Despite the best efforts of the U.S. military, incidents of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within the ranks continue unabated. This article examines the impact of self-imposed technological isolation as a potential contributor to this problem.
Keywords: suicide; military; post-traumatic stress disorder; combat; isolation; social media
As recent high-profile news stories reflect, the U.S. military continues struggling to identify the underlying causes of the increasing incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide (Swofford, 2012; Wood, 2012). Despite dedicating huge amounts of research and expense, the military seems no closer to identifying the root cause of this growing phenomenon. Much of the military's time and effort has been centered on treating the problem ex post facto, but my own interest is largely focused on prevention (Barrett, 2011). Lately, I have begun to wonder if we are not victims of our own technological success. We have the global, technical, and logistical capability to bring many of the comforts of home to the battlefield. But our endeavors to make the combat zone more tolerable through technology and instant communication may have unforeseen effects, feeding rather than abating the problem of combat stress.
During my squadron's tour in Iraq and Kuwait in 2008, I was always surprised to see how many of my soldiers isolated themselves from their comrades through the use of technology. Even the mere pursuit of their "technology fix" often caused an immediate and recognizable impact on missions. Indeed, one of the typical discipline problems my unit experienced was when soldiers returned from a convoy security mission and became negligent in their duties. Upon arriving safely at a forward operating base (FOB), the "need" for combat/road safety gave way to the "wants" for food, rest, or entertainment. All too frequently, in the midst of their postmission relief, someone would lose a sensitive item or negligently discharge a weapon. This phenomenon is akin to "the horse smelling the barn,"-rushing and losing sight of what is important to look after themselves. This analogy was especially apropos for our cavalry unit. I frequently reminded my troopers that they-like their horse cavalry predecessors-had to tend to their horses (vehicles and equipment), and their soldiers, before themselves. But all too often, the junior members were focused on eating, sleeping, and the siren call of technological lures at the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) tent.
I am no Luddite, but I am still shocked to see the prevalence of broadband Internet, webcams, video game consoles, and satellite TV in the warzone MWR tents and soldiers' quarters. I remember deployments (Bosnia for instance) when snail mail was a 3-week turnaround and a phone call home was a very rare occurrence. I do not begrudge soldiers their fun. I also admit that I am awful at Call of Duty (and games like it)-the irony of engaging in virtual combat in the midst of a real combat zone is still lost on me-which my soldiers enjoyed reminding me of, during the few occasions I embarrassed myself playing against them. But I wonder what we are losing as the soldiers tune out of the war zone, tune in to life back home (via phone calls, e-mails, instant messaging, or webcam systems such as Skype), or bury themselves in iTunes and video games (Wong & Gerras, 2006, p. 26)?
In their monograph CU @ the FOB, Army War College faculty members, Drs. Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras (2006) detailed how prevalent technology is for soldiers on the FOBs. They also describe how soldiers communicated to their homes with loved ones . . . without necessarily communicating well. Journalist Stephen Marche (2012) validates this idea, noting that the pursuit of technological connection through social media in lieu of real conversation is affecting society as a whole. Marche calls these interactions "[a] web of …