Deployment Stressors and Their Effects

Troy Todd, Ph.D., BCN

By Maj. (Dr.) Troy Todd, USAF Psychologist in: The Air Force Psychologist, The Society of Air Force Psychologists, vol. 28, issue 2, Feb. 2009, pp. 7-9.

This article is an attempt to outline the stressors of deployment, related coping mechanisms, and their effects on the military member. Hopefully, it will help provide a better understanding of the effects of deployment on the military member.

Since many stressors of deployment are unanticipated, the military member may hastily select coping mechanisms that are sub- optimal. Further, in differing degrees, the deployed environment deprives military members of commonly used coping mechanisms. Persistence in using sub-optimal coping mechanisms in the home environment may result in abandonment of more effective methods. This may lead to a decreased ability to manage psychologically taxing situations, or an avoidance of the same.

Initial reaction to deployment may include excitement, interest, and/or a desire to earn additional money. However, these positive reactions may also evoke counter- feelings of guilt regarding leaving behind family members or responsibilities. It may provoke purely negative feelings of anger, sadness, dismay, or fear. Since society often promotes the expression of negative emotions in indirect ways, a military member may become argumentative, insolent or depressed as their deployment approaches.

Military members may have powerful feelings of attachment towards family members. Deployment requires separation, on one level or other, from these relationships. Globally constraining emotions helps to reduce the associated emotional pain and the overall negative experience of unpleasant events during deployment, while reducing the memory of these events. However, when applied to traumatic events that contain themes contrary to the military member’s world view, it may promote re-experiencing the event.

Using constrained emotions while socializing, especially with family members, may lead to confusing emotional experiences. This may result in feelings of emotional dissatisfaction in family relationships. This, in turn, may lead to avoiding these now dissatisfying relationships. Developing new relationships with constrained emotions may cause them to be unsatisfying. Thus surrounded by unsatisfying relationships, the military member may resort to activities or relationships outside their normal behavior set.

If the military member experiences an event that prompts emotions while using emotional constraint, they may experience an almost uncontrollable flood of emotion. One of the strongest precipitants of this is witnessing injury to children. Other precipitants include injury or death of others and situations that remind the military member of family members. The military member may assess this flood of emotion as being pathological, especially if the precipitant is not readily identifiable. This may predispose the military member to assume a disordered role.

Inherent in deployment are multiple role changes for both the military member and their family members. When the military member is deployed, family members must absorb additional responsibilities. Deployment also provides unique stressors to family members. This may result in a significant reduction in the amount of emotional support family members can provide to the deployed military member. This is compounded by reduced and unreliable communications inherent in the deployed environment. Thus, the military member may perceive that family members are apathetic towards them. Since some deployment experiences cannot be adequately explained to family members (or the military member feels this is the case), family members may perceive the military member as uninterested in communicating with them, leading to further estrangement. This condition may promote argumentative behavior, infidelity, and/or depressive feelings.

Mid-deployment leave is an attempt to provide a respite from the stressors of deployment. Although it can provide this, it also adds stress to the deployed experience. The leave period is usually about two weeks long, but may require between two weeks and a month of stressful travel experiences. Returning home can provide tangible evidence of what has been missed. Reunion with family members encourages reduction in emotional constraint. However, military members may opt to keep their emotions constrained during leave, prompting emotional confusion in family members. Re- constraining emotions to return to the deployed environment may also be stressful. Thus, reunion may be assessed as a negative experience, and my evoke avoidance behaviors.

During the leave period, a military member may engage in behaviors that increase stress, such as pregnancy or arrest. If family members have been attempting to withhold information from the deployed member, it will likely be revealed during their visit. A higher level of medical care in the home environment enhances the possibility of detection of pathology which may limit or delay return to the deployed environment. This could prompt reactions in the system that would provide stressful situations to the military member during and after deployment. Military members may attempt to avoid reunion with family members, highlight pathology to remain home, dread leave, or use the hope of it to mitigate other stressors.

Deployment may bring relief from home stressors. The concrete nature of deployed stressors may present a stark contrast to home stressors. Thus, the military member may develop a preference for the stressors of the deployed environment, engaging in actions that maximize contact with the deployed environment. This may cause friction in relationships with family members.

There is pressure in the deployed environment for the military member to remain professional in all ways and at all times since work and personal environments are essentially the same. Therefore, some amount of attention must be allocated at all times to regulate behavior. This may reduce the amount of energy available for coping mechanisms and increase stress. As a result of most deployed persons attempting to maintain this façade, there is less complexity in the deployed social environment. This may predispose the military member to frustration when operating in more complex social environments.

Deployment appears to promote reduced cognitive performance. Characteristics of forgetfulness, reduced working memory, and difficulty encoding data may persists as side effects of constraining emotions, sleep depravation, lack of cognitive activity and long work hours. The military member may become habituated to this condition, resulting in reduced personal expectations of personal ability.

Physical aspects of the deployed environment are characterized by filth, instability, makeshift contraptions, limited resources and continuously transitional living. Some military members expend considerable time, energy, and expense obtaining and working resources to improve their environment. It is evident that this endeavor not only makes their living spaces more comfortable, but the effort itself serves as a coping mechanism. The deployed environment may condition attitudes and behaviors that lead to excessive spending or accepting a low level of cleanliness and functionality in the environment.

Many factors combine to require large amounts of time and energy to accomplish any task in the deployed environment. Facilities necessary for daily living are usually not located proximal to living quarters. Living quarters are rarely well organized or clean. Due to actual or presumed enemy activity, military members may be required to wear or carry bulky and heavy equipment throughout the day.

Nightfall, equipment failure, maintenance, frequency of enemy activity, and policy changes enhance this stressor. At unpredictable times, the military member may be required to abandon work, sleep, hygiene activities, and meals to seek shelter, fight or work. The learned anticipation of needing to expend large amounts of energy to accomplish a task, or be prevented from accomplishing it by some event, may result in task neglect, despite its importance.

Various levels of command effect the deployed environment. Some effects may enhance the deployed environment. Others may appear unnecessary, wasteful, or dangerous to the military member. These are fairly well tolerated in the non-deployed environment where access to usual coping mechanisms is available. In the deployed environment, a reduced set of coping mechanisms and a heightened desire for mission accomplishment combine to increase intolerance of command effects perceived as inappropriate. This may promote an attitude of rebelliousness that may persist in the home environment. Since command influence is reduced in more physically dangerous environments, the military member may seek assignment to these areas. Military member may also hope for physical or psychological injury to escape these and other deployment stressors.

To varying degrees, military members anticipate using their skills and efforts to advance the cause for which they are called to deploy. In the non-deployed environment, military members may perceive their efforts do not contribute and thus may hope for different feelings in the deployed environment. However, many of the same conditions that prompt this feeling in the non- deployed environment are present in the deployed environment.