Although Germany has handed over the reins of the International Security Assistance Force to Canada, 1,700 German soldiers remain in Afghanistan. For some of them foreign deployments lead to pschological problems.
German soldiers in Afghanistan are under constant stress
For an increasing number of U.S. soldiers, their presence in Iraq is turning into a trauma. Recently, Pentagon doctor William Winkenwerder acknowledged that over 400 soldiers have had to be pulled out of the country due to psychological problems. The U.S. Army is also concerned about the growing number of suicides. Since the official end of combat in May, at least 21 U.S. soldiers have taken their own lives.
Experts agree that foreign deployments present an enormous strain on soldiers. Eleven soldiers have committed suicide since Germany's army, the Bundeswehr, started foreign deployments in 1990, the Defense Ministry told DW-WORLD. While the numbers remain low, preventive measures have failed to halt the increase in soldiers whose mental health is adversely affected by missions abroad, the ministry contended.
The duration, the growing number of foreign deployments and the "increase in traumatic experiences" all contribute to the soldiers' difficulties, 1.0 to 1.5 percent of whom suffer from mental problems. Internationally, the average is between 2.0 and 2.5 percent.
"The number of unknown cases is even greater," said Marcus Garbers, head of care and welfare at the Bundeswehr Association, which represents the interests of soldiers. Statistics only reflect part of the reality, since soldiers often don't dare talk about mental problems. Psychologists assert that some superiors think soldiers who don't "hold their own" are unfit.
Symptoms arise months later
German ISAF soldiers bear the coffin of a comrade at the military airport in Cologne in June 2003 after a suicide bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Despite good preparation, life in a military camp unsettles some soldiers. In Afghanistan, for example, soldiers have practically no privacy, family and friends are far away and the danger of attacks is all present. While traumatic experiences, such as the suicide bomb attack on a German Army bus in Kabul in June 2003, are rare, they can't be ruled out.
The attack, which killed four German soldiers and injured 29, left both physical and psychological scars. The victims and the people who came to their aid are still trying to come to terms with what they experienced.
Mental problems often arise months after foreign missions have concluded. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) appears as panic attacks, a racing pulse, dizziness and diarrhea, as well as aggression, a feeling of emptiness and frustration. If untreated, PTSD can continue for decades. Fifteen years after the end of the Vietnam War, 250,000 U.S. veterans still suffered from PTSD, according to the German reservist magazine Loyal.
The Bundeswehr Association also says that foreign deployments wreak havoc on relationships. Divorces and separations have increased. "More and more soldiers are calling who complain about family problems after foreign deployments," Garbers said.
The Bundeswehr Institute for Social Sciences (SOWI) confirmed that that was the case in a 2002 study that remains classified. A survey of NATO soldiers in Kosovo (KFOR) showed that 15 percent of partnerships had broken up. Very young soldiers with loose partnerships are usually the worst affected, the Defense Ministry stressed. But the authors of the SOWI study wrote that there was "no reason to be alarmed." They assumed that the "quality of marriages suffers as a result of the deployment, without an actual separation taking place."
That's why Garbers has called for soldiers to be sent abroad for four rather than six months, which he said Defense Minister Peter Struck has also publicly declared his aim. But the Defense Ministry remains reserved. "A reorientation of the contingent duration is currently being examined," it told DW-WORLD.