Preparing Soldiers for Mental Stress

The Army is introducing a new training program to help soldiers prepare for the mental stress of combat.  The Army will initially spend $117 million on the program, which will be phased in until all soldiers are required to go through the training exercises, assuming everything goes according to plan.  The new initiative, the first of its kind, is an attempt to reduce the number of mental health problems stemming from combat tours.  Approximately 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression or suicidal ideation. 

Counterinsurgency missions tend to create higher nembers of PTSD cases than conventional military operations for several reasons.  One is that it is more difficult to determine who the enemy is when dealing with an insurgency, and soldiers are more likely to witness innocent civilians being killed by adversaries, their comrades and themselves.  Another is that the military suffers more casualties when involved in asymmetrical warfare because the US loses the overwhelming advantage it maintains over conventional enemies, and therefore soldiers are more likely to suffer the loss of members of their unit with whom they have a close emotional bond. 

Fortunately, the military is attempting to address the the mental health issues that veterans face.  It has encouraged affected soldiers to seek psychiatric help, and the Pentagon has spearheaded an effort to make psychological issues a less important factor in determining whether someboby can get a security clearance or a promotion.  These efforts constitute a wise attempt to destigmatize mental problems  in a culture that historically has viewed psychological and emotional disorders as a sign of weakness.

It is clear that psychological treatment can help traumatized veterans deal with their illnesses.  However, it is uncertain if the Army can successfully prepare soldiers for the psychological toll that insurgencies can exact.  Hopefully it can, but the vast majority of money set aside to deal with psychological issues should go towards helping those who need treatment rather than prevention efforts, which are much less likely to succeed.


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