Psychology at the front
August 1st will mark the second anniversary of the start of the Dutch mission in the Afghan province of Uruzgan. Thousands of Dutch soldiers have worked in reconstruction projects and a smaller number have been involved in fighting the Taliban. By RNW Security and Defence specialist Hans de Vreij
In comparison to most other countries, the Netherlands does a lot to improve the chances of its soldiers arriving home in one piece, mentally as well as physically.
- Soldiers get together following a combat operation to talk over what they have experienced: sometimes this happens under the supervision of a counsellor or psychologist
- A mandatory buddy system - every soldier has a buddy with whom he or she can discuss things
- Leaders are trained to recognise symptoms of combat-related stress
- Instead of going straight home after a mission, soldiers are given a few days to catch their breath in Crete, where they are also given professional guidance.
The Dutch military does a lot to avoid having to send soldiers home as a result of psychological complaints. This is done not only to maintain the fighting power of the unit but also out of concern for the well-being of the individual soldier. Even if such complaints surface years later, soldiers can still apply for free counselling and assistance.
At Camp Hadrian, one of two Dutch bases in Uruzgan, Judith (last names are not given for security reasons) says prevention starts during the introductory week. "During the week, lessons are given in different areas including handling stress and trauma. Soldiers are taught how to recognise their own reactions, so that they become more aware of their feelings. We also try to ensure that it becomes a matter of habit to discuss these things.
[Photo right: Captain Judith at work in Uruzgan]
During the mission soldiers monitor each other's behaviour via the buddy system. The leaders do that too. They look for aberrant behaviour and other signs that indicate combat stress or other problems. If necessary they involve a psychiatrist or psychologist.
Captain Judith says soldiers also come to her with complaints which have nothing to do with the mission in Uruzgan, caused perhaps by problems at home.
"Sometimes things happen here which affect people strongly, and can lead to anxiety attacks or disturbed sleep for a few months. Sometimes people have complaints which make them less capable of working efficiently. How one fits in with the group is also a factor. All kinds of things happen when you're cooped up with people."
The army psychologist says it is not easy to predict who will come down with a complaint. Someone who played the tough guy at home in the Netherlands may panic when it comes to a real fight, while a reserved and quiet soldier may turn out to be a hero.
The defence ministry says it is far too early to predict what proportion of the Uruzgan soldiers will end up suffering serious psychological damage such as PTSS, post-traumatic stress syndrome. The average rate of PTSS is around 2 percent, but for dangerous missions such as the one in Uruzgan the percentage is often higher.
29 July 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands]