DURING THE FIRST World War, soldiers suffering mental breakdowns were sometimes shot. Decades later, psychiatrists discovered that many combatants were suffering from a condition called post-traumatic stress disorder. Often triggered by the cruelty of warfare, the illness can manifest itself in a number of ways including violent outbursts. Since June 11, the wives of four soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., have been slain—allegedly by their husbands, three of whom served in Afghanistan. Canadian soldiers returning from Afghanistan have been sent to a U.S. base in Guam where they undergo reorientation counselling. Sean M. Maloney, who teaches war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, has visited battlefields in Bosnia and Kosovo and is the author of six books on the Canadian military. He discussed post-battlefield trauma with Maclean’s World Editor Tom Fennell:
Is the army doing enough to ensure its soldiers can handle the trauma of battle?
We pioneered things in that area during the Second World War, but didn’t keep pace with the issue until the 1990s, when practically the entire army rotated through Bosnia and Croatia, where our guys were thrust into an incredibly vicious civil war. The system was generally unprepared when soldiers started breaking down. There have been suicides and significant psychiatric problems.
Will sending the troops to Guam help?
In the old days, soldiers would blow off steam by getting drunk, having sex, breaking things and brawling. Then, you would take a month to sail back to Canada, so you had time to adjust. Things changed with Vietnam, where you’re fighting in the jungle and 14 hours later your plane lands in San Francisco. You’re shocked and
need time to unwind and then integrate back into society. By building in time for the units in Guam, people can blow off steam and get counselling before they head home.
Are the cutbacks putting our troops under unnecessary pressure?
There are people doing their damnedest to make this work, but the resources aren’t there. We need more soliders so they are not rotated into the field as often.
What’s the military doing to protect soldiers from trauma in the field?
I talked to troops involved in body recovery in Croatia in 1993, and they used black humour to handle it. Counselling is available, and in Kosovo, one battalion commander insisted his troops should not be involved in digging up mass graves.
What assignment was the most stressful?
Rwanda was the worst. It is believed there
have been an abnormal number of suicides among troops involved in the operation. The savagery around them was beyond understanding. It’s one thing to see a body that has been shot. It’s another to see one mutilated to the point where you can’t tell if it’s human.
What triggers the violent outbursts after the soldiers return?
Imagine a guy living with death for six months, and suddenly he comes home and then things start coming apart around the edges. Comparatively small things can trigger extreme reactions.
Is there a problem with public perception?
Politicians think peacekeeping doesn’t put soldiers under the same stresses as war, but we’re dealing with a government still stuck in Trudeau-era think and is anti-military. In the 1990s, we were involved in suppressing hot spots around the world, not peacekeeping. Canadian society has to accept that these guys are fighting wars on our behalf over there. We need to understand that as a people. I7Î1
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