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Coming Home: Challenges of Returning Veterans

The following excerpt has been adopted from George W. Doherty’s latest book Coming Home: Challenges of Returning Veterans Coming Home(Rocky Mountain Region DMH Institute Press, 2013). The book discusses veterans in rural communities facing unique challenges and who will step up to help. More information about the institute can be accessed online at its website Learn more at www.RMRInstitute.org.

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U.S. military forces are increasingly involved in a variety of multinational peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance missions. In preparing soldiers for these, it is critical that leaders have an understanding of the nature of the stressors involved. Since the end of the Cold War, nontraditional military missions have increased substantially, whereas armies are being downsized. Survivors of downsizing are being called to do more with less. One example was the unscheduled 1994 deployment of a Patriot missile battalion to Korea (Segal, Rohall, Jones & Manos, 1999).

Between 1989 and 1996, the active duty Army was cut from roughly 770,000 to 500,000 personnel with more cuts to come, McCormick (1997) evaluated the manner in which the Army has adapted to and been affected by this externally-mandated organizational change. In examining the process of downsizing, he considered several dimensions of military effectiveness. He examined the Army’s political effectiveness—the ability of its leadership to articulate the Army’s role and to obtain needed resources in an increasingly treacherous political and budgetary environment. He also evaluated the Army’s organizational effective­ness, focusing particularly on how the Army personnel community managed the downsizing of the officer corps. He considered the Army’s objectives in this process, the appropriateness of these objectives, and the Army’s success in achieving them. Finally, he evaluated how downsizing has affected the morale, commitment, attitudes and behavior of the Army officer corps, intangible yet crucial aspects of military effectiveness. The downsizing of the Army is a story of both failure and success. The Army’s leadership failed to make a persuasive case to civilian leaders for a larger force and the resources necessary to maintain it. Consequently, other aspects of military effectiveness have been jeopardized. Conversely, the Army’s leaders successfully planned and implemented dramatic personnel reductions, particularly within the officer corps. The Army achieved its downsizing objectives and these objectives were for the most part appropriate. But, despite the Army’s best efforts, prolonged and incremental downsizing has taken its toll on the officer corps, undermining morale, commitment and professionalism, and perhaps with this the Army’s ability to fight and win future wars. The Army’s outdated officer management system and the legislation that governs it have exacerbated these undesirable effects. McCormick (1997) concludes with suggestions for the reform of these systems in light of the unprecedented challenges brought about by the post Cold War era.

Contemporary organizational theory consistently argues that the structure of an organization can affect the behavior of its members. Research suggests that members of organizations structured in a rigid hierarchy exhibit lower morale, decreased innovation. and lower output when compared to organizations structured less rigidly (White, 1998). While the research is clear on the impact of hierarchical design on overall behavior, it is less clear on the effect that rigid hierarchy may have on ethical behavior. White investigated the hypothesis that rigid organizational hierarchy inhibits ethical behavior. Ethical behavior was operationalized by applying Kohlberg’s (1976) model of six moral development stages, and measured by Rest’s Defining Issues Test (DIT).The hypothesis was tested by comparing the mean DIT scores of 480 Coast Guard personnel with the means of meta-samples of individuals from less rigid organizations. A military organization, the U.S. Coast Guard is a stereo­typical rigid hierarchy, with a tall pyramid structure, numerous hierarchical levels, centralized decision making, and an emphasis on obedience and heteronomous behavior. The hypothesis was tested further by comparing DIT scores of Coastguardsmen assigned to large ships with Coastguardsmen assigned to shore units. Because of the extremely regimented routine aboard ships, sailors are allowed little opportunity to act autonomously. It was hypothesized that the DIT scores of seagoing Coastguardsmen would be lower than their counterparts assigned to less rigidly structured shore units. The findings supported the hypothesis that a rigid hierarchy restricts morale development. Coast Guard respondents scored about seven points lower on the DIT than a large adult meta-sample from society-at-large. Sea-based Coastguards­men scored significantly lower than their shore-based counterparts. This suggests that the extremely rigid hierarchy of the shipboard environment further restricts morale development. This study suggests that an ethical dimension be added to the negative consequences of rigid hierarchy. It also argues that the military, from a morale development perspective, is different from mainstream society, and that the difference is caused primarily by the rigid hierarchy employed by the military. The findings reinforce the need for democratic, civilian supervision of military policy and provide a recommended strategy for accommodating the tensions between rigid hierarchy and morale development.

