Coping combat stress
Suck it up, drink water!
We put on our pants the same way, but we cope with our life’s difficulties in various dissimilar ways. It’s no secret men want to avoid predicaments that would, leaveing them vulnerable and weak in front of comrades or acquaintances. Women want to come across mentally competent and independent so that others see strength and not some weak women who can be taken advantage of. I am far from being a psychologist. I might need one by the end of these 15 months, but the way individuals cope with stress is sometimes transparent, especially in combat.
What is combat stress? Combat stress is a natural result of heavy mental/emotional work when facing danger in tough conditions. Like physical fatigue and stress, handling combat stress depends on the level of your fitness and training. It can come on quickly or slowly. Professionals say it gets better with rest and replenishment. The following are normal, common signs of combat stress:
n Tension headache and backache, trembling, fumbling, and jumpiness
n Pain in old, healed wounds that occurred before combat
n Pounding heart, rapid breathing
n Upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, frequent urination
n Fatigue, weariness, distant, haunted ("1,000 yard") stare
n Anxiety, worrying, irritability, swearing, complaining
n Awakened by bad dreams, grieving, feeling guilty
n Anger at own team, losing confidence in self/unit
When I look at these few common signs of combat, I can man up and openly divulge that I have dealt with a lot of these issues. Some of the issues build up over time in soldiers, and if not properly monitored and caught by an attentive, caring leader, it’s inevitable that the time bomb that once had a long fuse is too short and then — BOOOM. What’s important is what happens after that explosion, or, as we like to say here, “melt down.” Whatever happens after that either helps you convalesce or makes you forever be a statistic for the department of mental health.
In my situation, I think when it hit the end of May, everything seemed for me to come spiraling down to the ground. I knew over the 11 months here I had found ways to avoid the “melt down” by finding things to do such as exercising, reading, studying, meditating, and venting to my friends and loved ones as well as, of course, writing. I remember one day I awoke and the thought of just walking around in the 120 degree weather dealing with local nationals and the length of the monotonous patrol sent me into an anesthetizing process, letting all of my emotions be packed away and charting in the robotic emotion set. Just to note, it’s not suggested to do that. Another day I would think about more personal stuff that would get me riled up, creating an inner storm of rage. Granted, we are told, “Stop bitching about the long patrols and the heat and what we are doing. Suck it up and drive on. You knew what you were getting into when you signed on the dotted line.” It’s a very true and legitimate statement. We all knew when we signed up there would be days like this, particularly when joining the infantry. It could be worse, like our brothers down the road fighting the fight every day and losing brave men.
The other day I was reading the Stars and Stripes, and I came across an article titled “Scared, frustrated, bored” by Pauline Jeliner from The Associated Press. In this article some interesting facts surfaced. I think the number one thing that surfaced was that 56 percent of soldiers reported the length of the tours were concerning, but that’s no hidden government secret — that is completely normal. Forty-five percent of junior enlisted soldiers (Joes) rated their units’ morale as low or very low, according to a health study. Twenty-nine percent of the soldiers were found to have a mental health problem — defined as some of the previously stated points above.
Some of the issues just come with the territory, such as lack of privacy, boring and repetitive work and eating the same old food day in, day out. My philosophy on getting well deserved privacy is to just hide. But, of course, make sure nothing is going on and that your immediate chain of command knows where you’re at. For the boring and repetitive work — suck it up, drink water. As for the food, I am just thankful that I am actually eating food rather than MREs.
In all seriousness, there are men and women who are deeply troubled because of the things they have witnessed or have taken part of. As the war has lengthened and become more and more deadly, the military has had to greatly step up its mental health facilitation. It seems like every forward operation base I have been to has had robust programs in place for addressing the issues. The men and women I feel overwhelmingly sorry for are the ones who may have been shortchanged in the beginning of this war and ended their lives prematurely. Army suicide, an admittedly rough barometer of morale, is showing a steady increase, rising from 51 confirmed in 2001 to 91 (plus seven possible suicides still under investigation) last year. Desertions are climbing, according to TIME magazine’s edition titled “Why our Army is at the breaking point.”
Suicide rates within the military are about half those in the general military-aged population, but the Defense Department is reaching out to its members to help further reduce the incidence of suicide within the ranks, a top military doctor said.
