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03-07-04, 08:11 AM

Dealing with the Casualties of War

By Ralf W. Zimmermann

When it comes to wartime casualties, the American people and our news media deal more confidently with the dead than with the wounded.

Our dead are usually returned home under the cover of darkness and then receive a military funeral with prescribed honors. Officially declared heroes, the fallen swiftly fade away in the daily media hype. Any public guilt disappears.

The wounded don’t fade away as easily. They enter an obscure existence, marked by incomplete press coverage. The number of American wounded in Iraq has remained a mystery. While some statistics talk about 3,000, other estimates are as high as 16,000 wounded in all categories.

To boost morale, small groups of wounded troops have recently been paraded in front of the cameras. I remember several of these courageous souls telling the American public that losing a limb was all worth it. They’re convinced that life will go on without much change. I hope and pray it is so!

However, many of our wounded aren’t doing as well. Besides the physical damage to their bodies, they also have significant psychological wounds to heal. These wounds often linger far beyond the healing process in the physical realm.

How can the military and our society help our troops better transition between the realities of war and a return to normal life?

Many experts argue for more advanced medical assistance, increased psychiatric counseling and medications, and other supportive therapies.

As a former combat soldier and commander, I support thorough treatment for combat troops as being extremely important. But I also know that the most potent remedies to combat-related psychological problems remain personable leadership, quality training and rigorous drill, personal discipline and good human understanding.

To be effective, good leadership and training must be applied in varied forms during all phases of pre-deployment, deployment, marshalling, combat, redeployment and reintegration.

Prior to going to war, units must grow together as a team. A relationship of trust between leaders and led must be achieved while troops undergo rigorous combat skills certification. Job competence and trust assure survival.

Once in country, units should be eased into the mission. For example, a day mission should precede a night raid. Training and drill must continue, while leaders deepen a personable relationship with the troops, based on trust and not rank and fear.

During and after combat operations, units at all levels must discuss and absorb critical experiences. Here informality is much better than the stiff formula approach to please the bosses. Soldiers must be encouraged to let the truth out.

In preparation for redeployment, soldiers should continue the informal experience exchange at every level. Leaders and commanders are the primary facilitators. The medical or psychiatric experts should be the silver-bullets in the second line of defense. Their premature involvement could easily undermine the command climate and harm unit morale. On the flipside, good commanders will allow their experts free access and accept their advice, no matter how controversial.

Compassionate leadership is critical so the troops remain disciplined upon their return home. It’s not okay to completely fall apart at home. Daily life in peacetime requires self-discipline, just as in combat.

At their home station, combat units should remain stabilized and work out common experiences before individuals are released to new assignments. Soldiers should be able to access medical experts and chaplains. Those helping and treating the psychologically wounded should stress that becoming undisciplined, or engaging in criminal behavior to compensate for wartime experiences, is not acceptable.

The implementation of a mental health recovery plan must be based on sound leadership, unit cohesion and camaraderie. Recent reform announcements to stabilize the force have been encouraging, showing that the military is recognizing these building blocks.

Stabilizing the force also mandates professional experience. This means that only the best qualified should lead or command for longer periods than the current 12 to 24 months. Only longer-serving commanders, first sergeants and other platoon leaders, will have the skills to guide people through the trying experiences of combat and help with the healing of psychological wounds.

America’s almost unachievable societal expectations are the biggest hurdle to overcome when dealing with psychological combat wounds. In a society where total happiness is the expected goal, it’s not acceptable to admit that one feels let down by certain life experiences. This makes it very difficult for veterans and others to open up about the realities of normal life.

Despite the Hollywood war-movie depictions, soldiers are humans. As humans they must accept life as an obstacle course that can cause a few scars. Besides causing pain, some of life’s scars can actually make us better people and teachers for others.

Contributing Editor Lt. Col. Ralf W. Zimmermann (USA Ret.) is a decorated Desert Storm veteran and former tank battalion commander. His recent novel, “Brotherhood of Iron,” deals with the German soldier in World War II. It is directly available from www.iUniverse.com and through most major book dealers. Zimm can be reached at r6zimm@earthlink.net or via his website at www.home.earthlink.net/~r6zimm.

© 2004 LandserUSA. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.




03-07-04, 09:51 AM
Good read, drifter!

03-07-04, 11:08 AM
LtC Zimmerman is correct about unit cohesion and leadership as vital for the function of any unit, and in the recuperation of men wounded, and thus separated from their common support base, their...

03-07-04, 01:25 PM
Lt. Col. Ralf W. Zimmermann (USA Ret.) has it right;
"The wounded don’t fade away as easily. They enter an obscure existence, marked by incomplete press coverage."
Many have returned to the Nation, that hardly notices their injuries.
More was made of PFC Jessica Lynch injuries than all the others combined.
It sad, but it is the truth.
Soon the VA health care system will see all these new veterans.
The VA is swamped by all the veterans of all our previous wars.
There might not be room for the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Someone must come up with a better plan of mental health for all the veterans.
America can't look the other way on these wounded veterans as she has done in the past...

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