Mental Health and the Military
A machismo environment
This is a little late, I saw Sunday June 11 and mistakenly thought that’s when the essay was due. I see now it was due Friday. I apologize for its tardiness. Regardless, here it is. I’m continuing to write about my experiences in Bahrain.
In the machismo lifestyle of deployment there was little room for sensitivity or vulnerability. Instead, emotions were pushed down and covered up, sometimes festering into wounds that never heal.
That’s what happens when 18 year old kids are plucked from the safety of high school and thrown into stressful and oftentimes dangerous places without adequate mental health preparation. There, it’s either sink or swim; put on a strong facade, join the crowd, or become a miserable outsider.
And it’s a cycle. Those who don’t immediately drown eventually learn to thrive and grow up into leaders of the next generation, teaching coping mechanisms they’ve learned along the way – methods that often involve copious amounts of alcohol.
About 40 minutes by chartered bus from Isa Air Base was Naval Support Activity Bahrain (NSA), an on-shore station in the capital city Manama that supported a Navy port near shore. There, military member from many allied nations passed through on their way to other points. When a U.S. carrier docked at port Sailors descended on the station like locusts, picking the “Base Exchange” supermarket clean, buying out the movie theater, and overcrowding the pool, gym, and other familiar amenities I escaped to for refuge.
Free days, I’d often go to the NSA and catch a movie or work out at the gym alone. It was an escape from the small confines of the firehouse and those within. To get there, the bus traversed long stretches of barren desert – interspaced with rock quarries and oil refineries – and busy roads through the heart of the bustling city. I drove that route many times, shooting photographs out the window and listening to Bob Seger on repeat.
In 2013, Manama was one of the Middle East’s primary business hubs; a cosmopolitan city that brought in people from everywhere via an international airport, sea port and long bridge connected to Saudi Arabia. Skyscrapers rose out of the desert reflecting a hot sun that beat down on traffic; people flocked to nightclubs after it set. Come Friday, the bridge from the ultra-conservative nation was bumper-to-bumper with Arabic men escaping Sharia Law to drink themselves into Monday.
Compared to other Middle Eastern nations, Bahrain was more liberal. For instance, women could freely drive and generally lived a more western lifestyle. Thus, the United States deemed it safe enough for American service members to have liberty outside the wire. We were allowed to go where we wished except to “black flag” areas where, we were told, the majority Sunni population plotted to overthrow the reigning American-friendly Shia government.
One particular night stands out to me from all the rest. About half-way through deployment I was returning to Isa Air Base from the NSA on the last bus of the night, around 11 p.m. It was packed with about 40 loudmouthed and drunken Sailors and Marines who’d spent the day enjoying themselves in town. I was seated next to a snoring Navy non-commissioned officer. Someone near the back threw up and the interior reeked of booze.
A bus ride at 11 p.m.
Our American compound was inside the Bahraini-run Isa Air Base, and at the exterior gate the bus was stopped by a local guard. After talking with the driver for a few minutes, the guard, with an AK47 hanging from his shoulder and a finger on the trigger, ordered everyone off and lined us up against a wall.
He was very angry, speaking Arabic loudly and demanding, or so I gathered, why there was vomit on the bus. For ten minutes or so we withstood his tirade of words. A few drunk Marines tried to walk back to the bus, the guard aggressively ordered them to the wall.
Images of dead bodies – my own amongst them – lying in blood against the wall flashed through my mind. At the time, an atrocity such as that didn’t seem far fetched. He was that angry and we were completely helpless.
Eventually, though, he calmed down and allowed everyone back on the booze-smelling bus to continue to the American compound. At the second gate we were met by an entourage of superiors who demanded to know what had happened and who’d thrown up
No one stepped forward or took responsibility.
Finally, after 20 minutes or so, I volunteered to clean the vomit myself. The situation de-escalated with a threat from the base commander to get to the bottom of things. Long after the others had left – the perpetrator still at large – I scrubbed the dark interior clean while the bus driver waited outside.
Lack of mental health training
This is one example of many I’ve experienced that shed light on the lack of mental health training military members are given. In basic training, I was taught to fight with my hands and keep my body physically fit. I was not, however, trained to be emotionally vulnerable or sensitive to the experiences of others.
Filling this void, young men and women are encouraged to drink away their problems by everyone including their superiors. Vividly, I remember one fire academy instructor joking that he’d once set up an intravenous drip filled with alcohol.
However, this bravado and machismo hurts everyone, especially those within. And after one has left, it becomes even worse. A study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found “in January 2014, communities across America identified 49,933 homeless veterans during point-in-time counts, which represents 8.6 percent of the total homeless population.”
Infantrymen know how to kill; pilots know how to fly; sailors knows how to sail; I knew how to put out fires. But I wasn’t how to handle the stress and the difficulties that come with deployment.
The result can easily be seen in the irresponsibility I cleaned up. And it could have been so, so much worse.