Protecting the protectors when they come home

More than 120 NZ Defence Force personnel serving at Camp Taji, Iraq, are part of a mission to train Iraqi troops. But ...
MIKE SCOTT/FAIRFAX NZ

More than 120 NZ Defence Force personnel serving at Camp Taji, Iraq, are part of a mission to train Iraqi troops. But what support is there for them when they return home?

Do Kiwi soldiers get adequate support after returning from war-zone hot spots? Or does "she'll be right" run too deep? Audrey Seaman reports.

When Major Terry Johanson came home from serving in Afghanistan he was, he says, "an animal".

It was 2008 and he didn't like being looked at and couldn't understand why people wouldn't move out of his way as he walked down the street.

Terry Johanson is now a lecturer in Defence and Security Studies.
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Terry Johanson is now a lecturer in Defence and Security Studies.

While he was deployed in East Timor and Afghanistan, the latter for seven months, his wife had very little communication from the New Zealand Defence Force, he says. The structures for communicating with families were in place, but the people responsible for looking after the families must have thought his wife was fine.

She was rarely contacted.

After isolated months serving in war-zone hotspots on his two separate deployments, he was granted time off.

Oiroa Kaihau was deployed to Iraq in support of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).

Oiroa Kaihau was deployed to Iraq in support of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI).

At home, he looked like the husband and father his family had said goodbye to, but on the inside remained a soldier living to survive in a place where his life was at risk.

He was, he says, in the lion's den, every hour of every day.

Johanson, an Army officer for over 20 years and current lecturer for Massey's Centre for Defence and Security Studies, says he passed a mandated psychological screening just before his return from his second deployment, in Afghanistan.

But such tests are too simple, he says.

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"You can bluff them. They are just flick charts," he says.

And that's just what he did. 

"Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week I was chucked under my wife's feet. She's not used to it and I am not used to it. It just creates a big conflict environment," Johanson says.

It wasn't until his wife told him six months later that he still hadn't really come home that he answered a follow-up psychological screening honestly and got help.

His wife's world too was upended, no longer in charge of their three sons and a home, and struggling to understand where the old Terry had gone.

Concerned about the lack of support, Johanson and his colleagues proposed the Defence Force build in a "reintegration period" into the return home.

Their proposal would have seen returning personnel have just a weekend off before heading back to work for the next few weeks - until family and soldier became used to one another again.

Only then would they receive their two weeks' leave.

The suggestion was rejected, the standard remaining whereby military personnel get off the plane, collect their belongings and head home, he says. 

Johanson and his family are not the only ones to face such challenges.

The Defence Force currently has more than 400 personnel serving overseas, 143 of whom are in Iraq.

This contingent is scheduled to return home next month after six months away.

Replacement troops will be shipped off to Camp Taji, 30km north of Baghdad, to continue the New Zealand-Australia Building Partner Capacity mission.

FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS

A Massey University School of Psychology assessment of the well-being of personnel and their families - deployed from 2009 to 2013 - found the support systems allowed for some to slip through the cracks. 

The research recommended purpose-built deployment support, development of internal clinical psychology and additional training of leaders.

Former infantry officer and Massey Centre for Defence and Security Studies senior lecturer Nick Nelson says the culture's laidback attitude could be at the heart of the problem.

"I think part of it is that Kiwi 'she'll be right' attitude, that they just need to harden up and get on with things, both the deployed people and their families."

The military community has high expectations for support, Nelson says.

But these are rarely met by Defence for a variety of reasons.

"I don't necessarily believe that the New Zealand Defence Force have structured the back end to be able to provide the support when particularly large contingents deploy."

The formal support organisations within Defence genuinely believe they are doing the right thing and in many respects that is true, he says.

"What we found, though, is a disconnect between what they say they are doing and what is actually being provided to the families and deployed people. "There is a huge disconnect there that needs marrying up and finding out what the problem is because, overwhelmingly, the majority of people and their families say they never hear from anyone." 

Since the Iraq contingent deployed, Defence has launched a new family support initiative called "Force 4 Families", its goal to improve communication with families, particularly with partners and whanau, to build a stronger sense of community. 

A press release at its launch announced an online information hub and a new discount card, driven by a team of volunteers made up of Defence Force partners.

However, Defence public affairs says there is no an appropriate spokesperson available to speak about the initiative or its resources.

ADAPT AND OVERCOME

According to Nelson, support staff uses a "one-size-fits-all template". [But] every deployment is different, varying in the number deployed, where they are going, and for how long. This means Defence needs to have a unique approach to each deployment. 

The Massey researchers recommend purpose-built support systems, but also a need to focus on various phases of support – from pre-deployment to return home - given to deployed personnel and their families.

Nelson says it is important to consider long-term health.

"A lot of the literature that is coming out now is suggesting that the psychological problems from deployment, such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), don't start until the three to six-month period, so the post-deployment support needs to look at least that far beyond," he says. 

Defence Force Director of Psychology Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Kearney, however, says the mental welfare of personnel is assessed three to six months after a deployment, and has been done so for several years, based on international research and best practice.

"If a service member is showing signs of distress, they are referred to an appropriate specialist provider, such as a clinical psychologist," he says.