The suicide rate for military members during 2005 was 11 per 100,000, Dr. David Tornberg, deputy assistant secretary of defense for clinical and program policy, told American Forces Press Service. That compares to about 19.5 per 100,000, which is the national average for Americans in the 20- to 44-year-old age group. And experts say this rate may actually be 40 or 50 percent higher than reported, Tornberg said.
"There's a precipitating reason for every suicide. And in general, it is a response to some life event that has dire consequences to the individual at the time," Tornberg said. "During high-stress situations such as deployments, relationship, financial and other problems may worsen." Another contributing factor may be the ready availability of weapons.
As of late, the stigma often associated with seeking care has slowly faded. When I came back from my first deployment I was seeking care, and doing it caused a lot of friction and second- guessing of my character or mental strength. I overcame that, and my leadership took the proper course of action after taking a better look at my mental and physical well-being. I had the courage to face my demons and acknowledge the fact that I would never be the same again, and sadly, I am not. I left who I was at the runway on that first deployment, and God knows and my loved ones know it. I wish I could get that back.
When I see new guys show up over here I quickly remember how my life was and how I felt. I always take time to talk to them and reassure them that the feeling of being overwhelmed by everything going around them is normal and that the seas will calm. New guys want to do everything right and always be ahead of the curve, and that is respectable, but in reality, even if you have been in the infantry 20 years you’re still not perfect. When you’re a new guy you must go through the parade of smokings and learning curve stuff. I am not in the position to agree or disagree with this, but sometimes it is imperative for some young men to be set straight — as I was occasionally back then and still am to this day for my big, opinionated mouth. (I think that comes from my dad’s side, having been a preacher for 25 years.)
The most important thing that has radically changed is that leaders have gone above and beyond to get the new guys in the game, because when it comes down to it, the new guy is out there with you, and if he is not mildly confident or semi- tactically proficient, he may end up in a heap in the middle of the road after an ambush wondering what he could have done to prevent this or, worse yet, getting someone killed. Medical screenings that include mental health factors, given before and after deployments, help identify people in distress. This helps immensely for transition back into the real world — you just have to have the courage to face it.
As I was writing this article, men around me got wind of the topic and wanted to chip in what they were feeling. Of course, their words are edited and restricted, but given that inhibitor, their voices give a good idea of what men here are going through on a daily basis and the coping process.
How do you cope with being deployed for 15 months?
Staff Sgt. Reeves, 1st Squad leader: “You do what you got to do. The thing that keeps me going is my family and getting home to see them. Knowing that a lot of the men are going through the same thing makes it easy to talk to anyone about certain issues. A lot of people are talking to me about their divorces and how rough it is. As bad as this extension is, there are so many other men hurting. I just try to be there for them and be an ear or a shoulder to cry on. It’s not always the war on the outside that readily affects us, but it is the simple phone call that may go wrong and can affect how we go about our daily patrol. Another thing is when you go to the phone and there’s a commo blackout because someone dies, you sometimes feel guilty because you just want to get on the phone and rectify a problem on the home front. No matter how strong you feel your relationship is when someone comes up to you and tells you about a failing marriage you begin to ponder on how really strong my relationship is and do I have all my ducks in order.”
Have you seen people change?
“Yes! You start to see the growth in the men around you. The bonding is one of the most transparent things seen over here; we are all we got. Even though I am a superior, my boys know that they can talk to me and not feel intimidated. The worst change I have seen is the faces of the divorced men. From smiling the day before to dealing with the fact that they can do nothing except wait till they get home and possibly fix the problem.”
What would you do to help Iraq so that you could cope with it better?
“The one thing that would make me happy is if they took the politics out of war and let war be war. War is not a pretty thing, and if the enemy wants to uses guerrilla tactics, then we should do the same. Some people get involved in combat operations who have never hit the ground, leaving us less combat effective. We have to cope with what we got. I think Iraq needs rebuilding, but right now there is still an enemy out there, and every time we do something productive for the community it seems like it’s being destroyed. Money and lives are lost in this circle of inevitable turmoil.”
