20 September 2014

Embracing the Suck: Depression and Deployment

Why are combat deployments so depressing?  You're talking to an expert, not because I am severely depressed (this post is not a "cry for help,") nor because I have extensive psychological training, though I did sleep in a military barracks last night.

I have claim to expertise because I think about these things a lot and I write about the things I think about.

During overseas War on Terror operations, a common mantra has been, "embrace the suck." It encapsulates much of the deployed experience. A good friend of mine even wrote a book with the title. He hopes that it "will provide [the reader] with strength, courage, wisdom, and faith plus a little bit of humor and hope to get through each day while deployed."

Why do readers need some courage and hope to get through deployments?

"Embrace the suck" is an idea elegantly loaded with prescriptive value, but has no diagnostic value. Whether it's the tidbits of inspiration in the book or the idea that suckiness can be lovingly accepted and held, ETS helps Soldiers soldier on, as it were. But it doesn't help those Soldiers' families and friends understand exactly whence the suckiness comes.

That's where "My Public Affairs" comes in. Here are five reasons why deployments depress.

1. Isolation from family and friends

First, being away from home, for most people, sucks. There is a class of Soldier that likes being away from home. This is strange. As in, not normal. It might beg a larger discussion, but one of the policy reasons for sending us over here nine months to a year at a time is to prevent disruptions at home. In other words, the Army deploys precisely to make it more likely that people can lead normal lives with their families most of the time.

Communication with loved ones is hard for Soldiers away from their families, and the disruptions are intense. It is compounded for those with children-- the absence can often be wrenching for me, as I see snapshots of my two boys growing and developing in spurts. Trying the optimistic tack-- looking forward to a time when I'll be with them and will get to enjoy their energy and love, makes the present even harder.

2. It's a small, small world

Another reason that a deployment depresses the soul is the limited people and geography. Forget the suckiness of seeing little more than the same dozen buildings every day, traversing the exact same path to get to the laundry or to a meal. The work we do is mostly routine and monotonous, and makes the world feel even smaller. For the vast majority of Soldiers, work in a war zone is anything but glamorous. It's assembly line labor. Even the guys who go out of the wire usually patrol the same road every week or visit the same small Afghan village. Or guard the same entry control point every night. In public affairs we write the same stories... just change the names.

It's not terribly different from the work a lot of Americans do. But Soldiers don't get weekends. We can't go to a new restaurant tonight just to mix it up. Often, at home, I'd grab a book and head to the coffee shop for a few hours. Here, I'm just going to see that same people I'm trying to take a break from.

3. Everyone sees (and cares) what you're up to

That brings to mind the distinct lack of privacy. Here, there are very little alone time, and no "alone place." Everything from sleeping to showering is done in the company of others.

For a lone wolf like me, living under the microscope for so long is withering.

It goes without saying that there is no sex on a deployment. For accuracy's sake, there might be sex happening out here, but it is punishable by fine and demotion.

4. It's hot

There are other factors to the suck. The heat is inescapable at times. It's dusty. The only basketball court is concrete and outdoors. No McDonald's. No good steak. No a lot of things. The mission seems murky or unattainable. Many Soldiers confess to very low levels of satisfaction in their work.

There are a million little things for me and every other human being that can add up to a big thing.

5. Big Brother doesn't requite your love

But by far the biggest factor in The Suck is the Army itself. Working under the weight of a tired, uncompassionate, unforgiving, relentless bureaucracy can figuratively suck the life out of you. I have written about this many times before.

The deployment cycle begins with excitement and motivation, followed by bouts of frustration and constructive defiance. After the inevitable defeats, Soldiers lose the energy to defy and create, entering a period of lethargic resignation, like to cruise control. Toward the end, some Soldiers begin the surrender phase. If you've ever read the final paragraph of 1984, you'll know what this looks like.
He was not running or cheering any longer....  The long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain.... But it was all right, everything was all right, he had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. 
Winston Smith embraced the suck. And then he was dead. Of course the killing that the Army does is only metaphoric. It kills the creative spirit. And I know that there are "resiliency" tactics to combat feelings of defeat to Big Army Brother. But those tactics drain mental and emotional resources. They cause stress. The body and brain can only cope for so long. About a year, as it turns out.

The all-important fifth phase of the deployment cycle is the elation of returning home.

Let's hope I can hold out that long.

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