Nelson agrees that unit commanders, chaplains and doctors do a good job, but says a problem remains with the levels of psychological support. 

The 20 organisational psychologists who work within the Defence Force today are not trained to deal with the mental health issues that arise as result of some deployments, he says. 

"[Organisational psychologists] didn't have a good understanding of the deployment problems and processes, but they weren't clinical either, so they didn't have an understanding of the mental health issues that were likely to come out of this."

Organisational psychologists practise in a range of disciplines, depending on the needs of an organisation, from helping maximise performance to assessing stress; clinical psychologists specialise in dealing with individuals who are mentally unwell, with emotional, mental, developmental or behavioural problems.

Psychologists dealing with returning personnel need to have clinical capability, Nelson says.

Kearney says NZDF uses civilian clinical psychologists, when necessary.

"In most instances the New Zealand Defence Force will source mental health support from appropriate qualified service providers, in the same way we source other specialised health support," he says. 

LEAD FROM THE FRONT

A commanding officer has a key responsibility to have an intimate understanding of a subordinate's needs beyond their work performance, Johanson says.

"You are looking after their physical, spiritual and mental health."

Though there is no formal training around this leadership trait, the commander should already know what it takes to be a good leader, he says.

Nelson says research shows that these key individuals in charge of a deployed unit have a real gap in knowledge when it comes to identifying and dealing with potential mental health issues.

Commanders typically interact with their unit personnel daily – which is why the research team recommends additional training to help leaders identify issues and direct individuals to necessary help before it's too late.

Right now, commanders sit through a one to two hour introduction to well-being course, he says. The medical staff and chaplains do a level two course, which is a day long.

Kearney says NZDF psychologists work with commanders to build strong leadership teams, measure unit morale, intervene when necessary and develop their strategic self-awareness.

If an individual is having any issues, they should ask for help from their leadership or directly seek help from Defence support organisations. 

Information about the support and pathways is widely available to our personnel through a number of channels, he says. 

"One of the things we found from the recent research was that, because of the stigma associated with mental health issues, a lot of them will seek their own treatment outside of the Defence Force, so as to not make it known to the Defence Force, or they won't seek treatment at all," Nelson says.

Johanson says the stigma around mental illness, though still present, is changing. "The system really does offer help there, it's whether you take it up."

BE PREPARED

When the New Zealand Army prepared Johanson for deployment to East Timor, and then again before he went to Afghanistan, it held briefings to warn the soldiers about how they would start to distance themselves from their family. 

"We don't tend to feel it as a soldier, but my wife has said she would see me start to distance myself psychologically from her and my kids," Johanson says. 

They were advised about what would happen, but the briefing lacked information about how to recognise it or how to mitigate it. 

"On reflection, I wanted there to be more because that would make coming home a lot easier. Coming back from deployment is very difficult. I think if they could have prepared us better before going that would help a whole lot more."

Are things improving? Johanson firmly believes more needs to be done. He hopes personnel deployed today will be educated about what is happening to them psychologically. They need to be aware that their personality will change through pre-deployment training and then again in an operational environment, and finally when they have to reintegrate into society back home, he says.

Soldiers should be educated with their family so they all understand the pressures on each individual. 

"Don't shut these people out. I think the military has a pattern and habit of doing that and we shut out the wrong people," he says. 

THAT'S ANOTHER STORY

For some, the hands-off approach from the Defence Force is just what they want.

Oiroa Kaihau, a soldier with 27 years experience and six overseas missions to his name, was offered joint counselling for himself and his wife, but they did not accept it. 

Before his deployment, his family was invited to informational briefs. "My wife came with me for the first time. For the rest, she didn't even worry."

All she wanted to know was where he was going, when he was coming back and if he would have any leave, he says. 

"To be honest, I was comfortable with the stuff I got," he says.

If his wife needed anything, she knew how to get in touch with a unit point of contact and a personal point of contact, he says.

"I was fortunate that my partner was really resilient. My wife said, I don't want any engagement. I am quite comfortable on my own."

Kaihau says he did spend a bit of time with a psychologist when he came home. "We talked about a few family relationship issues and so the NZDF offered to put a whole lot of things in place for me.

"Did I seize the opportunity? No, I did not, but that's another story."

IN THE NAVY

The Naval Community Organisation, a group which provides services, support and advice to the Naval Community, says the Navy is a leader in providing support to families. 

Organisation manager Lissa Jackson says, with two of its 10 employees social workers, it supports more than 2500 Navy personnel and their families. 

Before a deployment, the typical Navy support comprises families and personnel being briefed on what to expect, all contact information for the next of kin is collected, and contact details are checked.

Once the ship has sailed, it hosts a dinner for partners at home about once a month to initiate networking and touch base with individuals. It also hosts family barbecues and picnics, and each month sends out a newsletter and posts on its Facebook page.

Prior to a deployment's return, it hosts an end-of-deployment briefing for partners and family members. An organisational psychologist meets the ship at sea to talk with each crew member to check for any warning signs of mental illness or other issues. 

Back home, families and military personnel can access free counselling from the social workers whenever they wish. They are also invited to subsidised family activities such as bowling, ice skating or mini-golf throughout the year.

 - The Dominion Post

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