Deployment Factors that Affect Morale

The U.S. military is increasingly involved in operations that require specially configured task forces that are tailored to the demands of a particular operation. Given the presumed importance of unit cohesion as a social influence on morale, performance, and stress resiliency, a critical question is how cohesion develops in such units. Bartone & Adler (1999) examined cohesion over time in a U.S. Army medical task force that was newly constituted to serve in a United Nations peacekeeping operation in the former Yugoslavia. Survey data from 3 phases of the operation (pre­deployment, mid-deployment, and late-deployment) suggest that cohesion levels develop in an inverted-U pattern—starting out low, reaching a high point around mid-deployment, and then decreasing again toward the end of the six month mission. ANOVAs comparing work groups or sections within the task force revealed group differences on cohesion, with military police and physicians highest and operating room staff (nurses and technicians) lowest. Situational and home environment stressors correlated negatively with cohesion during predeployment, whereas work relationship problems were stronger (negative) correlates at mid- and late-deployment. Results demonstrate the importance of assessing cohesion across phases of deployment.

Segal et al (1999) present data drawn from surveys of soldiers in the battalion that replaced them. Although both PATRIOT battalions were quite similar in many respects, the soldiers in the first battalion sent to Korea had been told that they would not be deployed again for 2 years, had less warning of their deployment, and had seen more deployments than the second battalion sent to Korea. In both battalions, the best predictor of morale for younger soldiers (E4 and below) was family adjustment to Army life. The best predictor of morale for older soldiers (E5 and above) was leadership support for soldiers. Data revealed that both junior and senior enlisted soldiers in the first battalion had significantly lower morale and family adjustment ratings than the soldiers sent to replace them. Findings reinforce the importance of communication with the survivors of organizational downsizing and consideration of the needs of their families as their jobs undergo restructuring.

Bartone, Adler & Vaitkus (1998) summarize findings from a longitudinal case study of 188 U.S. Army soldiers (the group was 78% male) in a medical unit performing a peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia. The goal was to identify key sources of stress and to delineate the effect of these stressors on the health, morale, and mental readiness of soldiers. Findings suggest a range of psychological stressors varying across operational phases of a peacekeeping mission. The degree of stress experienced in various areas correlates significantly with depression, psychiatric symptoms and low morale. The range of stressors is summarized in a model of five underlying dimensions of psychological stress salient to soldier adaptation in peace­keeping operations: isolation, ambiguity, powerlessness, boredom, and danger/threat. This model suggests several recom­menda­tions for counter­measures that organizational leaders can take to maintain soldier psychological readiness during peacekeeping operations.

“Commuter Wars”

Richard & Huffman (2002) note that the US Air Force has developed a military force that can fight by night and return home by day. This phenomenon of “commuter war” was especially evident during Operation Allied Force over Kosovo. 540 military personnel participating in Operation Allied Force were administered a survey measuring morale, wellness behaviors, and work-family conflict. The deployment had adverse effects on wellness behaviors of permanent party and temporary duty assignment populations. Additionally, levels of morale and motivation varied between the two groups. Permanent party personnel also reported increased rates of work-family conflict. Results suggest that commuter war affects wellness behaviors, morale, and work-family conflicts of military personnel.

Environmental Factors

Bliese & Britt (2001) examined the degree to which individuals’ reactions to stressors were influenced by the quality of their shared social environments. Based on social support theory, they proposed that individuals in positive social environments would show lower levels of strain when exposed to stressors than would individuals in negative social environments. The quality of the shared social environment was assessed by measuring the degree of consensus among group members about an issue of importance to the group—namely about the group leadership. Social influence theory provides compelling reasons to believe that this measure of consensus should be a strong indicator of the quality of the social environment within the groups. In multilevel analyses using a sample of 1,923 soldiers who were members of 52 Companies deployed to Haiti, Bliese & Britt found that the quality of the social environment moderated relationships between (1) work stressors and morale and (2) work stressors and depression.

