Military’s Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre (PRC) at Pune provides rehabilitation support to paraplegic and tetraplegic soldiers. Most of the inmates are victims of bullet or other injuries sustained during action in war and counter-insurgency operations. During 1990s, a military delegation from a European country visited PRC. One foreign delegate wanted to know the suicide rate amongst the inmates. He found it difficult to believe that it was nil. In his country, he admitted, nearly 30 percent paraplegic soldiers exhibit suicidal tendencies and have to be kept under constant supervision. He wanted to know what made Indian soldiers so tough mentally to be able to withstand such trauma without losing the will to live. “The Indian soldier is inherently very strong mentally and can withstand extreme privations without breaking down. Additionally, faith in religion and unflinching family support act as shields,” Director, PRC explained.
As per reports appearing in the press, the Indian Army lost 333 soldiers due to suicides and 75 soldiers to fratricide during the period 2004 to 2006. It has been a cause of major concern. Such incidents were unheard of earlier.
The above incident has been recalled to compare it with the spate of suicides and fratricides occurring in the recent past. As per reports appearing in the press, the Indian Army lost 333 soldiers due to suicides and 75 soldiers to fratricide during the period 2004 to 2006. It has been a cause of major concern. Such incidents were unheard of earlier. Where have these things gone wrong? Why have the soldiers become so weak mentally? Agreed that the increased level of insurgency imposes additional strain on the troops, but then Indian troops have been used to prolonged deployments in uncongenial areas. The Army that could fight war in sub-zero temperatures in lofty Himalayas without proper winter clothing in 1962 without a whimper of protest could possibly not become so frail as to be unable to withstand the current hardships. Have there been any disquieting changes? Has the stress level reached such alarming proportions that the soldiers are unable to cope with them and resort to desperate acts?
A number of studies have been carried out to identify reasons for unacceptable levels of stress felt by Indian soldiers. Unfortunately, the emphasis has always been on material, obvious and well-known reasons – prolonged deployment in highly dangerous environments protracted separation from families, financial inequities and lack of liberty (as enjoyed by other citizens). These are all very relevant factors and do contribute in generating considerable stress. However, as mentioned earlier, these factors have always been in existence and soldiers have been braving them with fortitude. Therefore, there ought to be other reasons that generate stress which crosses the threshold of endurance of some soldiers and makes them break-down. What causes stress to become distress? This paper attempts to highlight those aspects which have generally remained unidentified.
Soldiers and Stress
Although stress is a biological term, it is commonly used in a metaphorical sense. It has also come to be accepted as a euphemism for describing difficulties faced by an individual. Every one faces challenges in life. These could be due to professional, societal and domestic environment. These challenges vary in intensity and are handled appropriately by human bodies, both at physical and emotional levels. Failure to adapt to challenges results in perceiving them as threats, which in turn generates pressures. When pressures become severe, human organism gets strained to respond. Extreme pressures become stress. Some experts consider stress to be as a subjective sensation as it differs with individuals with varied symptoms. When stress surpasses ability to handle, it becomes a threat to both physical and emotional well-being. While stress refers to the reaction of the organism, stressor implies perceived threat.
However, stress within manageable limits is not only desirable but essential. It acts as an engine that drives humans to excel. Unless a human experiences sufficient stress, enough adrenaline does not get produced to propel him to strive for achieving objectives beyond his normal capabilities. Stress is thus, an integral part of human functioning and is a catalyst for fulfillment of aspirations.
…stress within manageable limits is not only desirable but essential. It acts as an engine that drives humans to excel.
Stresses faced by soldiers are entirely different from those faced by civilians, both in nature and intensity. These stresses threaten emotional and psychological equilibrium of soldiers and generate the “fight-or-flight” response. Some of the major peculiarities are as follows:-
- Whereas stresses faced by civilians generally relate to material and societal issues, soldiers face both physical (threat to life) and emotional stresses. Civilians have their families with them to share their concerns unlike a soldier who has to bear it all alone – lack of family support in times of emotional disturbances is thus, a major contributory factor.
- Military’s highly disciplined, hierarchal and restrictive environment deters giving vent to or sharing pent up frustrations. Howsoever disturbed a soldier may be he has to put up a façade of bravado. Bottled up discontentment with no escape valve results in a ‘pressure cooker effect’. Additionally, military service is a long term commitment. Unlike civilians, soldiers cannot switch jobs if not satisfied.
- Serving in isolated, lonely and oxygen-starved high altitude areas of the Himalayas affects physiology and psychology of soldiers. For example, many soldiers fear that continued exposure to ultra-violet rays and lack of oxygen would affect their reproductive organs. Fear of impotency becomes highly stressful.
