This is part two of a four-part series. Look for part three of Suzanne Nagel's observations from her graduate research into the topic on November 2. On November 9, we will wrap up the series with expert advice on where to find help.
Well, here goes. Last week introduced my research of the possible adverse effects routine exposure to trauma can have on people working in the public affairs profession. I promised you a synopsis of some of the data I found while doing my thesis research paper: Public Affairs, Private Lives: A Study on the Effect of Combat Exposure on Public Affairs Soldiers.
It’s difficult to condense 78 pages to a couple 500-word blogs, so I’ll cover the deployment experiences and thoughts on training this week. Next week, I will focus on PTSD and attitudes within public affairs that surround this illness.
I asked the soldiers in my study to characterize their deployment experiences. I wanted to know what was going through their minds when they were exposed to something difficult. The soldiers characterized their experiences as stressful, traumatic and life-changing. They saw and experienced events that they sometimes cannot process or put into a proper context.
“It’s traumatic. It’s very surreal. It’s something you can never really explain or compartmentalize,” one Soldier said, describing his first encounter with an IED. “No matter how many times I would tell myself over and over again, it was something I couldn’t place, it didn’t happen.”
Some described daily firefights and mortar attacks. Others described collecting very graphic historical footage of U.S. operations for classified Army archives. They planned memorial services and wrote death announcements for fallen comrades, documented fatal crashes and helped recover bodies after earthquakes.
One Soldier said she is still haunted by one assignment documenting evacuations of wounded children in Afghanistan to be treated at U.S. clinics.
“Some children clung to me. Some children spit at me. Some children posed for me for photographs and some family members embraced me, but the look in the eyes of the Afghan people, whose lives we were completely flipping up-side-down, whether anyone was emotionally attached to it or not, that trauma, that terror, that fear and that way that those people looked at us.
“I’m haunted by the tears.”
One of the most stressful jobs, however, is preparing death packets and memorial services for soldiers killed in action.
“There was a lot of loss. You meet guys along the way and I was assigned to write about people,” one Soldier said. “A month later, I was covering their memorial services. You are preparing the death packets for press and you see their smiling faces in the photos. You think about the families. The memorials are very difficult.”
To make matters more difficult, they also feel like they have to prove their worth in a combat unit to overcome misperceptions. They don’t want to appear weak or be perceived as a liability. Building rapport can be challenging, too.
Training, they said, does not prepare them for the experiences.
Most said that nothing could prepare them for the unique aspects of combat. While the Defense Information School focuses on making them technically proficient in core PA tasks, participants said the combat environment cannot be replicated in a school setting and they are not emotionally ready for what they see and experience.
Next week, I’ll talk about that emotional component and PTSD.
Suzanne Spitzfaden Nagel
Suzanne is the deputy public affairs officer for U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She began her civil service career with the Army in 1998 in what was then known as the 7th Army Training Center in Grafenwoer, Germany. Prior to joining Army public affairs, she was a print journalist in the civilian media market in North Carolina.