Mental Health, Multiple Deployments, and Media Rejection

Notes from inside a machine gunner's turret, Afghanistan 2012.

Notes inside a machine gunner’s turret, Afghanistan 2012.

It’s no secret that the mental health of troops and veterans has been a critical component of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that this is an increasing concern as the U.S. military, in the absence of a draft or compulsory service, keeps sending the same pool of troops overseas in multiple deployments to keep troop levels up.

An unnamed media outlet wrote me this week requesting that I join their host and other guests for a live online video segment to talk about the August 18th article in the Washington Post that ran with the title: “In Afghanistan, redeployed U.S. soldiers still coping with the demons of post-traumatic stress.” We scheduled a pre-segment chat and audio/video check for that morning, and I planned my workday so I could join the segment on my lunch break. Too easy.

As for the WaPo article itself, I had to say I was disappointed with the overall coverage and tone of the article. I’m a regular WaPo reader, and this article definitely wasn’t the caliber we’ve seen from their Afghanistan desk. The article makes a few good points, but overall reflects a meager fluency with the language and life of a military deployment in Afghanistan, which is surprising, since WaPo has been covering the Afghanistan war for nearly twelve years. It’s disconcerting that that WaPost‘s own Kabul bureau chief so obviously misses the mark here.

My friend and fellow blogger Don Gomez wrote smartly and succinctly on the article’s major flaws in a smart post you should read: “A good article on the 10th Mountain in Afghanistan that gets so much wrong.” I agree with all that Don points out, but I was especially bothered that the core subject of the story–military mental health resources–was not correctly reported. To state that the military is “now regularly embedding psychologists with units in the field” might’ve been a true and interesting statement maybe five or ten years ago, but it is definitely not something new in 2013. And the overall tone of the article seems to ask the implicit question of whether troops experiencing post-traumatic stress should be deployed at all. Which, again, might’ve been a novel question to ask a decade ago. But whether the question comes ten years ago or today, it yet remains a wildly broad and misguided question in my mind.

Back to the unnamed media outlet that wanted me on for the online video broadcast. When I talked to a production assistant on the phone, she asked me what I thought of the “new” mental health services being offered in Afghanistan to treat troops for post-traumatic stress while they were still in combat. I told her that I’d served three tours in Afghanistan, but that I observed firsthand that psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health providers have been directly serving troops in the midst of combat operations since at least early 2006, when I arrived on my first deployment with 10th Mountain Division and was co-located with the combat stress clinic staff and knew them to spend time both out in the field and on base at the clinic.

“Have you ever been diagnosed with PTSD, or have people you deployed with been diagnosed with PTSD?” she asked.

“You know, we take patient confidentiality very seriously in the military, and HIPAA is the law that ensures that right to privacy.  So rather than talking about diagnoses, I’d prefer to talk about the traumatic stress or combat stress that I might’ve experienced, or that I saw other people experiencing, or showing signals of,” I explained to the production assistant.

I told her that managing traumatic stress in combat is nothing new, and is actually an important part of maintaining fighting strength, whether that stress management is sitting down with a team of soldiers after something traumatic has happened to talk about it, or recognizing that someone needs a break, or using the professional resources available from psychologists or psychiatrists. These are serious issues, and ones that we can do better with. But over the years, the military really has done a great job in managing mental health in much more effective ways.

“Do you think that soldiers with PTSD should be redeployed?” she asked. Ugh. I told her that traumatic stress is hardly unique to troops in combat. Police, firefighters, and many other professions deal with traumatic experiences as part of their jobs, and we definitely don’t want those individuals to stop working after something traumatic has happened–because it is exactly the kind of experience we hope that they have when we need them to help us. The key is how they manage the stress that comes from those traumatic experiences. But ultimately we have to realize that traumatic experience in these fields equates with job experience, and it has to be managed as such.

“I have to talk with my producer because we haven’t finalized the list of guests for the segment,” she said. I realized I’d just been axed. I clearly didn’t answer her leading questions correctly. And it was my first time “failing” a pre-interview, so it stung a bit.

I’m not sure whether it was because I didn’t support the reductive line of thinking that troops who’ve had traumatic experiences shouldn’t return to combat, or whether this production assistant was just all the more ignorant of the complexities and realities of how traumatic stress factors into the experience of combat than was the WaPo Kabul bureau chief who wrote the article her segment was based on. But, since I didn’t get the chance to appear on the segment, and since I can write what I want to on my own blog, here are a few points that I think are relevant to this particular conversation on mental health and multiple deployments:

Troops are not victims. Every person serving in today’s Armed Forces is serving voluntarily. While they might not choose a particular organization, area of deployment, or time of deployment, they nevertheless are serving at their will. Troops do not need to be “saved” from a deployment, and often they go because they value the experience for any number of the complex reasons that motivate people to serve in wartime. War is sad, it is traumatic, and, in my opinion, it should be an absolute last resort for our political decision-makers. But when it comes to troops on the ground, there are a number of positive experiences to be had in a conflict, whether it be the direct diplomacy of working with foreign forces and officials, or the pride that comes with doing an important job with integrity and competence, or taking care of the people around you in a dangerous environment–there is tremendous good that troops create both abroad and back home once they return. If you want to argue against a war, there are plenty of effective ways to do so that do not involve degrading the men and women who volunteer to do what our elected officials ask of them.

PTSD is not a disease–it is a normal response to an abnormal situation. Your mind and body are going to have responses to a situation that threatens your existence, like it or not. The thing is to know this, to recognize that everyone’s responses are going to be different, and to find ways to work through it.  And, wherever possible, to do all that you can to manage risk wisely and prevent these experiences in the first place. But in professions such as the military or protective services like policing and firefighting, traumatic experiences are a part of the work environment.  Just as risk management is crucial to successful operations, so also is the management of traumatic stress.

Traumatic experiences can be stressful, but toxic leadership in the wake of trauma can be even worse. Too often we hear about (or see for ourselves) leaders who minimize the traumatic experiences of their subordinates, whether as singling out a soldier who shows more signs of stress than others, or failing to acknowledge that an event was traumatic, or even happened at all. When something traumatic happens to us, we need for it to be acknowledged and to realize it is ok to experience stress because of it. But we’re stifled from working through stress if we’re made to feel weak, foolish, or like people think we’re liars–and this can create a traumatic experience in and of itself. Good leaders validate the experiences of their troops and encourage them to find the inner strength to be and do more. Bad leaders take the Darwinian approach of weeding out those they perceive as weaker, less worthy, or that they never liked in the first place–and this fosters an environment where troops turn on each other. I am a firm believer that tackling toxic leadership in the military is key to improving and sustaining the discipline and fighting strength of our military, as well as preventing suicides, and eliminating sexual assault.

And, for heaven’s sake, stop saying “redeploy” to mean a successive deployment. That’s like fingernails scratching a chalkboard to me. Redeployment is the transfer of troops to another assignment or, most commonly, back to home station.  In other words, in common military parlance, to redeploy is to return home. Maybe the inability of the media to understand even what “redeploy” means to troops is, in and of itself, a powerful statement on the media’s lack of understanding on what coming home and being home means to us in general.

Take that, production assistant who rejected me.

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6 thoughts on “Mental Health, Multiple Deployments, and Media Rejection

  1. Thank you for diffusing the stigma of PTS, as a reaction that is in fact normal, under severe stress conditions. Providing this voice enables people to receive the support they need, as opposed to feeling apprehensive to. THANK YOU. I hope you continue shedding light on this and all the other critical issues you highlight on these pages.

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