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DoD Leaders Meet to Discuss Combating Stress

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 19, 2000 – Deployments and military operations are high-stress propositions, regardless of whether service members are ever shot at.

"Stress is not something you just have in that foxhole," said Bernard Rostker, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. That thinking led DoD officials to host the first Leaders and Operational Stress Conference at Fort McNair here recently.

"Stress is something that has plagued our veterans in the 10 years since the Gulf War," Rostker said, speaking from his experiences as special assistant to the deputy secretary of defense for Gulf War illnesses, a post he's held since 1996. The roughly 250 attendees included chaplains, healthcare workers, mental health professionals, academicians, line officers and a handful of allied officers.

Officials are moving from the traditional concept of combat stress to a more inclusive concept: that operational stress affects service members in most military actions, even those not involving combat.

"Today's armed forces face a full spectrum of 21st century global challenges -- nontraditional conflicts, frequent deployments, rapid advances in technology. These all impose significant strains on our service members," Rostker said in opening the two-day conference June 21. "I think we can all agree that warfighting produces many hardships and dangers in combat. I also think we can agree a wide range of stressors accompany all our deployments."

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Walter F. Ulmer Jr. called stress a "little-talked-about, under-resourced matter." He also believes today's lighter, more efficient force increases the stress of those currently serving. A 33-year veteran, he is now an independent consultant specializing in executive leadership and management of complex organizations.

"We used to have assistant truck drivers in the Army so you could drive 24 hours a day. Our war plans still say we drive 24 hours a day, but the assistant truck drivers are long gone," Ulmer said. "It's a manpower issue. We have managed to create a very efficient force, but we've taken away surge capability and resilience from units."

DoD healthcare professionals have been concentrating more on the issue since realizing the role stress has played in the myriad of health problems Gulf War veterans have faced.

"We learned during the Gulf War that the Defense Department does not deal well with nontraditional issues such as deployment stress," Rostker said. "Our investigations following the war show that although comparatively few Gulf War service members participated in actual combat, many of the military members deployed were exposed to a wide range of stressors."

While the issue of stress has been receiving more attention, however, progress in dealing with it has been slow for many reasons.

"One of the difficulties in dealing with Gulf War veterans is they don't want to hear about stress. They think we're telling them their ailments are not real," Rostker said. "They think we're belittling them when we talk about stress."

He said officials studying the issue can't directly link stress to Gulf War veterans' myriad ailments, though at the same time "academic literature tells us that stress can have a contributing effect, if not a prime effect, even years after they have left the combat theater."

There is also evidence that unchecked stress plays a major role in changing behavior, such as increasing substance abuse, including alcoholism, and in the most extreme cases, suicide, he said.

Another reason progress has been slow is poor record keeping during the Gulf War. "We do not routinely collect data on organizational climates on cohesion, on trust, on spirit. We can tell you how much percent body fat we have, but we can't tell you much about mental health or about innate or learned ability to fight the kind of stresses that we anticipate," Ulmer said.

Better records have been kept in Bosnia. From them, department officials have determined 15 percent of medical evacuations were for mental health reasons -- a statistic that's impossible to ignore.

"Clearly, stress-related issues are readiness and force health protection issues that require training and education directed at conserving the strength of our troops," Rostker said. "Ultimately, it's the commander who must provide the leadership and guidance to increase service members' ability to cope with stress. That's why it's so important to have commanders at this conference."

"We're trying to make sure leaders understand they have a direct impact on the stress imposed upon their troops," said Dee Morris, director of Lessons-learned Implementation Rostker's Gulf War illnesses office. "We're not pushing them out there to take care of this on their own with everything else they've got to think about. We have provided them tools, with the medical community, combat stress control teams and, most importantly, the chaplains."

Rostker added he hopes commanders learn more about the resources available to assist them in managing and preventing stress- related problems.

"The leaders are the ones who can most strongly impact the issue, with the help of their chaplains and their surgeons," Morris said in an American Forces Information Service interview. "We want the leaders to go back and talk about these issues."

Ulmer said problems in modern society will add to the stresses on military organizations and their individual members, based on the results of a two-year study of American military culture by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

He said many individuals joining the military today may not be equipped with the values the military puts a high priority on. This will stress them and their units "until they are not only socialized but have internalized some of the values necessary for a combat unit," he said.

Ultimately, Ulmer believes, it'll take a change of mindset among military leaders before stress becomes a high-profile issue.

"All of us who are of the personality to become leaders in the military or in any hierarchical organization are more thrilled with structure and immediate kinds of discussions than we are with discussions of human nature and of cohesion," Ulmer said. "Ninety percent of discussions about the future force have to do with acquisition of weapon systems, dispersed information, data processing and structure.

"All of that is well and good, but it's not going to be the thing that has ever in the past made us victorious, and it's not going to in the future."

Service members and their leaders need to get over denying and ignoring stress. "A lot of people try to push away dealing with stress. People are afraid of a perceived weakness," Morris said. "We're trying to reinforce that it's not weak to ask for help. Help is there. We staff for it. We anticipate it. They need to use it so we can return folks to a ready state so they can perform their mission."

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