Explainer on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: When soldiers snap – fatal shooting in Maiduguri shows stress risk facing Nigerian soldiers

Explainer on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: When soldiers snap – fatal shooting in Maiduguri shows stress risk facing Nigerian soldiers

By Sadeeq Shehu

Yesterday, a soldier went berserk in the North East shooting and killing a comrade and a humanitarian worker. Related- The First Lady, Mrs Aisha Buhari recently revealed that President Muhammadu Buhari experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which took its toll on her for several years following his active participation in Nigeria’s civil war without rehabilitation. The killing of Nigerian soldiers and some humanitarian workers yesterday by a comrade, possibly suffering a stress disorder, should lead to soul-searching in the Nigerian military about the effects of multiple and prolonged deployments (itself a result of lack of enough soldiers).

Due to simultaneous multiple military and combat operations, a lack of sufficient boots on the ground, lack of reserve , Nigerian military personnel are being deployed for excessively long periods to the front lines . I have met a Sergeant who told me he had served 5 years at a stretch in the North east no leave no pass . Experts say the risk of soldiers suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) goes up substantially on a soldiers’ third tour of duty to the front line (a typical tour of duty being one year). Some Nigerian soldiers and on their fifth.

Dealing with the stress could be real hard for soldiers. Normally, it’s just something you deal with. Some smoke like a chimney and others take to drugs and few have access to mental health services. The toll of war on a soldier on long , prolonged or multiple deployments can be traumatic. At times the soldier could become extremely angry, when stressed out and so pent up feeling he wants to shoot or punch something. The problem of mental health and long deployment of soldiers have been well known for long and it is an international problem.

In the US, stress suffered by U.S. soldiers during multiple deployments came under the spotlight when a U.S. soldier shot dead five others at a clinic with Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggesting stress was a factor. Sergeant John Russell of the 54th Engineer Battalion was charged with murder after the shooting spree at Camp Liberty, near Baghdad Airport. He was on his third tour. The shooting, which shocked many in the U.S. military, led to some soul searching about stress and how soldiers cope.

NO PREDICTOR WHO WILL SNAP

Multiple deployments do put soldiers in a higher risk group for behavioral health. While most soldiers do quite well, the truth is there’s not a predictor which will allow us to pick out who’s going to react in what way.

Soldiers will tell you that the causes of combat stress are many. The most obvious are danger, trauma of friends dying, frequent roadside bombs and other sneak attacks common in the NE counter insurgency. There is a special stress of not knowing who your enemy is half the time. You probably saw him in the street and didn’t know.

There are also problems at home, not getting on with colleagues or being overwhelmed by work and heat can be just as punishing. An officer , a Major once told me when I was delivering a lecture in Jaji, that on a particular day he was just preparing for an attack on a BH position, his wife called to tell him: I am tired of waiting for you I am leaving for my parents home I want a divorce”

Most troops do not snap: they find ways to deal with stress. Some smoke cigarettes, most go the gym to blow off steam. Some take drugs (just to cope). A few years back I was delivering a lecture at the Nigerian Army School of Infantry to a unit that had just returned from the NE. The title was: PTSD, Drug Abuse and Suicide. I asked the then NASI Commandant (my course mate now retired) to excuse us because I wanted a heart heart to heart discussion. A junior commander/officer confided that most of the soldiers are on drugs to ease their worries . Another soldier confided in me, I wasn’t taking drugs before I came to the NE). Calling the wifey (if theres network ) or talking to a friend, talking about it is important, using the internet (if you are lucky there is network) etc.

There’s always something a soldier can do to ward off PTSD and suicidal thoughts before it gets too bad. Failing that, there’s or there should be religious counseling. Even in remote outposts, the doctrine in the Nigerian military is to have at least a chaplain a Muslim and a Christian , a professional listener. Sometimes admitting you are not coping in the macho environment of the military can be the hardest thing of all for a soldier because there’s still a level of stigma attached to such confession.

Military doctors in World War II believe that every man has his breaking point, and that more than 90 days of continuous combat could turn any soldier into a psychiatric casualty. Recall Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who military officials said gunned down dozens of soldiers at Fort Hood, Tex.

While We do not know yet why this particular soldier opened fire yesterday, how long has he been deployed? How many times has he deployed?But even in this absence of certainty, his case invites a look at the long history of psychiatric medicine in war. Over the centuries, soldiers have often broken under such stress. As far back as the late 80s during the ECOMOG operations , I recall a senior of mine, then a Lt or Capt, who calmly walked up to this Commander and pumped bullets into him killing him instantly before surrendering. He was subsequently court martialed, presided by Gen Sarki Mukhtar sentenced to death and shot in Liberia.

The current 12 year old war in the NE has claimed more than its share of stress victims, including a number of suicides among soldiers and high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such casualties often occur not on the battlefield but after it — or, sometimes, merely in its proximity.

In September 2018, a soldier by name Okpako came to the army base and embarked on a random shooting, killing a colleague and injuring three soldiers and a member of the Civilian Joint Task Force.

In January 2020 A soldier at the Army Engineering Company, Ede, Osun State, identified as Olodi Blessed killed a soldier after stabbing his wife and son. He was also said to have allegedly killed a neighbour, identified as Iya Ijesa, who sells vegetable.

In February 2020, A Corporal of the Nigerian Army serving at the Theatre Command Operation LAFIYA DOLE, Army Super Camp 15, located at Malam Fatori went berserk in early hours of 26 February 2020 and opened fire killing 4 of his colleagues before shooting himself.

In July 2020 newly married military officer, Lieutenant Babakaka Shehu Ngorgi of the 202 Battalion, was killed by a fellow soldier in Bama, Borno State.

In May 2022 Major U.J. Undianyede, who had served multiple tours in the NE, killed himself less than 72 hours before the verdict of a court-martial trying him for alleged military infractions during the war against the terrorists.

RECOMMENDATIONS : How Can the Armed Forces of Nigeria Best Serve a Soldier With Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

a. The Ministry of Defence should create a Task Force on Mental Health with the mission to identify shortfalls, produce actionable recommendations and assist the military in rapidly developing and implementing a plan of action to identify, diagnose and treat servicemembers afflicted with PTSD.

b. Continue to improve training programs to educate NCOs and officers on PTSD, the signs of combat stress and measures to take to support the Soldier suffering from this illness. Specifically, it is important to continue to reduce the stigma and remove barriers to seeking professional mental health care for those Soldiers who are suffering from combat stress. It is clear that the Nigerian military can do more in training for understanding of PTSD and how best to identify someone suffering from mental illness.

c. Pre- and post-deployment testing must be done on every Soldier, with appropriate time phases. For example, post-deployment testing should be done at least three times at scheduled intervals after the Soldiers redeploy from combat. This is imperative to get those Soldiers in need into mental health care quickly and make the determination whether they can stay on active duty and return to their unit before the next rotation.

d. Get more soldiers recruited and establish a reserve such that soldiers can be rotated regularly and long multiple deployments avoided.

*Sadeeq Shehu is a retired Group Captain of the Nigerian Air Force

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