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All Facing Combat Go Through 'The Morph'

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

WASHINGTON, Aug. 21, 2000 – There wasn't a dry eye in the house as Air Force Brig. Gen. Mark Welsh III told his Gulf War story of holding the hand of a subordinate as the man listened on the phone to his wife giving birth to their first child in Utah.

Welsh, commandant of cadets and commander of the 34th Training Wing at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., spoke to a recent DoD conference on operational stress at Fort McNair here. During the 1991 war, he commanded the 4th Fighter Squadron, which deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

"I took Ed down to the command post and sat down with him as he picked up the phone and he talked to his wife, Jill, who was in the middle of a really tough labor. For the next couple of hours I sat with Ed, part of the time holding one of his hands and feeling him squeeze it every time Jill went into another contraction," Welsh said, recalling the experience. "I watched the joy in his eyes when they'd laugh together on the phone, and I watched the pain cloud him over every time she screamed.

"I had a chance to see Ed smile when he heard his firstborn child cry for the first time 9,000 miles away. I'll never forget that smile," he said. "More importantly, I'll never forget watching 'the morph' as Ed changed and 14 hours later (led an attack).

"Loving, caring, concerned husband and father," the general said, holding his hand in the air palm-up. "Cold-blooded and calculated killing machine," he said, turning his hand over. "Only in combat."

Welsh was describing what he calls "the morph." It's the phenomenon, he said, of that mild-mannered person doing things under extreme duress that he would never do under normal circumstances.

"The morph is a strange thing," he said. "Everybody changes in combat, everybody. It's dramatic sometimes; other times it's subtle. But everybody changes, whether it be for the better or for the worse."

In another example, he described a mediocre pilot who went on the become "easily the best wingman in our squadron during combat operations." Welsh said the morph helped this man tap into strengths he never knew he had.

Loneliness is another experience common to all troops facing combat, Welsh said, calling it the "cornerstone of operational stress."

He described his squadron's chaplain, "Father John," coming to him before the war started and suggesting the unit needed to find a way "to shed some emotional baggage." Father John suggested everyone write letters to their loved ones to be sent in case they were killed in action.

"Folks, if you haven't had the chance to sit 9,000 miles away from home in the middle of the night and write a letter to your family and tell them what they mean, then you haven't lived," Welsh said, his voice husky with emotion.

"If you haven't tried to tell your sons that you're sorry you won't be there for their high school football games, their little league baseball games, and tell your daughter you won't see her first ballet recital or gymnastics competition, meet her future husband or her children," he said, "if you haven't gotten to tell your spouse that the sun rises and sets in her eyes at midnight, 9,000 miles away, I would highly recommend it."

Welsh said the chaplain worked with the troops' wives back in Utah to send videos from home, which the squadron would set aside one day a month to watch. "We set aside a certain day so nobody had to fly afterward. We'd sit down and we'd all watch this video together, and we'd talk about it," he said. "We'd deal with this loneliness thing and then we'd put it away."

He related another tale about his "hooch", or tent, mate receiving a box from home containing a bathrobe and slippers. "Tom wore this bathrobe and these slippers all day long. At the end of the day he wore them to eat. He wore them everywhere," Welsh recalled. "Finally, I said, 'Tom, why are you wearing that stupid bathrobe?' And he said, 'Because, when I have this on, I don't feel lonely.'"

The third thing everyone facing combat must deal with, according to Welsh, is fear. "The folks who have been in ground combat will tell you that it's kind of soaking fear. It's darkness, big noise, almost paralyzing moments followed by huge adrenaline rushes. It seeps in, and it doesn't go away," he said. "Aerial combat's different than that. Aerial combat happens at a thousand miles an hour. It comes, and then it's over just like that."

Air, sea and land combat take different training, different kinds of leadership and different types of people, he said. But fear is a constant among them all.

Welsh said there are many ways of dealing with these issues, but faith was most significant to most of the people in his organization. He related preparing to go out on his first combat mission and finding Father John waiting at the nose of his airplane.

"He said, 'Hey boss, I just thought you might want a blessing before you go.' I was really scared, so it took me about a nanosecond to hit my knees on the ramp and say, 'You bet I do; bless the hell out of me, Father,'" Welsh said.

Then, as he was climbing into his cockpit, Welsh saw several other people running across the tarmac. "It was all the other pilots in my squadron," he said. "They all wanted to get blessed by Father John, too."

Welsh again appeared to choke back tears as he told the rapt group that Father John died of a heart attack about 18 months later. "Every time I get off an airplane -- commercial airliner, military airplanes, it doesn't matter -- when I step off the airplane, I thank God for Father John."

He said he's glad DoD officials are examining ways to deal with operational stress. He admitted he was unprepared to deal with stress-related issues when he took command of his squadron three months before the Gulf War started, and he was thankful the chaplain and squadron medical officer were such tremendous assets.

"I knew lots about technology. I knew lots about dropping bombs and shooting guns and firing missiles. I knew lots about training people," he said. "I knew absolutely nothing about operational stress and how to deal with it. Zippo. Nobody told me anything about that before I took this job on."

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