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'Frayed' from war: Spec ops reports alcohol abuse, stress, sleeplessness

Jul. 27, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Fuerzas Comando 2012 Airborne Operation
A survey of active-duty special operators shows some feel stretched and stressed, and the command says it needs more professionals to help them. (Sgt. Christopher Vann / Army)
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After 12 years of war, the military's most elite forces are 'frayed' and reporting struggles with alcohol, sleeplessness and emotional numbness.

After 12 years of war, the military's most elite forces are 'frayed' and reporting struggles with alcohol, sleeplessness and emotional numbness.

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After 12 years of war, the military’s most elite forces are “frayed” and reporting struggles with alcohol, sleeplessness and emotional numbness.

In a survey of active-duty special operations forces, nearly 10 percent of respondents reported potential alcohol abuse or dependence, 8 percent said they were uncharacteristically irritable or angry, and more than one-quarter of those surveyed said they were sleeping five or fewer hours a night.

Many marriages among these frequently deployed troops also are struggling — more than 14 percent of survey respondents said they were less than happy with their marriages, while 17 percent said they wish they had never married.

The goal of the survey was to hear directly from the force, and U.S. Special Operations Command is implementing several initiatives to tackle these issues, including hiring more psychologists and nutritionists, and putting in place a system to give service members more time at home, said Navy Capt. Tom Chaby, a SEAL and director of SOCOM’s Preservation of the Force and Families Task Force.

“We knew the force was frayed, that there were challenges,” Chaby said.

Many of these challenges came to light when Adm. William McRaven, the SOCOM commander, conducted town hall meetings, held 455 focus groups and met with more than 7,000 of his troops shortly after he took command, and they were confirmed in the survey, Chaby said.

The 67,000-strong special operations force — including Army Rangers, Special Forces and aviators, Navy SEALs, Air Force pararescuemen and combat controllers, and Marine special operators — has been turning and burning for the past 12 years. Many are deployed more than they’re home, often going overseas for six or seven months at a time and leaving home for weeks at a time for training.

Special operators are expected to continue playing a key role during the Afghanistan drawdown.

“Since 9/11, we have doubled in size, our budget has tripled, and the number of deployed special operations forces has quadrupled,” McRaven said last year during testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It is clear the demand for special operations capability will remain high.”

SOCOM has forces in more than 70 countries, and it will be critical for the force and their families to remain strong, McRaven said.

“A decade of war has exerted a physical and emotional stress on our force and their families,” he said. “I am committed to the preservation of the force and their families. The demands on special operations forces will not end in the foreseeable future.”

The survey was sent out Oct. 30 to active-duty troops and their spouses, said Ryan Caserta, a biostatistician and sports psychologist for the task force.

About 10,270 active-duty operators responded, along with 1,415 spouses, for a 15.5 percent response rate, he said.

“This is our first main effort to truly assess the force,” Caserta said. “Ultimately, this survey is something we’d like to be able to do on an annual basis.”

There are plans for additional surveys, including for National Guard and Reserve special operations troops, for behavioral health providers who work with special operations troops, and for operators who are deploying for a year or more at a time.

“We’re very interested to get a better understanding of the dynamics they’re facing, the concerns they have and their spouses have while they’re deployed,” Chaby said. “Some are going for year-plus deployments. Afghanistan is an example. The other guys’ [deployments] are more episodical, six-month windows. It’s a different requirement, and it’s going to require a different solution for that demographic.”

Professional help

Chaby said SOCOM and task force leadership were “really concerned” about some of the survey’s findings. One example is the 10 percent of respondents who reported potential alcohol abuse or dependence, especially since 2 percent of them indicated they were getting help, Chaby said.

“Let’s get rid of the stigma and get people help,” he said.

The stigma still exists, but Chaby said he believes “we’ve made incredible headway.”

“People will go in and realize they’re not going to lose their security clearance, they’re not going to be removed from their unit,” he said. “We just want them to get the help they need.”

Much of the progress must begin at the unit level, Chaby said.

When he commanded SEAL Team 5, Chaby said the team stopped in Germany on their way home from a deployment. There, during a “decompression stop,” Chaby required each of his SEALs to spend at least 20 minutes with a chaplain or a counselor.

“If all they talked about was sports, that’s fine, but that professional was present,” Chaby said.

Each conversation was confidential, except if a service member displayed any indicators for suicide, he said.

SOCOM reported 10 suicides in 2011, 19 in 2012, and 12 so far this year.

Of the 550 troops in his task force, about 30 sought follow-on visits with a chaplain or behavioral health professional after returning to the U.S., Chaby said.

“I have no idea what their challenge was, but there was zero stigma and they were encouraged to go,” he said. “We’re working through these things and we’re seeing progress.”

SOCOM also is working with the services to provide its troops with more access to behavioral health care.

In the survey, 8 percent of respondents reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and 11 percent reported emotional numbness, Chaby said. But 4 percent reported seeking help.

“The services are doing a good job,” he said. “But it’s just so much. The bandwidth isn’t there.”

To help fill the gap, SOCOM plans to temporarily hire 132 psychologists and licensed clinical social workers. Taking a cue from the Army, the command also is embedding behavioral health providers and chaplains in their units to the battalion level, Chaby said.

“If everything we’re doing prevents one suicide, it’s worth it,” he said.

The home front

The task force is also focused on families and the time service members get at home.

“Divorce has always been an element in the military, but that doesn’t make it acceptable,” Chaby said. “I think we owe it to our troops to look at the whole package. Families are a part of readiness.”

The command is making an effort to keep families informed of what’s going on, setting up an infrastructure they can rely on when their loved one is deployed, and trying to provide as much predictability as possible, Chaby said.

SOCOM also is implementing a system called Defense Ready to better manage its personnel tempo.

“A lot of times, we focus solely on the deployment piece,” Chaby said. “For special operations, our battlefield requirements are so unique, so diverse, so extensive, we are forced to train across the U.S. We can’t do it all at home base.”

This means operators often leave home for three to five weeks at a time for training, he said.

“What we’re finding is it puts more stress on the spouses and families than the actual deployment,” he said. “With deployments, there’s consistency. When the husband or wife is going away, coming back, it’s very disruptive. When you let people know what to expect, it makes things so much easier.”

The command is “committed to giving some of our service members’ lives back to the family,” Chaby said. “A quote we pulled from the survey was ‘I can say ‘no’ to everything and ‘yes’ to nothing.’”

Defense Ready “is to protect us from ourselves,” Chaby said.

This means ensuring troops get the proper rest between training and deployments.

“Let’s say I’m getting ready to deploy to an extremely unstable environment,” Chaby said. “I want to go with the best. Unfortunately, the A team keeps deploying. You have to find solutions and employ leadership where you bring the B team up to par to take some of the heat off the A team.”

Under Defense Ready, commanders will have to get a waiver from McRaven to deploy people past the thresholds he has set, Chaby said.

“Obviously, we’re very concerned about battlefield readiness and battlefield success, but this is forcing leaders to do what they were hired to do and lead,” Chaby said.

The task force will focus on four pillars — human performance, psychological performance, social performance and spiritual performance, Chaby said.

“We’re building training programs to build resilience … to give people the tools to face what they’re going through,” he said. “It’s all about taking care of our force.”

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