Attrition: Coping With Combat Fatigue


June 26, 2006: The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have developed a successful set of policies to prevent combat fatigue from hurting morale, or reenlistments. For the army, reenlistments in combat units are typically over 90 percent of those eligible. The marines are not far behind, and both services have been able recruit enough new troops to maintain their strength. Much of this has been possible because of how the negative effects of combat have been handled.

Combat fatigue has been particularly epidemic in the 20th century, as combat became more intense and prolonged. But the American military has used decades of experience with the problem to develop lots of techniques for counteracting it. Among the methods used are;

@ Training and equipment that give American troops an edge in combat. Nothing reduces combat fatigue more than lots of battlefield successes. These don't have to be big wins. Every little victory counts. Thus patrols and raids are carefully planned and executed. Nothing feels better than going out, doing the job, and coming back in one piece. The new protective equipment enables troops to survive a wider range of enemy attacks. When one of your buddies takes a bullet in the chest, and it bounces off the ceramic plate, it does wonders for morale of the guy who is hit, and all those around him.

@ Creature comforts. While it's expensive to provide air-conditioned sleeping quarters, good food, and lots of other amenities, it helps morale. This makes sense. Even a successful patrol or raid can be stressful, so it means a lot if you can come back, get a shower, and then relax in your air conditioned hooch with a game on your XBox, or a DVD movie on your laptop.

@ Staying in touch. Today's troops are used to Internet access, and the military was quick to install it in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most obvious benefit is that the Internet, and cheap phone calls, enables the troops to stay in touch, For over a century before, the troops could only communicate via letters. These could sometimes take weeks to go each way. Email takes seconds, and chat rooms are instant. For special occasions (like graduations, or newborns), video conferencing is available. Another morale benefit of the Internet access is the ability to stay in touch with other troops. Going to Iraq is less stressful because you can communicate with guys who are already there. With the Internet, you can stay in touch with people you served with in the past. It's as easy as keeping your email address book up-to-date.

@ Medical Support. If you do get messed up out there, it's taken for granted that medical care will be prompt, massive and continuing. This goes for mental and well as physical injuries. The older troops still have problems with even admitting to combat fatigue problems. But the younger ones just see that kind of stress as an occupational hazard you have to take care of.

The relentlessly negative media reports back home, and in much of the rest of the world, do not appear to hurt troop morale much. There is a lot of confusion over just what the media is up to with all that distortion. This leads to some interesting interviews when the media bothers to talk to your average veteran of Iraq. Normally, the media seeks out the few people coming back who are not in a good mood. The majority of the troops resent being depicted in such a negative way, but deal with it by just ignoring the mainstream media.




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