- Inability to be with parents and family in times of domestic emergencies weighs heavily on the minds of many soldiers. They do understand problems relating to exigencies of military service and distances from home, but tend to suffer from guilt complex. They feel that they have failed their parents or family. Earlier joint family system took care of many such exigencies.
- The search for recognition is one of the pursuits which all human beings indulge in and continuously strive for. The same is equally applicable to soldiers. They draw strength to face privations from the love and respect that their countrymen extend to them. Conversely, they are very sensitive to unfair and ill-informed criticism. They wonder if the nation recognises their services and values them. It causes immense despair to them. Consequently, their capacity to withstand adversities suffers.
When Stress becomes a Threat
As has been discussed earlier, stress within limits is desirable. However, once the threshold gets crossed, warning signals must be taken note of and preventive mechanism activated. As prevention is always better than cure, it is best to identify stressors and initiate advance action to minimise their intensity.
The Indian Army is a command oriented organization. Promotions are totally dependent on command performance. All commanders in their respective short tenures have to earn their spurs and hence cannot allow any leisure time to the troops.
Additionally, troops and commanders should be trained and prepared to manage them. Some of the major stressors faced by Indian soldiers have been discussed below.
Given India’s geographical compulsions with long boundaries with inimical neighbours and internal unrest, Army’s commitments are going to remain heavy in the foreseeable future. Therefore, troops will continue to have prolonged tenures in remote and dangerous environments. National security can never be compromised as that is the raison d’être of the Army. What can, however, be done is to minimise, and even eliminate, avoidable and extraneous work load. There is immense scope for the same.
One of the primary reasons for excessive work load is unduly short command tenures, as increase in command vacancies has not kept pace with increase in higher ranks. A unit commander stays in command for two years normally. In such a short period he has to make his mark and earn good reports to get nomination for career courses and promotion to the next rank. He drives his unit hard without any let up. Similarly, a brigade commander gets only 18 to 24 months to impress his military bosses to get nominated to the prestigious National Defence College course. He keeps his brigade on its toes, lest any undue relaxation spoils his career prospects. The same is the case with divisional commanders as their tenure rarely exceeds 18 months.
The Indian Army is a command oriented organization. Promotions are totally dependent on command performance. All commanders in their respective short tenures have to earn their spurs and hence cannot allow any leisure time to the troops. Such a state of affairs results in continued engagement of troops on field exercises, demonstrations, sand model exercises, training camps and field firing camps. Leaves get curtailed to ensure maximum presence at all activities. Troops get exhausted with no respite whatsoever.
Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA) is considered by most to be an avoidable encumbrance. Though well intentioned, it has degenerated into a parallel command structure with immense nuisance value. Every single unit commander wants to be freed from AWWA activities. There have been cases where unit commanders have preferred Siachen Glacier to peace tenures as they dreaded AWWA irritants. An infantry unit, when offered extended stay in a peace station, declined to accept it for similar reasons. AWWA activities are considered extraneous, burdensome, taxing and stressful. Most soldiers feel that the only purpose served by AWWA is to satisfy the ego of senior ladies and give them a façade/cover to meddle in normal military functioning.
The magnitude and frequency of celebrating unit days and other occasions has increased considerably during the last few decades. Organization of social functions for visiting dignitaries on five-star scale has become a routine. As these social dos are taken very seriously by the seniors, units get hard pressed to ensure flawless organization. In one of the divisions in a peace station, all units were asked to organize picnics by rotation and the unit commanders were graded accordingly for their organizational skills. Soldiers understand the absurdity of such employment and resent it. Such social activities mean additional work load for the troops with resultant reduction in leisure time.
Lack of Adequate Communication between Leaders and the Led
Group cohesiveness is the best protection against stress related break-downs and group cohesion is totally dependent on the degree of rapport built between commanders at various levels and their subordinates. Rapport, on the other hand, is a function of inter-personal communication in a group. Soldiers willingly repose unflinching faith in a commander who establishes an equation based on empathetic relationships. In other words, a commander assumes the role of a friend, guide and mentor. A soldier feels assured of his immediate commander’s support in all matters, both official and domestic.
Earlier, immense stress was laid on commanders knowing their men and their problems. Visiting officers used to check this aspect diligently. Platoon ‘make-and-mend parades’ and games with troops contributed in promoting rapport. Additionally, ‘arzi report’ and ‘sainik sammelan’ provided ample opportunities to the soldiers to put up their personal and collective points to commanders in the chain of command. Serious cognizance was taken of all issues raised and feedback provided to the concerned personnel. Commanders used the platform of ‘sainik sammelans’ to keep troops informed of various policy issues and other developments.