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The Army Lawyer | Issue 1 2022View PDF

Practice Notes: Preparing Judge Advocates for Secondary Trauma

(Credit: arloo –

(Credit: arloo –

Practice Notes

Preparing Judge Advocates for Secondary Trauma

During his time as a captain, Major (MAJ) Sam Smith served as a special victims’ counsel (SVC), trial counsel, and defense counsel. Although MAJ Smith is a voracious reader of crime fiction, an avid fan of Law and Order: SVU,1 and interned at a county prosecutor’s office in law school, he felt completely unprepared for his experience in the military justice system. As an SVC, MAJ Smith often felt helpless shepherding clients through the trauma of retelling their sexual assaults to law enforcement agents, prosecutors, and in court, only to have trials end in acquittals.2 As a trial counsel and defense counsel, MAJ Smith reviewed thousands of haunting images and videos of children being sexually abused.3 Particularly troubling, as a defense attorney, MAJ Smith developed brief but very close working relationships with Soldiers who sexually assaulted and killed other Soldiers, and sexually abused their own children and the children of other Service members. Most of his clients privately expressed regret at getting caught, but only one seemed to be genuinely remorseful for having harmed someone.

Major Smith attended required professional military education,4 military justice-specific short courses during assignments as a trial counsel and defense counsel,5 and many informal leadership development programs (LDPs),6 but felt like he was never prepared for exposure to trauma or armed to process his exposure.7 Familiar with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)8 through his work with crime victims and preparing mitigating evidence for accused clients, MAJ Smith felt confused to confront those same symptoms himself, thinking he lived a life without any source of serious trauma.

Years later, MAJ Smith is still troubled by intrusive thoughts from his time practicing military justice: images of children being sexually abused; a father who braced himself to lose his child in combat, not in the passenger seat of a drunk Soldier’s vehicle; a military spouse confiding that she would not testify about years of abuse so as to not risk financial insecurity for her family; the list goes on. In reviewing images and videos of child abuse and questioning victims about the assaults perpetrated on them, MAJ Smith feels complicit in some of the crimes he prosecuted,9 and often worries that these same crimes will befall his family.10 However, he keeps this to himself, refusing to believe he could be so affected by events that happened to other people, feeling that his experience—far removed from combat—could not be truly “traumatic.”11

Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps personnel12 may experience trauma13 and moral injury14 directly or indirectly. Over the last two decades of military conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, JAG Corps personnel have been directly exposed to traumatic events in combat operations.15 In contrast, JAG Corps personnel involved in military justice, removed from direct exposure to trauma, are intimately involved in others’ trauma.

The effect of the trauma of others—secondary trauma—is the focus of this article. Military prosecutors, defense attorneys, and paralegals can experience secondary trauma through interviewing crime victims, listening to them recount their most traumatic moments, and by reviewing traumatic material, such as child abuse images16 or blood-soaked crime scenes. Special victims’ counsel work directly for victims of traumatic crimes, guiding them through the military justice system and advocating for their rights and interests.17 Military judges, court reporters, and other judicial personnel are also affected by the trauma experienced in trial.18 Personnel not highly engaged in trial activity, such as military justice advisors, paralegal support staff, and appellate attorneys, are not immune to the effects of secondary stress.19

Major Smith’s problems are not unique to legal personnel in the JAG Corps community. Burnout, dissatisfaction with work, and stress are problems that affect a large percentage of both lawyers and law students.20 Similarly, other professionals who assist victims, investigate and prosecute crimes, and those who work to rehabilitate offenders—such as first responders, investigators, and mental health professionals—suffer from their exposure to others’ trauma.21 But judge advocates face unique stressors due to their status as military members, lack of opportunity to select cases, frequent interactions with sex-crime victims, and frequent exposure to traumatic events and material.22

Over the last two decades of continuous combat, the Army has invested time and effort to demystify and destigmatize mental health struggles that result from trauma—decentralizing mental health professionals, removing questions from security clearance applications, and educating Service members about the availability of treatment.23 The civilian legal community has, over the last decade, invested a great deal of time, money, and effort studying the causes and effects of secondary trauma on their practitioners.24 Although the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division created a wellness program in 2019 to directly address secondary trauma in their personnel, the JAG Corps has not similarly emphasized or prioritized the effect and impact of a mission that exposes our personnel to secondary trauma.25

