The results of a recent study that included special operations forces of all services identified that operators and their families are grappling with the mental strains of combat. Navy Lt Cmdr Ligia Cohen, a spokesperson for the United Special Operations Command, recently reported suicides among the special operations community nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012. This included a SOF team Commander who killed himself while deployed in Afghanistan. Yet this is far from being a SOCOM centric issue.
Never in America’s military history has the enemy taken more lives through the mental remnants of combat than from the actual battle itself but that’s exactly what happened in 2012. Last year the suicide rate among active duty service members, which included special operations surged to a record 349 far surpassing the number killed from fighting in Afghanistan. Even if we were to discount the twenty plus former service members that took their own lives every day last year the numbers are staggering.
American isn’t alone. The BBC recently reported the same 2012 suicidal trend had occurred among our British counterparts. Truth is more men and women are dying from the mental anguish from having served than by engaging in direct combat with the enemy.
What is the cause of these increased rates and how is so different from wars past? There are too many reasons that can be attributed to the increases that it would be impossible to cover them all here or in any detail. Still in the interest of trying to explain some of the reasons verse reporting the problem I’ve outlined a few points of consideration that bridge all members not just those serving in special operations.
Time is the Predominate Factor
There’s no denying continual combat deployments are the major contributor. Year after year the same men and women return to the battlefield throughout the term of their enlistment. This back and forth lifestyle has a cumulative pressure effect. In years past troops would deploy into a combat theater with little chance of returning to their families until the end of the war or their tour of duty. Today troops shuttle back and forth from the combat environment two or three times throughout a four-year commitment. These numbers dramatically increase for specialized troops such as SEALs, Explosive Ordinance Disposal, Rangers and similar light or rapid reaction infantry. What many of these service members discover when they return home is readjustment, even to their own family, isn’t as simple as having a home coming party and taking a few weeks off. Rather, the daily mundane decisions made in modern society not only become bothersome but also act as stress multipliers.
Guilt and Anger
While the soldiers mind has learned to focus on what matters most on the battlefield, being the sustainment of human life, their family, friends and loved ones deal with things much differently. Sitting at Afghanistan firebase a soldier’s task orientation for the day is based on survival, meaning self and group preservation, food and rest. While stateside a family’s priority for a successful day generally resides on coordinating children’s activities, home maintenance, cooking and other household essentials. Even choosing where to eat for dinner or what movie to see can mean the difference between a good evening or one fraught with stress or difficulty for a spouse. However, the combat veteran is no longer attuned to this form of mission accomplishment. They no longer view these decisions as a priority but rather a ridiculous burden weighing on their mind. To the combat veteran only the basic needs of life and death require concentration but life-sustaining decisions are no longer the mainstay of their world. The immediate return stateside offers little time to re-orientate themselves. Often this inability to decipher priorities living in a secure society returns a veteran to the battlefield and the teammates they left behind. Focusing on the struggles their fellow soldiers still endure only initiates guilt and possibly anger for not being there with them.
Unfortunately, anxiety is one of main components combat veterans deal with when they come home and it should come as no surprise. Even those who have never experienced combat can comprehend how the modus operandi of asymmetric warfare can greatly impact a soldier. An enemies use of improvised explosive devices, both static and vehicle borne, as well as indirect fire from rockets and mortars; sniper fire and suicide bombers verses the direct combat that armies typically engage in are major factors for acquiring this condition. Not attributing anxiety as a manifestation of post-traumatic stress from combat is to ignore the significant strain a mind deals with when day-to-day survival is left to chance.
Regardless how much training and equipment we provide our troops, wounding and the loss of life from these forms of attacks is predominately based on coincidence. Couple this with insider attacks by the troops they’ve trained and fight side-by-side with and the mind has little to no time to recuperate from going outside the wire. The body needs rest but more importantly the mind needs to recover from the constant tension of flight or fight.
Over 11 years of fighting has made this a generational war that bears on the souls of pervious warfighters turned parents. Men that served during the initial stages of Afghanistan and Iraq have long since retired. However the children of these veterans face the prospect of combat on the same battlefields they encountered.
In a matter of weeks our eldest will be graduating from boot camp and having the same feelings of commitment toward his fellow service members as his parents. I often thought how he’d update the family on how countries and bases around the world have changed since our last being there. I’m sure I would spin yarns, just as my father before me, on how much harder or better we had it as I tried to keep an upper hand on youth but never in my wildest imagination did I expect to have the possibility of discussing how a firebase bordering two battlefields has changed. Nevertheless for today’s veteran parents it’s a distinct possibility.
A generation of patriots has fought on the same fields as their children and some having to endure the worst, the wounding or loss of their child. The potential of having a child encounter the same horrors of war in the same locations against the same enemy has brought with it a whole new realm of battlefield anxiety. Yet, another difference in relation to fighting that has lasted over 136 months verse wars of the past.