Oct 27 2011

A Fine Line: Treating the Enemy

Thomas Fluent, M.D., provides psychiatric care to Health System patients, U.S. soldiers and enemy detainees overseas

Thomas Fluent, M.D., says a key factor in his success as a military psychiatrist was to never lose sight of the humanity of the people he treated, nor of his own humanity. This approach served him well during a recent nine-month tour in Afghanistan where he was charged with the wellbeing of more than 1,000 detainees at Bagram Airfield as well as the U.S. soldiers tasked with guarding the often violent and dangerous men. 

Thomas Fluent, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at UMMS and medical director of ambulatory psychiatric services at UMHS.

“A cynic might say, ‘who cares, they’re the enemy,’” says Fluent, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UMMS and medical director of ambulatory psychiatric services at UMHS. ”But part of the mission was also to fight the insurgency by demonstrating to these men and their communities that our way was really the better way, our values the better values.” 

Fluent, also a captain in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps with more than 20 years of active duty and reserve service, quickly realized that as a highly visible, high-ranking officer, his behavior spoke volumes to both the detainees and the guards. 

In addition to helping detainees as they struggled with emotions like homesickness, sadness, and worry about the future, Fluent walked the fine line of trying to maintain the respect of the guard force and not seem overly accommodating of the prisoners.

“I tried to model behavior that said, ‘This is what we’re all about. This is the kind of behavior that Mom, Dad and everyone back home is going to be proud of,” he says. “It helped just to acknowledge the reality of the situation.” 

Now back in Michigan, Fluent directs the ambulatory psychiatry services made up of diverse clinics, treatment programs and specialists who address a wide range of psychiatric problems in adults. 

“This diversity is one of the division’s greatest assets and allows us to provide state-of-the-art clinical care to the individuals we serve,” he says. “Both here at home and oversees, my experience has been that work satisfaction and effectiveness is largely driven by the quality of the team one works with.” 

Fluent reads in his quarters at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

He describes his colleagues at U-M and in the military as a supremely talented collection of passionate and committed people who care deeply and personally about the mission. Fluent is also heavily involved in teaching medical residents, medical students and trainees from other disciplines. 

The Department of Psychiatry was honored with the Patriot Award, which recognizes employers who support a strong National Guard and Reserve force. Fluent served 10 years on active duty before coming to UMHS in 1998. Since joining the reserves, he has been mobilized to active duty three times.

One Response to “A Fine Line: Treating the Enemy”

  1. Penny says:

    Thank you for your service to our country. Care like that which you described makes me proud to be an American!

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