The JAG Corps must invest in the well-being of our personnel by directly focusing on secondary trauma. These efforts should start in initial officer and enlisted member training to prepare personnel for what they might experience.26 Secondary trauma, its symptoms, and the effects of those symptoms should be incorporated into informal training at the unit and office level, and leaders in our Corps should be able to recognize the effects of secondary trauma in their personnel. Open, honest, and frank discussions by JAG Corps leaders about their experiences with secondary trauma may help members of our Corps readily identify when they are suffering from secondary trauma, and seek help at an early stage.

Secondary Trauma, Burnout, and Compassion Fatigue

Secondary trauma, also known as secondary traumatic stress and vicarious traumatization, occurs when professionals develop symptoms of trauma exposure or PTSD as a result of exposure the trauma of others.27 Other examples of secondary trauma are burnout and compassion fatigue.28 Compassion fatigue refers particularly to the development of post-traumatic stress symptoms when working with victims of sexual assault.29 Burnout is “a response to the interpersonal stress of work with people who are in emotionally demanding situations.”30

In attorneys, secondary stress symptoms can cause attorneys to “‘react defensively by avoiding cases with traumatic content’; ‘downplay[] a case’s degree of severity’; ‘rationaliz[e] the case’s destructive impact’; attempt to rescue a client, and become overly-involved as a manifestation of defensive reactions; and/or fail to maintain professional boundaries.”31 These symptoms can have a direct impact on the ability of JAG Corps personnel to carry out their assigned duties.

The Effect on the Corps

In a 2016 study of 13,000 American attorneys, between 21 and 36 percent qualified as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggled with depression, 19 percent with anxiety, and 23 percent struggled with stress.32 Numbers among law student were similarly alarming, with a large number of the 3,300 studied reporting binge drinking, severe anxiety, and depression, and 6 percent reporting serious thoughts of suicide.33 One-quarter of those students were in a risk category for alcoholism.34 It is likely that some of these law students and lawyers, interviewed for the study six years ago, are now officers in the JAG Corps. It is also likely that the JAG Corps’s uniformed attorneys struggle with these same problems.

Members of the JAG Corps are at increased risk of developing secondary stress symptoms due to their status as Service members, inability to select their own career field (military justice, administrative law, etc.), and general inability to select their own cases.35 Military trials often deal with sex crimes—prosecutors, defense counsel, SVCs, judges, court reporters, and paralegals are often exposed to voluminous amounts of traumatic and difficult material.36 Judge advocates are less likely than other Soldiers to seek behavioral health services.37

Secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout directly affect the JAG Corps’s mission to provide premier legal services by reducing the effectiveness of our personnel, which impacts their ability to do their jobs and motivation to remain in the military. Trauma affects individuals and their relationships with coworkers and their families.38 It can alter memories, decrease concentration, and lead to numbing, avoidance of the source of trauma, detachment, and estrangement.39

In the workplace, secondary trauma can have a deleterious effect on the Army’s ability to administer justice. A senior prosecutor, suffering from the effects of secondary trauma, might feel like the world is less safe, have nightmares about accused Soldiers committing crimes against their own children, and withhold exculpatory evidence in an effort to lock up offenders and protect their family.40 A defense counsel representing a client pleading guilty to possession of child pornography may avoid the detailed examination required to ascertain if charged images meet the definition of the offense.41 Defense counsel are particularly at risk, as they alone are charged with having privileged communication with perpetrators, sometimes learning about additional misconduct, the motivations behind why their clients commit crimes, and knowing some of their clients lack a scintilla of the remorse they might later act out during sentencing testimony.42

Special victims’ counsel with compassion fatigue may blame a client for the crime perpetrated against them and treat the client as if they deserved the crime.43 A military magistrate, avoiding a source of previous secondary trauma, might authorize a search without reviewing the evidence supporting the search. Studies have shown that judges suffering from secondary trauma may blame victims, fail to logically apply legal rules, exclude evidence to protect jurors, and administer severe punishments in reaction to their own previous trauma.44

Secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout directly affect the JAG Corps’s mission to provide premier legal services by reducing the effectiveness of our personnel,

Secondary trauma may also impact the ability of the JAG Corps to retain qualified personnel. Judge Advocate General’s Corps personnel experiencing secondary trauma may have difficulty with authority, feel hopeless, have little work satisfaction, question their own competence, and feel disillusioned about work.45 On top of family stresses inherent in military service, secondary trauma introduces emotional distress, avoidance, angry outbursts, fatigue, negative thinking, and compromised parenting into the Service member’s home.46

In the wake of the Report of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, sexual assault investigations and subsequent trials are receiving even more attention and scrutiny.47 The current political climate inevitably places additional pressure and stress on attorneys who are litigating these cases.48 Trial counsel may feel compelled to push cases forward to court-martial, while defense counsel may believe that they are operating within a shattered justice system. Systemic constraints only serve to further prime attorneys to experience symptoms from vicarious trauma and burnout.

Leadership and Education

Early intervention is important in confronting secondary stress in the JAG Corps.49 Although it will probably not prevent traumatic reactions to difficult material and situations, JAG Corps personnel should be prepared to confront such material, and the Corps as a whole should evaluate how to minimize unnecessary exposure.50 The curriculum for paralegals and officers in initial training and military justice short courses should devote time to clearly explain burnout, compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress and their symptoms, and how JAG Corps personnel can get help for those symptoms. Instructors should be open and frank about their own experiences in traumatic situations. Judge advocates, legal administrators, and paralegal Soldiers should be aware of secondary stress risk factors, how to practice self-care, seek help when required, and how to work with clients who are victims of trauma.51

Mental health stigma in the military is a long-standing barrier to help-seeking behavior.52 Adding to the difficulty of seeking care is the pressure to be “strong” for clients and victims, as attorneys often carry the burden of their client’s angst.53 There is a demand, often unspoken, to present as a solid foundation or source of support for the client.54 Also noteworthy, as the term “trauma” is discussed, it is usually not a momentous event experienced; rather, the typical progression is one that builds over time.55 Vicarious trauma is often a quiet, creeping decline over time, an accumulation of witnessing difficult material and events. It is the hundreds of child sexual abuse images viewed over years, the multiple sexual assault cases, the numerous victim and child abuse testimonies. It is not typically a single, noticeable event. Education should include discussions about the gradual introduction of symptoms over time.

Chiefs of justice and other senior members in military justice shops should set aside time with new personnel before assigning them to their first case in which they interview alleged sexual assault victims or review child sexual abuse images.56 Quarterly or informal counseling sessions should be used to check in on subordinates’ well-being and addressing early identifiers of secondary stress: changes in mood, such as anger or crying; changes in behavior, such as frustration, impatience, or increased alcohol consumption; overreaction, such as angry outbursts in court or at home; and decreased trust in others.

At the local office of the staff judge advocate, LDPs should address forms of secondary trauma and resources available to cope with the stressors that lead to trauma. When developing LDPs, leaders can coordinate with the uniformed and civilian mental health professionals employed by the Army to conduct classes on stress, secondary trauma, burnout, and coping mechanisms. Additionally, if leaders are open about their difficulties in handling traumatic material, subordinates may be more likely to discuss their struggles. Open door policies are only effective if subordinates use them.

In conclusion, we, as leaders in the JAG Corps, should directly address secondary trauma. It will affect our personnel—their work and home life—and the JAG Corps’s ability to carry out its mission and retain qualified personnel. We should prepare judge advocates and paralegals to experience others’ trauma and for the resulting burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary trauma that may result from that experience. Through preparation, our personnel can recognize the symptoms of secondary trauma, and hopefully seek help or treatment for those symptoms early, before the secondary trauma has a permanent and lasting impact on the lives of our officers, Soldiers, and their Families. TAL

MAJ Fowler is a futures concepts officer at the Future Concepts Directorate, The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia.


1. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC 1999–).

2. See, e.g., Major Matthew Forst, Restoring Due Process and Strengthening Prosecutions: Making the Article 32, UCMJ, Hearing Binding, 229 Mil. L. Rev. 481, 500 (2021) (“Of the 235 cases [in a recent Congressional report on courts-martial] that went to verdict, 144 (61.3%) cases resulted in acquittal of the penetrative offenses.”).

3. Testimony of Michelle Collins, Vice President, Exploited Child. Div. & Assistant to the President of the Nat’l Ctr. for Missing & Exploited Child., Before the U.S. Sentencing Commission: Federal Child Pornography Offenses 4–5 (Feb. 15, 2012) (“Of the identified victims whose images were frequently submitted by law enforcement . . . [76%] of these images depict the abuse of prepubescent children, of which 10% are infants and toddlers; and 24% depict pubescent children. . . . [Fifty-two percent] of the series depict the use of foreign objects; 44% . . . depict bondage and/or sadomasochism; 20% . . . depict urination and/or defecation; and 4% . . . depict bestiality. [Seventy-nine percent of] child victims identified by law enforcement . . . were victimized by an adult they knew and trusted—a parent/guardian (22%) . . . .”).

4. See Off. of The Judge Advoc. General, Judge Advoc. Legal Servs. Pub. 1-1, Personnel Policies ch. 7 (2022).

5. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 27-10, Military Justice paras. 6-6, 21-4 (20 Nov. 2020).

6. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Field Manual 6-22, Leader Development ch. 2 (30 June 2015).

7. Yael Fischman, Secondary Trauma in the Legal Professions, a Clinical Perspective, 18 Torture 107, 109 (2008) (“[L]awyers are not traditionally trained to address work-related emotions or acknowledge the potentially traumatic impact that their work may have on them and, by extension, their clients.”).

8. Am. Psychiatric Ass’n, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed. 2013).

9. See Ateret Gewirtz-Meydan et al., The Complex Experience of Child Pornography Survivors, 80 Child Abuse & Neglect 238, 239 (2018) (“For children in [child pornography] images . . . the abuse is ongoing, with no definable end . . . . [V]ictims were continually traumatized when they thought about who might be viewing the images . . . .”); United States v. Barker, 77 M.J. 377, 382 (C.A.A.F. 2014) (“Child pornography is a continuing crime: it is ‘a permanent record of the depicted child’s abuse, and the harm to the child is exacerbated by [its] circulation.’” (quoting Paroline v. United States, 572 U.S. 434, 440 (2014)).

10. Major Evan R. Seamone, Sex Crimes Litigation as Hazardous Duty: Practical Tools for Trauma-Exposed Prosecutors, Defense Counsel, and Paralegals, 11 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 487 (2014) (a common worry for those who work with child abuse cases is that their own children will be similarly abused).

11. See, e.g., E.M. Liddick, No Legal Objection, Per Se, War on the Rocks (Apr. 21, 2021),

12. In this article, Judge Advocate General’s Corps personnel refers to officers, warrant officers, enlisted Soldiers, and civilians assigned to the Judge Advocate Legal Services. See U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 27-1, Judge Advocate Legal Services para. 3-1 (24 Jan. 2017).

13. Fischman, supra note 7, at 108 (“Psychological trauma refers to an experience that is emotionally painful, distressful, or shocking. It creates a psychological wound that may lead to substantial negative impact to a person’s physiological, psychosocial and family systems.”).

14. Brett T. Litz et al., Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy, 29 Clinical Psych. Rev. 695, 700 (2009) (moral injury is caused by “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations[,] . . . participating in or witnessing inhumane or cruel actions, failing to prevent the immoral acts of others, as well as engaging in subtle acts or experiencing reactions that, upon reflection, transgress a moral code[,] . . . and bearing witness to the aftermath of violence and human carnage . . . .”).

