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Thursday, June 15, 2006

What Makes Iraq Combat Stress Unique?

Yesterday, USA Today had an informative article describing some of the unique elements in Iraq that can amplify combat stress. By now, many of us have heard of the effects of today's 360 degree war that dissolves front and rear lines leaving everyone vulnerable to attack (and unable to ever fully drop their guard to relax and restore their nervous system). We've also heard of the extra stress of fighting an enemy in civilian clothes, not knowing when the approaching individual is an insurgent wearing a suicide belt or a civilian who just doesn't understand your commands to halt. These aren't the only combat stressors our forces face in Iraq.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

The article itself starts out exploring the issue of stress as it relates to the Haditha massacre, then goes on to describe some of the unique features of fighting in Iraq. From USA Today:

The enemy could be anyone. The translator could be a spy, the base food vendor could be marking off mortar measurements. "You hear it all the time," Kilner says. "You don't know who you can trust."

The mistrust is the result of civilian casualties, resentment of outside occupiers, the isolation of U.S. troops on their bases. Above all, it's the result of insurgents trying to drive a wedge between the Iraqis and their would-be liberators. The insurgents dress like, and hide among, civilians. When attacked, the Americans usually err on the side of protecting Americans.

"We engage enemy fire with overwhelming force," says Geoffrey Millard, a sergeant in the Army National Guard who finished an Iraq tour last year. "It puts soldiers in an impossible position, because if you don't fire back, you're asking to be fired on again." He adds: "There's a dehumanizing factor. The Iraqis are called Hajiis (by U.S. forces), as in 'Don't trust these Hajiis.' Usually the f-word precedes it."

Other factors add to the stress:

• The tours pile up. In Vietnam, most soldiers served only one tour. In Iraq, many already have served two or three. The 3rd Marine battalion, whose men were at Haditha, is on its third tour in as many years (although not all its members are). "Some of the guys have to go three times, and that gets them down," says Cpl. Dmitry Barkon, a scout sniper who has served in Iraq twice and is now at the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, Calif.

"People say, 'We want to go back,' but that kind of service can be psychologically debilitating," leaving troops more jaded, says Aine Donovan, who taught ethics at the Naval Academy for five years. "The bigwigs are stretching these guys," Harmon says. After several tours, some soldiers "get desensitized to other people. You just don't care."

Repeated absences lead to problems at home, he says. "Your mind is not on the mission. That can get you killed."

• A brutal climate. Iraq is hot, dry and dusty enough to make some long for Vietnam. "I can't say it's worse than Vietnam — I wasn't there," Millard says. "But it has all the negatives of Vietnam, plus some more. If you've never been in a desert sandstorm, you don't know bad weather or bad terrain."

• The allure of drugs. Mike Young, the lance corporal, says he deals with the stress of Iraq by strumming a beat-up guitar, working out at the gym and "smoking a lot of Newports."

Others cope by using drugs, Millard says. Part of the problem is boredom. "In Vietnam, you could at least go to Saigon and have a beer," he says. "In Iraq, the Americans don't leave the base unless they're on a mission." Millard says some troops use amphetamines to keep alert. "Imagine driving around on patrol for 24 hours in 130 degree heat with no air conditioning."

• A dual mission: soldiers or cops? In a counterinsurgency, soldiers must act as police and warriors. Most Marines are trained as the latter. Balancing those two roles is stressful. "The complexity of the battlefield is incredibly difficult," Kilner says. "One part of the patrol will be involved in high-intensity fighting while another part is still handing out soccer balls."

Take a sniper. Soldiers go after him and try to kill him. Police, on the other hand, are most concerned with protecting civilians, and will wait the sniper out if that's safest. In Iraq, Kilner says, "the Iraqis now expect us to act more like police."

• The objective seems like a mirage. Once a war's goal seems unclear or unreachable, morale sinks and stress rises. "What makes being a soldier great is the nobility of it — good fighting evil," Kilner says. "If you lose that, all this sacrifice is for no good reason." Kilner, who organizes online discussion forums for Army field officers, says he recently got an e-mail from an airborne unit commander who said he feared "some of our soldiers are marking time until that inevitable IED or sniper round finds them."

In Ramadi, Compton feels the Marines are fighting "a largely defensive battle, causing us to react rather than act."

Warren says it's difficult to measure progress in the war without yardsticks like territory seized or enemy soldiers killed. "Soldiers need to see progress," Kilner says. "They can put up with anything if they can see progress."

In the absence of purpose or progress, according to Florida State's Figley, the unit focuses not on its mission but its own preservation — because "no one cares except my buddies." And when one of those buddies is lost — as happened in Kilo Company — the reaction can be extreme and irrational.

Another reason that timelines and clear plans giving troops something to reach for and work towards should be considered.

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