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What kinds of stress do soldiers usually encounter during an overseas deployment?

Our work shows that soldiers’ families have to cope with particular fears. One of the social fears is the long time spent away from home. Firstly, there are the challenges of being in a long-distance relationship and of being away from loved ones and friends at home. Being apart from children is particularly difficult, but so is missing one’s familiar environment and trusted surroundings. Added to this are the various degrees of soldiers’ mobility. The deployment does not automatically end when returning home. As a rule of thumb, the family system requires roughly the same amount of time for family units to settle back down again as the duration of the separation itself. The second level of challenges comprises physical threats. These include bodily danger scenarios (fear of being wounded, killed, etc.). A third level consists of fears relating to the phenomena of psychological (mental) hazards. This means the possibility of experiences which are not easy to deal with, and could result in a longer-term strain on the psyche.

It is not common for soldiers in Germany to have to deal with death during overseas deployments. Nevertheless, certain topics are becoming more controversial, such as the number of German soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In your opinion, what should a member of the armed forces definitely expect during an overseas deployment, and what are they (routinely) prepared for?

Research into psychological resilience, mental fitness, the ability to cope with stress, and salutogenesis attempts to explain when and how people subject to particular stresses can be preventively prepared – and how they can ideally be supported in a specific emergency. Despite significant progress, we are still in the very early stages when it comes to scientifically explaining the conditions. The fact is that thousands of soldiers have been confronted with extreme borderline situations that cannot be integrated straightforwardly into everyday life at home using conventional coping strategies. As examples, I will just mention the combat missions in Afghanistan, and the entirely different types of challenges currently faced by fellow members of the armed forces in the navy when dealing with the refugee situation. Day after day, on their warships in the Mediterranean, they are dealing with unending human suffering and death. It is very difficult to prepare oneself for stresses of this kind – and yet it is essential to do so. At the very least, possible scenarios should be considered and prepared for, and particular situations and experiences should be discussed together. Ultimately, however, the individual case always becomes unpredictable when the scenario occurs in conjunction with specific human fate. This is where Innere Führung, the military chaplaincy, the whole psychosocial network, family support, and all bodies involved in preparation and follow-up work for soldiers play a key role, including the soldiers’ social environment.

To answer your question more specifically: soldiers are prepared in particular – and this should come as no surprise – for “military challenges.” But this preparation should also directly include all psychosocial challenges for partnerships, education, health. etc. There is certainly still much to do here, even though much progress has been made. Before and after an overseas deployment, it takes time and requires space to work through things with the troops, with family members, and it especially takes time alone with oneself. As with any job in a “greedy” institution – namely, one that makes demands on the whole person (I would venture a comparison with police officers, fire and emergency service workers, or doctors) – it is not possible to prepare for every experience. But any experience can be followed up. That should be a key standard if we value the people who are entrusted to us.

PTSD means that the psychological stress disorder may not occur until years later. At that point, sufferers should immediately be taken seriously. They should be able to access competence centers and drop-in centers unbureaucratically and quickly – and not have to seek them out.

What are the biggest challenges for the family before, during, and after a soldier’s overseas deployment?

The challenges differ greatly. The stresses experienced by a single person can be very different from those that a young family or a mature couple close to retirement have to put up with. Children experience the absence of their father or mother in ways that vary greatly between individuals, and they go through much more emotion than older family members who can rationally understand the situation. Some smaller children, for example, ask if it is their “fault” that daddy or mommy is away for so long. Others don’t even have a strong concept of time yet that would enable them to be clear in their own minds about how long their parent will be away. Age-appropriate preparation is required here.

Next to the specific absence of a partner because of deployments, fear and stressful preparation time of course also play a role. In addition, the after-effects continue to be felt until the experiences have largely been dealt with. In fact, families first have to learn – with greater or lesser difficulty – to live their everyday lives without the absent person. After they return, everyone involved has to learn to make room for the returnee again. Hardly any couple or any family can simply continue after the deployment in the same way they did before. That is normal. But it is also a fundamental opportunity to revitalize any relationship. To do this, however, perhaps we should distance ourselves a little from socially romanticized notions that everyday life and love are a matter of course.

What can the family do?

My key advice here is: don’t keep your thoughts and feelings from each other. Openly discuss fears and needs, expectations and difficulties. Make sure your bonds are strong, and talk, talk, talk. Take children’s fears seriously, and answer their questions honestly. Incidentally, the unpleasant questions about possible dangers can be answered honestly, and age-appropriately, without causing panic – if it is made clear that there are dangers, but that daddy or mommy is very well prepared.

The proportion of women in the German armed forces currently stands at just over ten percent. What is your experience of female soldiers – do they deal with challenges differently, and how?

First of all, I would like to speak from personal experience: in the 15 years that I have worked in this field, my experience is that female soldiers are definitely a great asset. The challenges for a female soldier are very similar. However, one difference, for example, is that because of absences (mobility requirements such as overseas deployments), a guilty conscience towards children and the family can play a greater role than for male soldiers. This is tangible especially when children are very young. Achieving a specific work–family balance is usually more complicated and more emotional for women with children. In other respects, the mechanisms and conditions are similar, regardless of gender.

Separations in military relationships are not uncommon. What can these couples do to help their partnership?

Ultimately, like other relationships, military relationships fail because of unsuccessful communication between the partners. Above all, it is essential to make sure, time and again, that you have what is referred to as “partner knowledge.” It is natural that expectations and fears about life together change. Questions of meaning also change over the course of life. But to know and understand how these conditions have changed, and to take steps in the right direction with regard to relationship planning, will be critical in determining whether both partners and children feel that they are involved in the decision-making. Military families – perhaps more than other families and couples – need to constantly review and develop their future plans together. There is no lifelong certainty or resolve. Human expectations and dislikes change in this professional context.

The conditions of the military profession demand a special vigilance for one another. It is important that the employer should provide support, along with all pastoral and welfare bodies and institutions. In the military as elsewhere, success cannot be guaranteed. But there is always a big chance of having a fulfilling lifelong partnership!

The Bundeswehr has recruitment problems. Last year, less than 10,000 out of 12,500 places on the voluntary military service (Freiwilliger Wehrdienst) program were filled. One contrib­uting factor is the difficulty of balancing a career in the Bundeswehr with family life. In your view, what can the Bundeswehr do to improve this? And what should applicants be clear about?

Without a doubt, the conditions are special. The military profession per se is not really family friendly. Everyone involved knows this. Nevertheless, every day I see fulfilled and happy military families. And it can be said that the general conditions have improved greatly over the last 20 years, as far as the central issues are concerned. At the same time, of course, there is still a lot of work to be done. And yet ultimately there is always one key aspect that determines whether an individual soldier feels, on a personal level, that their situation is family friendly: the possibility of being dynamically involved in shaping the key events and transitions in (family) life. Of course, it is obvious that the military profession sets natural and clear limits in this regard. But such an opportunity for involvement is definitely not a utopia. I find that the vast majority of soldiers are highly motivated people who are aware of the dangers and stresses. But the advantages and positive aspects of the military profession are ultimately decisive for many soldiers with their families. It is the major events and turning points in life, and not infrequently the personally challenging times, for which military families desire opportunities for responsible involvement and flexibility.

Dr. Wendl, thank you for this candid interview.