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Recently, while sitting at a Veteran's Administration facility in Wyoming, I spoke with an acquaintance as we waited for appointments. During our ten minute conversation, I learned about changes in the induction and training process that may be part of the reason that post-traumatic stress disorder is on the rise in today's military, especially in the U.S.
The man I spoke with is a recently-retired drill sergeant from the U.S. Army who served for nearly 30 years, about ten of which were as an instructor of 11-series recruits. These are the basic boots-on-the-ground soldiers; infantry in the Army. Sergeant A. asked not to be fully identified because his son, a disabled veteran, is still awaiting his claim's approval.
A recent study conducted by the U.S. Army shows that recruits have mental health issues at a rate similar to the civilian population at induction, but have a far higher rate of them upon leaving active service.
The screening process before being accepted into the armed services is meant to keep those with mental health issues from joining if those problems could be made worse by or complicate their military service. So although some pre-existing problems are likely being exacerbated by military service, it's more likely that there are other problems adding to and causing more mental health disturbances.
One of those problems are with changes in the training process. These were made recently in an effort to lower the rate of mental health concerns and feelings of harassment during the training process (which we could call "boot camp"). They include the addition of "stress opt out" indicators that require trainers to de-escalate their methods so as to keep recruits from getting over-stressed.
Traditionally, the U.S. Army's training methods during induction and boot camp have been very harsh, especially for those inductees slated to enter the infantry. Stress is built up over time in waves which include lack of sleep, a lot of yelling, surprise exercises, sudden changes of atmosphere and action, live ammunition drills, and more. These, as well as the physical stresses put on in order to toughen the body and get it into top physical condition, all serve to prepare the soldier for the unpredictability and high stress of combat. Most military veterans attest to the training process as being necessarily the toughest part of their military service in terms of how it affects their overall time in the military.
Sergeant A. informed me that the new changes, implemented "four or five years ago, I'd say," include the ability for most recruits to "opt out" of stressful training temporarily by holding up a "stress card." These are small cards that recruits are given when they enter training after undergoing medical evaluation. The cards can be held up at any time and require trainers to "back off." Any trainer who does not comply could face disciplinary measures themselves.
"Those damn cards changed everything," Sergeant A. said. "From that point on, recruits increasingly held them up as the idea of being 'tough' gave way to the new 'take it easy' attitude. I can honestly say that for the past two or three years, I do not think I graduated more than a dozen Privates who were actually ready for combat," he concluded. He estimates that this means about twelve out of several hundred, most of which were very likely destined for Afghanistan, Iraq, and other hot beds.
Quite often, Sergeant A. reported, drill sergeants would confiscate the cards from recruits and throw them away, only to get reported for it and cited. Some got away with the action, but with other changes like the fact that drill sergeants no longer have final say on who "washes out" (say who is not fit for service) in their trainee regiments - it now goes to a tribunal-like board - he says that fewer and fewer of those who are unfit for military service are sent home and most of them end up in situations that would only make their problems worse. Even fatal to them and their units.
Given how much we're expecting of troops today, including multiple tours in combat areas, it's no wonder PTSD and suicide rates are on such as a fast incline.
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