Staff Sgt. Rine, my squad leader:
“It changes from time to time. I have different things to get through it. It’s important to look at it like regular life. It’s important that I don’t look at it as if the world stops spinning because I am not in my routine place. Overall, I treat it like everything else — one day at a time. Every time I think it is s@#%@%* I remind myself that it can’t last forever. I do what my friend Mike says, “‘Shut up, drink water and do what the Army says, roger.’
“Mostly, I have seen people that have a positive attitude about life seem to be more negative. Seeing people that usually deal with things well acting out of their character. It’s like training for an eight-mile run and then being asked to run 15. Even though you knew that seven extra miles could have been coming, it doesn’t mean it is going to be any easier. There’s just no way to train for it.
“What could I do to help Iraq, to make it easier on me? I can’t honestly answer that question.”
“I am not actually pissed off about being deployed 15 months, because we knew it was inevitable. The mental repercussions may be interesting. The way I get through 15 months is getting away from people — going to the gym and relieving tension — then I turn around and have a counter productive cigarette. It’s just a habit. I have seen people change in different ways. Some are looser, and others are the same old same old or worse.
“What would I do to help Iraq? I don’t know. Every Area of Operation that we have been to we have dramatically changed it, but sadly, when we leave things seem to go up and down. So it’s hard to say what we can really do, because if they (insurgents) just wait till we leave, then really it’s up to those we have empowered to gain control of the area. If I was President Taggert, I really don’t know what I would do, because the common sense realty of the situation is that if we prematurely leave the repercussions could be catastrophic.”
I think one of the biggest tragedies of this deployment so far has been the divorce and separation issues. I have been told over and over again by men around me to write a story about the pain and heartache that they deal with when going through a divorce and the coping issues. I will briefly say that I think any person who leaves a man at war for any reason should really think twice about it, because regardless of how bad it is or how much you have grown apart over time, you in fact owe the dignity and respect of facing the person and honorably going through the process together and not miles apart, leaving a man to ponder more on what he could have done if he was just there. One solider I am friends with openly wanted to talk about the heartache;, his name will not be disclosed for reasons of privacy.
How does it feel to get the news your loved one is moving on while on tour?
Answer: “It actually destroyed me. We had nothing, to build it up to something we always wanted. For her to tell me this over the phone, all I could do is realize that she was just selfish and very inconsiderate of what I sacrifice to make what little of what I called a marriage to work.
How did you learn to cope with it during the patrol and downtime?
Answer: Well, during the patrol I couldn’t. It was nothing but a distraction on top of what she was continuously doing while I was here. During my downtime, I continuously focused on what went wrong and was there hope to fix what was done. If it wasn’t for the chaplain and my band of bothers here I couldn’t even imagine what the outcome would be.
What would you say to a young man just getting married and going through a long deployment like yourself?
Answer: Well, I would encourage him to try his best not to argue over the Internet or phone as best as he could. If he had a bad day, take a break and talk to her for her best advice. Give her a purpose while she is waiting for your e-mail, instant messages, or those late phone calls. Encourage her to do something positive while she is back home like going to school or get a job she likes, because money shouldn’t be an issue. My most important advice is to make her feel she has a purpose —, not just to be your accountant. Always tell her you love her and show it as best as you can.
Roughly how many men do you know thatwho are dealing with the same issue as you?
Answer: Including meyself, it would be 27. Many of us are handling it very differently. Some had to go to see a doctor for medication, because of the lack of getting anything resolved and the pain it undoubtedly inflicts. And some who their children don’t even know why they are moving in with their grandparents. The worst that I have seen is when they know when their spouses are seeing other people. Some even have the nerve to post pictures up on their MySpace blog because of the lack of respect for their husbands.
Others I have talked to have said analogous things about coping with this deployment. Some men I come across find just talking about it irritating and don’t want to fritter away energy saying something that they know won’t change anything. That is all perfectly comprehensible; I sometimes feel the same way. As the summer comes again, the heat will undoubtedly drain us, and all of our aches and pains will follow suit. We must dig deeper and keep our resolve more than ever. The life we live at this point will optimistically lead us to cope better with the difficulties in our future endeavors to come.
We are bewildered and weary,
Lonely to the point of madness,
And if we shout and curse,
Through our quiet dreams,
We are merely looking for a way to go home.