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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Casualties of Stress

Casualties of Stress

Casualties of Stress

The result of a postmortem on a Bulgarian soldier serving with UNTAC said suicide

despite two gunshot wounds, one bullet piercing his heart from the front, the other

his lungs from the side.

This was just one of the fatalities on a list issued by the UN where many of the

entries are not as straight-forward as the sheet purports. Some officials believe

many of the casualties may have been direct, or indirect, victims of stress, the

"unreported killer".

A definition of stress is the physiological tension which arises when a person fails

to adapt to their environment.

Some of the individuals sent on the mission were ill-equipped for walking the psychological

minefields of Cambodia. They found, to their cost, that the operation was ill-equipped

to help them.

Official sources suggest there have been three suicides and 56 repatriations on psychological

grounds. One can only surmise how stress drove anyone to kill themselves or, perhaps,

others.

Doctors here have said that many soldiers believing they had left their problems

at home have, unintentionally, brought their emotional baggage with them.

One Polish soldier hanged himself, apparently when his wife threatened to leave him

if he did not return. There are many cases of girlfriends and spouses threatening

to break up relationships.

A Filipino civilian policeman shot himself following a supposed argument with a colleague

in Banteay Meanchey .

The third suicide happened in the victim's home country. A French doctor evidently

took a drug overdose. Her behavior prior to the event showed "an unbalanced

personality" suffering from sharp mood swings, according to a close colleague

of hers.

A Bulgarian sergeant played a cranky version of Russian Roulette with a local police

officer's gun after a heavy night's drinking and died instantly.

If the initial signs, such as anti-social behavior and aggression, are not recognized

early on then symptoms could worsen and sloppiness in work and personal hygiene might

ensue. Psychosomatic syndromes such as dietary problems could be another scenario.

UNTAC's Chief Medical Officer, Col. Dr. Peter Fraps, cited the media's affect on

troop morale. "As in the Vietnam war, the moment the soldiers thought their

home country was not convinced about their involvement they developed problems. The

media said the [Cambodian] mission would fail, but when the elections succeeded,

motivation returned," he said.

Many of the repatriations for psychological reasons were Bulgarian. Fraps believes

they found it difficult to deal with Cambodia.

"It was the first time for them to operate as a military component. The [new-found]

liberty and personal freedom created a lot of problems for the soldiers. They found

it hard to integrate," he maintains.

From his experience and from the data he collected in his 16 months, he strongly

recommends that before future missions U.N. personnel should have stress prevention

courses, preferably in their own countries.

One suggestion is to end home leave and to have maxmimum six month assignments for

every contingent.

Those who went home found less inducement to work on their return while many counted

the days until their next leave or to the end of their assignment.

Fraps, ideally, would like each person to take a psychological test before leaving

their country to weed out those who are "fleeing problems at home and who think

they'll be okay if they're far away."

The German Ministry of Defense has now requested the University of Marburg in Germany

to compile a concrete method of tallying psychological data.

They came up with a 37 page questionnaire that deals with personal affairs from finances

to fears. But Fraps believes much more needs to be done and would like to see all

the U.N. nations contributing data.

He hopes that in the next few years the U.N. will have the right criteria to select

the most suitable people for missions.

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