Good Connections Home a 'Double-Edged Sword'
By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 19, 2000 Easy access to family members at home has done wonders to improve the morale of deployed service members in recent years, and sometimes it's had the opposite effect.
Problems at home add to the stress on troops -- home-front instability, in fact, has been the most significant stress factor among service members deployed to Bosnia, Army psychiatrist Maj. Michael Doyle said in an American Forces Information Service interview. Doyle completed a tour in Bosnia in March as commander of 98th Medical Detachment, a combat stress control unit from Fort Lewis, Wash.
"Unlike fighting wars, where incoming rounds or threats of missiles or chemical attacks would be a negative stressor, we didn't have that in Bosnia," he said. "What we had in Bosnia was problems from the home front -- bills, conflict with spouses, difficulty with children."
Speaking at a recent conference here on operational stress, Bernard Rostker, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said 55 percent of the force is married, 46 percent has children, 6 percent are single parents and 8 percent provide some support to an elderly parent. That adds up to a lot of potential issues and pressure for deployed service members.
Communications with family members at home has never been easier for deployed service members. Troops deployed to Central America in 1998 and early 1999 for Hurricane Mitch relief, for instance, had morale lines set up for free phone calls home. Many units in the Balkans have similar setups. Officials have said nearly every deployed service member now has access to e-mail and the Internet.
"Unparalleled means of communication between family members and deployed service members is a unique advantage," Rostker said. "But it may also be a unique stressor as service members stay engaged with families."
Stress control consists of commanders and medical personnel working together to reduce the negative impacts of operational stress, Doyle explained. "It's looking for ways to help troops focus on their missions," he said.
The most effective means for leaders to control stress within their units is to get to know their people. "Leaders need to know what's going on, to understand the dynamics in their service members' lives," he said. "That's a tall order, and it's easier said than done."
But Doyle said he saw signs in Bosnia that leaders are taking the issue seriously. He recounted observing a stress-control class for noncommissioned officers that was held late one evening, yet the participants were actively taking notes and asking plenty of questions.
"This class was the only thing that kept these noncommissioned officers, mostly E-4s through E-6s, from a shower, from hot chow, from a bit of relaxation, and they were still interested," he said. "When we were done with our class, several of them continued the discussion by asking more questions. They came up to us afterward to ask very specific questions about how they could take care of their troops.
"So at the front-line level, these leaders want to manage operational stress. They're hungry for information," he said.
Troops under stress may react positively or negatively, Army Lt. Col. James N. Jackson explained at the conference. From a unit standpoint, positive responses are healthy and include increased perseverance, unit cohesion and dedication to mission, said Jackson, currently a member of the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence.
But, as Rostker explained, “today’s military members frequently encounter stressors that actually exceed their ability to deal with in healthy ways.”
When that happens, Jackson said, the effects can be misconduct and other unhealthy responses such as substance abuse, insubordination, malingering, depression and battle fatigue, typified by the "thousand-yard stare."