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On The Scene

Shepperd: Stress no excuse for crime

By Don Shepperd

CNN Military Analyst Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


On the Scene

(CNN) -- The news of four soldiers accused of murders and rape in Mahmoudiya, Iraq, brings up issues that are often linked, but should not be -- "stress" and "crime."

News articles explain that the soldiers involved used whiskey and painkillers to cope with duty in Iraq.

Make no mistake, combat, especially the kind we see in Iraq and southern Lebanon --walking patrols along bomb-laden streets, waiting for the sniper's bullet, the ambush around the next corner, the buried mine, the next rocket-propelled grenade or Katyusha rocket -- is stressful, super stressful.

It can even drive some people crazy, making them incapable of performing their duty. Multiple tours in the same environment, now approaching four for some soldiers, don't help.

But combat stress, whiskey and painkillers, if true, cannot become the excuse for crime. No amount of stress can be seen as justification for murder, rape or any other long list of crimes in the military or civilian worlds. People who commit crimes will be investigated, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced if found guilty -- military or civilian.

Combat stress is not new -- the coverage of it, the knowledge about and the help for it is. Warriors millenniums ago felt stress that is seen in epic tomes and war poems. Civil War veterans talked about it without using the Vietnam-era coined term "Post-traumatic stress syndrome" -- read "Andersonville" or rent "Cold Mountain."

Soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines in combat look brave, but they also get scared, even veterans get scared. It is a natural and healthy reaction to danger, explosions, gunfire and death. To cope with this they train hard and repeatedly in simulations of the same environments they are likely to face. Their commanders talk to them repeatedly about discipline, laws and rules of engagement. Commanders watch their troops. Soldiers talk to and support their buddies.

In combat, instinct, training and loyalty to your buddies takes over. You find you will do anything, even risk your life, for the man or woman to your right and left, knowing they will do the same for you. The loss of a buddy strikes hard, affecting morale. After many patrols or multiple tours, one may become "battle-hardened," but it doesn't mean you don't get scared.

When the shooting stops, the trouble starts for some. Most cope by thinking back over it in calmer moments. They talk to their buddies, they reflect, they intellectualize. Then, they go out on another mission and when their tour is over, they are not haunted, but their memories are poignant, coming back on cool nights, some in dreams, others over beer at reunions many years after. They don't talk to others who wouldn't understand, but they talk to each other -- they cope -- they go on with their lives.

In the old days, we had nothing except maybe counseling. Today, we have things to assist those who are deeply troubled -- prescription medication, psychologists, psychiatric treatment, family counseling, medical care, follow-up -- real help. Even on the battlefields, the Army deploys "Combat Stress Teams" composed of medics and psychologists who can assist in the field.

Equally important, soldiers are told, "This is not a sign of weakness - if you need help, get help." And there is help back home for families. Combat stress is now a recognized phenomenon that can lead to alcoholism, divorce, difficulty in re-orienting into society.

Soldiers will tell you repeatedly -- instinct and training protect them in combat. Afterward, some can cope within themselves, for others it takes more help that is now readily available and they should not be afraid to seek it from professionals. However, we must never let stress become an excuse for crime. Our values as a society are reflected in our professional all-volunteer military and must be preserved.

The soldiers we see on the street returning from combat look like the rest of us. They are not -- they have been through things few have experienced. They deserve our support. As a nation, as a military we must be compassionate and understanding, but not tolerant of crime.

Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd is a CNN military analyst.

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