15. See, e.g., Sergeant First Class Steven Day, In Memoriam: Corporal Sascha Struble, Army Law., Apr. 2006, at 1, 3 (“Good friends are hard to find, harder to leave and impossible to forget. Sascha was a great man and even better friend to us all. My wife and I will miss you. Life will not be the same where ever we go; we will surely miss you. Until we meet again, the foot prints you left on my heart will be felt for the rest of my days.” (quoting Sergeant Jeremy Campbell)); Liddick, supra note 11 (“I will never know whether I could have altered fate or prevented the loss of innocent lives had I only done more, had I only spoken up, had I only insisted on something—anything—different. This is the punishment for my crimes—an agonizing purgatory of eternal remorse and what-ifs. Befitting the job, it’s a lonely place indeed.”).

16. “Child pornography” is the term used by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and other criminal statutes. See, e.g., Manual for Courts-Martial, United States pt. IV, 95 (2019); 18 U.S.C. § 2252A; Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-374.1:1 (2020). But see Ateret Gewirtz-Meydan et al., supra note 9, at 238 n.1 (“We recognize that many professionals and researchers in the field prefer to use the term child abuse images due to concerns that the term ‘child pornography’ may imply victim compliance or understate the harm to the victims.”).

17. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 27-3, The Army Legal Assistance Program para. 7-5 (26 Mar. 2020).

18. Jennie Cole-Mossman et al., Reducing Judicial Stress through Reflective Practice, 54 Court Rev. 90, 90 (2018).

19. Seamone, supra note 10, at 503.

20. Nat’l Task Force on Law. Well Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Change (2017).

21. Shiloh A. Catanese, Traumatized by Association: The Risk of Working Sex Crimes, Federal Prob. J., Sept. 2010, at 60, 62 (“At a minimum, six people are professionally exposed to one sexual offender’s crime.”).

22. Major Rebecca A. Blood, Preventing Burnout in the JAG Corps, Army Law., no. 6, 2019, at 39.

23. Major Cara-Ann M. Hamaguchi, A Precarious Balance: Managing Stigma, Confidentiality, and Command Awareness in the Mental Health Arena, 222 Mil. L. Rev. 156, 156 (2014).

24. See, e.g., Andrew P. Levin et al., Secondary Traumatic Stress in Attorneys and Their Administrative Support Staff Working with Trauma-Exposed Clients, 199 J. Nervous & Mental Disease 946 (2011); Nat’l Task Force on Law. Well Being, supra note 20.

25. Lieutenant Colonel Aimee M. Bateman, People First, Including You: The Importance of Self-Care, Army Law., no. 6, 2019, at 35, 36 (the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) has created a “Wellness Program,” consisting of embedded wellness teams at the CID battalion level, which “grew out of the acknowledgement that ‘repeated exposure to traumatic investigative situations and associated investigative material can significantly affect psychological well-being, as well as cause strain to family relationships, reduce resilience, and negatively impact readiness.’”) (quoting U.S. Army Crim. Investigation Div. Command, Information Paper, subject: CIDC Wellness Program para. 2 (11 June 2019)); Blood, supra note 22. But see The Judge Advoc. Gen. & Deputy Judge Advoc. Gen., U.S. Army, TJAG & DJAG Sends, Vol. 41-06, JAG Corps Wellness Survey (16 Nov. 2021) (“[T]his survey will help guide and shape broader efforts across our Corps to ensure we are taking better care of all of our people. . . . [and] provide an improved understanding of the JAG Corps’ wellness and allow us to develop initiatives and provide resources responsive to the needs of all our personnel.”).

26. The Judge Advocate Officer Basic Course currently has a one-hour block of instruction, “Identifying Burnout & Secondary Trauma,” taught by a unformed behavioral health specialist, and a one-hour block of instruction, “Special Victims (DV) & Empathy.” The Judge Advoc. Gen.’s Legal Ctr. & Sch., 216th Officer Basic Course Curriculum (2022) (on file with author).

27. Christina Rainville, Understanding Secondary Trauma: A Guide for Lawyers Working with Child Victims, 34 A.B.A. Child L. Prac. 129, 130 (2015).

28. Blood, supra note 22

29. Id.

30. Id. at 39.

31. Seamone, supra note 10, at 509–10 (quoting Barbara Glesner Fines & Cathy Madsen, Caring Too Little, Caring Too Much: Competence and the Family Law Attorney, 75 UMKC L. Rev. 965, 988 (2007)).

32. Patrick R. Krill et al., The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. Addiction Med. 46, 48 (2016).

33. Special Comm. on Law. Well-Being, Va. State Bar, The Occupational Risks of the Practice of Law 5 (2019).

34. Id.

35. Blood, supra note 22, at 40.

36. Id. This assertion is also based on the author’s experience as trial counsel and trial defense counsel from January 2015 to July 2019, wherein he reviewed tens of thousands of images and videos of child sexual assault, interviewed victims of domestic violence and sexual crimes, and represented Soldiers convicted of homicide, assault, rape, and sexual crimes against children [hereinafter Professional Experiences].

37. Blood, supra note 22, at 40.

38. Fischman, supra note 7, at 108.

39. Id.

40. Seamone, supra note 10 (describing how lawyers often have thoughts and nightmares where their family members are victims of crimes the lawyers have experienced at work, and people who work with crime victims and in the criminal justice system often feel like the world is less safe. Other professionals who work with traumatic material do not allow their children to have cell phones, sleep over at friends’ houses, or even play in their own yards.).

41. Professional Experiences, supra note 36. Inexperienced prosecutors—confronted with horrendous images of child sexual abuse and exploitation—often tend to overcharge in cases involving child pornography, failing to make a detailed analysis of sometimes hundreds or thousands of images and videos to determine if they each meet the elements of the offense (for example, an image of a very young nude child, obviously created and distributed for the intent of sexual gratification, that depicts a lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of that child). Id.

42. Id.; Seamone, supra note 10, at 506.

43. Seamone, supra note 10, at 490 (“Victim-blaming is sadly a common response in professionals who work with victimized persons.”).

44. Id. at 512–13. See also Kiley Tilby & James Holbrook, Secondary Traumatic Stress Among Lawyers and Judges, 32 Utah Bar J. 20, 22 (2019) (a risk factor for secondary stress is an “expect[ation] to hear about others’ traumatic events without showing emotion, judgment, or being noticeably affected . . . .”).

45. Blood, supra note 22, at 40; Tilby & Holbrook, supra note 44, at 22.

46. Tilby & Holbrook, supra note 44, at 22.

47. Lolita C. Baldor, Army Under Fire from Congress over Fort Hood Response, AP News (Mar. 16, 2021),

48. Bryan C. Hayes, Strengthening Article 32 to Prevent Politically Motivated Prosecution: Moving Military Justice Back to the Cutting Edge, 19 Regent U. L. Rev. 173 (2006); Chris McGreal, Sexual Assault in the Military: Congress Pressures Pentagon to Fix the System, Guardian (May 9, 2012, 11:28 AM),; Karoun Demirjian, Broad Overhaul of Military Justice System Being Sidelined in Favor of Narrower Focus on Sexual Assault, Wash. Post (Dec. 5, 2021, 6:00 AM),

49. Blood, supra note 22, at 41.

50. See, e.g., Major Nicole A. Rimal, Omitting Child Pornography from Guilty Pleas, Army Law., no. 1, 2022, at 44.

51. Tilby & Holbrook, supra note 44, at 22.

52. Terri Tanielian et al., Barriers to Engaging Service Members in Mental Health Care Within the U.S. Military Health System, 67 Psychiatric Servs. 718 (2016).

53. Seamone, supra note 10, at 492.

54. Special Comm. on Law. Well-Being, supra note 33, at 31 (“The first, and perhaps the most dangerous, of the risks associated with representing the interests of others is also the noblest aspect of the legal profession: the attorney’s role as champion for his or her client. Lawyers necessarily shoulder the legal burdens of others, assuming the responsibility (and related stressors) of each case.”).

55. Id. at 31.

56. The author spoke with several judge advocates who have had a similar trial counsel experience of being detailed to their first case involving child pornography and going to the installation Criminal Investigation Division office to review the evidence, and later realized how unprepared they were to witness images of minors being raped and sexually exploited. Professional Experiences, supra note 36.