Stress Factors

High levels of stress have been associated with morale and well-being issues among soldiers. Micro factors such as coping and macro factors such as leadership environment and group cohesion have influenced stress levels of soldiers in the workplace. Soldiers’ self-report of stress levels in relationship to soldiers’ perception of leadership, group cohesion and coping was investigated (Arincorayan, 2000). The amount of stress experienced by a soldier was measured by the Brief Symptom Inventory (Derogatis, 1977). Soldiers’ perceptions of leadership environment were measured by the vertical cohesion scale (Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, 1996). Soldiers’ perceptions of coping method were by the emotion-focused coping sub-scale and problem-focused sub-scale (Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, 1996). A secondary analysis was conducted on data collected from a survey study sample of 1,001 male Non-commissioned officers and enlisted soldiers deployed to Bosnia in March 1997. The results indicated that soldiers exper­iencing low levels of stress tended to perceive their leadership environment as positive and peer-relationships as cohesive. Furthermore, soldiers who used emotion-focused coping methods were likely to experience increasing levels of stress. Problem-focused coping had no statistically significant relationship to soldiers’ stress levels. The findings are congruent with components of human relations theory (Follet, 1933; Barnard, 1938; Fayol, 1949) and transactional theory (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

Frank & Frank (1996) examined the unexplained illnesses that were documented in both veterans of the Persian Gulf War and in soldiers stationed in the Philippines during World War II. In both groups, patients exhibited similar symptoms (including weakness, fatigue, and headaches) that could not be attributed to any one source. Because troops in both settings also experienced intensely confusing and threatening information about their personal safety, they suggest that the symptoms represent physiological reactions to demoralizing stress.

Wright, Marlow & Gifford (1996) describe the stresses experienced by soldiers as they prepared for war during Operation Desert Shield, the buildup period to the Persian Gulf War. Information gleaned from interviews conducted during this tense period of uncertainty has provided important data on soldiers’ adaptation, morale, cohesion, family (and personal) relationships, and concerns, as well as on potential problems they encountered. This includes observation of the effects of anticipatory stress and its ramifications for groups and individuals. The experiences and perceptions of combat and support units stationed in the Persian Gulf during the early months of the deployment were compared. Their work resulted in information that can present clinical, research, and community-based recommendations that can inform the actions of civic and military leaders, clinicians, and family members during future military contingencies.

Bartone & Ender (1994) reviewed how casualty policies have developed in the US Army, and draw on the Army’s casualty experience to suggest some ways in which organizational responses to death might facilitate healthy adjustment for survivors. Military casualty activities serve important social and psychological functions because they impact on individual mental health and unit morale. A variety of studies (e.g., J.W. Pennebaker et al., 1990) have shown that programs/activities that increase a sense of positive meaning regarding trauma and loss can facilitate healthy psychological adjustment for survivors. Casualty workers themselves can benefit from supportive organizational policies.

Armfield (1994) discussed various models for preventing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and examined future directions for PTSD prevention. Historically 10-50% of all casualties result in PTSD. The best treatment suggested by Armfield is rest and ventilation of feelings followed by return to duty and peer group. Preventing the PTSD cycle from starting and thus decreasing psychiatric casualties is reported as feasible. This can be done by promoting unit cohesion and morale, inducing stress during training so individuals will be better prepared to cope, providing realistic information about what to expect in combat, and holding group debriefings immediately after traumatic events. Stress inoculation therapy and critical incident stress debriefing are recommendations suggested.

ISBN: 978-1615991532

Amazon Page: http://www.amazon.com/Crisis-American-Heartland-Coming-Home/dp/1615991530

About the author

George Doherty resides in Laramie, WY where he founded the Rocky Mountain Region Disaster Mental Health Institute, Inc. He is currently employed as the President/CEO of this organization and also serves as Clinical Coordinator of the Snowy Range Critical Incident Stress Management Team. He has been involved with disaster relief since 1995, serving as a Disaster Mental Health Specialist with such incidents as the UP train wreck in Laramie, Hurricane Fran in North Carolina, the Cincinnati floods in Falmouth, KY and Tropical Storm Allison in Southeast Texas. He served as an officer in the US Air Force and was an OTS instructor, squadron commander and other positions on Active Duty. Additionally, he served 11 years involved in Air Search & Rescue with Civil Air Patrol in WY as Squadron Commander, Deputy Wing Commander, Air Operations Officer, and Master Observer. He is a member of a national crisis care network, providing assistance to companies and other organizations following critical incidents involving sudden deaths and similar traumatic events.

 

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