I needed to hear this.
Randall: Thank you.
Trevor: That was a very intense interview. It was a struggle for everyone in the room. Certainly me. I honestly can’t find the words to describe what it was like meeting him and talking to Randall Liberty. He’s like cut from stone and then to see him break down over and over again and it was really intense. Maybe I’m speaking for myself. I don’t think so, but I know from suffering from depression, when you hear somebody else who suffers from a mental illness, talk about it and you hear about their history. I’m not saying that you size each other up, but there is a comparison process. It does make it easier to empathize and sympathize. I mean, I find it very easy for myself to connect with other people who suffer from mental illness.
That said, sometimes when I hear their stories, I sometimes say to myself, well, what’s your problem? You didn’t experience that. What you went through was nothing compared to what this person went through. And it’s a terrible way to think, and if anybody out there thinks that way, I’d recommend to try and not to invalidate or belittle your experience. We all suffer in our own way. That’s just how it is. My experiences are mine, yours are yours. And we’ve all been given different tools to deal with those situations. So if you’re suffering out there, and you listen to Warden Liberty’s story, and it actually makes you feel worse about your own experiences, I’d recommend that you talk to somebody about that because to be depressed and then to invalidate your depression, man, that can lead to a really, really dark place really fast.
It’s one thing to suffer and to take care of yourself and then there’s thing to suffer and then feel like you’re not worthy of help or assistance just because you feel that what you went through is nothing compared to what somebody else went through. That’s a tough way to live, and I’ve done it a few times, and I just don’t recommend doing that at all. Find somebody to talk to.
Give me some feedback. I’d like to hear some feedback. Let me know what you think of this pod- Yeah, it is an intense one. Let me know what you think. We’ll be back in two weeks. In that time I’m going to have my kitty back with me, maybe I’ll bring her on the podcast. I’m sure she has a lot to say like, shut up and let me sleep or feed me and then leave me alone. That’s usually standard protocol with a cat, but hey, I love it. See you guys in two weeks.
Thank you for listening to Mindful Things. The official podcast of McLean hospital. Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts. And don’t forget mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, The Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673
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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.
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