Analysis (Services and Self)

Koan Bremner's view on life as a database and data warehouse professional / addict and non-genetic woman

Sunday, April 10, 2005

RE: Tour of Duty

I just listened to the following ten minute piece (which turned up in the "Women in Podcasting" feed) and feel compelled to comment.
Before his second Iraq deployment, Army Specialist David Beals tried to kill himself. He received counseling and is now stationed in Tikrit. His wife told Weekend America she's worried that he's still troubled. We talk with an army psychiatrist about the trauma of war and treating soldiers on the frontlines.

[Via Weekend America, from the "Women in Podcasting" Blogdiggers list]

Before I say anything about my personal reactions to this piece, I will say that it emphasises, for me, the real power of audio over the written word; I could have read a transcript of the words in this piece, and responded to it; but the voices of the interviewees lend another level of impact entirely.

This piece covers one of the most heart-rending challenges faced by those who serve in the armed forces; how to cope with the mental health issues which arise, either as a result of what they've experienced, or at the same time as they're on active duty. Just to make clear my own perspective on this; although I never served in the regular forces, it was not for the want of trying. I helped to finance my way through University by serving in the reserve forces, was selected for training as a commissioned officer in an Infantry Batallion once I graduated, but was unable to pursue that path due to injuries received whilst serving in the reserve forces. And I have also dealt with mental health issues in my own life, including suicidal ideation. So yes, I feel qualified to comment.

I'd challenge anyone *not* to be moved by listening to Specialist Beals' wife Dawn Marie as she reads from one of his emails. How can she be feeling, knowing that someone she loves so much is going through such personal torment, thousands of miles away, leaving her powerless to help? What does she feel inside, knowing that the person she loves was so desperate that they attempted to end their life? Listen to her voice; then think about this.

This is not about cowardice. Are there cowards in the world? I don't doubt it for a moment. Does succumbing to combat stress make one a coward? No (in my opinion). Does responding to the turmoil of combat stress (or any stress-related condition; indeed, *any* mental health-related issue) by contemplating, attempting or committing suicide make one a coward? Again, in my opinion, no. Ever tried to take your own life? Ever felt the primal urge for self-preservation kick in to stop you, no matter how much you want the pain to stop? Ever considered that a completed suicide (I can't use the phrase "successful suicide") brings about exactly the end that someone who subscribes to the cowardice notion would assume the person is trying to avoid? No, sorry, there's something else going on, other than cowardice.

Whatever the events that lead someone to attempt (or even consider attempting) to take their own life, the attempt itself says one of two things (to me); that the person cannot take any more, and wants an end of it; or, that the person cannot take any more, and wants help to find a way of dealing with it. Personally, I never felt that any of my attempts fell into the second category; at the time I attempted them, I did not want to "fail", or be stopped. Truly, I wanted an end of it. Who is to say which applies in Specialist Beals' case; maybe *he* doesn't even know. Either way, here is someone who is patently in a bad place. It doesn't make them a bad *person*; personally, I have immense respect for those who face such personal turmoil and find a way through it, moreso than I have for people who have not been similarly tested (although I'm glad, for their sakes, that they haven't been tested in such an awful way). What does the US Army (or an employer, or a loved one) do when faced with someone in a situation like this? Did the Army respond correctly in this particular case?

There is a lot of experience to suggest that the best long-term outcomes, for the patient (I'll use that term for simplicity; nothing else is implied) come from removing the patient from the immediate situation, but only so far that immediate treatment, therapy and reasssurance can be given. At the earliest possible moment, the patient should be reintroduced as close to the triggering situation as possible, in as productive a capacity as possible. From dealing with shell-shock cases in the First World War onwards, the shame in feeling that you've "let your buddies down" is seen as one of the biggest hurdles to recovery; the sooner the patient is doing something that is palpably helping their buddies, even if not to the immediate extent of bearing arms beside them, the better. *If*... and it's a big if... appropriate support is available during that convalescence; and if the patient's buddies will accept them back again.

Specialist Beals describes being effectively ostracised by many in his unit. Whether he is or isn't, he *feels* as if that's happening. That can't help. Later on in the piece, it states that he has now been redeployed to a different unit where he has "access to psychiatric care". Excuse me? A soldier who attempted suicide in January and was deployed to Iraq in March was deployed to a unit where he *didn't* have access to psychiatric care? Is it just me, or does that sound vaguely moronic to anyone else?

These are just my personal reactions to hearing this piece. Inevitably, I have to draw parallels (and contrasts) with my own experiences. I think that redeploying is appropriate, as soon as the immediate crisis is over; but *not* if the receiving unit is then going to treat the recovering patient as a liability or pariah. That isn't going to help anyone.

Where are the parallels? In September, my memory, concentration and focus went walkabout, and I was completely floored by that. My employers took the sensible step of changing the area of my focus, and of spreading some of my responsibilities more widely. This required some of my colleagues to expand their knowledge in areas they'd maybe tended to shy away from. It meant that I could concentrate on being as productive as I could (in more tactically focused areas) so that my employers were still gaining some benefit from my presence. Arguably, now, we have an even stronger organisation; knowledge and skills that had tended to be concentrated in me are now much more widely deployed. That deployment may have happened out of necessity, but it *has* happened. Personally, I think that's been a good thing; I certainly don't feel threatened by it. As an educator, my goal has always been to develop the people who could replace me; as a professional, the challenge (indeed, the fun) has always been to stay at least one step ahead. ;-) I can't comment on whether I still have a significant part to play; the people who probably *could* comment, almost certainly won't.

Is there a shame to succumbing to mental illness? I don't think so; but obviously, I'm biased. Is there a place for people who have felt the impact of mental health issues in the Armed Forces? I believe so; in fact, I'd sooner know that the people charged with the defence of a nation and the pursuit of good works have a beating heart, so long as they've received whatever assistance is necessary to deal with their short-term issues. I, for one, wish Specialist Beals well, and hope that his wife Dawn Marie can bear the period before his return with courage; and that, on his return, he is honoured by his community as someone who has given all that he can (maybe, more than he was able to give, for a while at least) in the service of his country. And not scorned with unjust words like "coward".

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