During a recent discussion with a Veteran Brigadier Azad Sameer of the Indian Army who was my mentor while I commanded our regiment, he was concerned about the spate of sudden deaths by heart attacks among number of middle level Indian Army officers (Majors / Lieutenant Colonels.) He attributed it to the increased stress level caused due to heavy operational commitments of the Indian Army.
Is it so?
I took my mind back to my Indian Army days – as a Second Lieutenant in 1982 to being a Commanding Officer (Lieutenant Colonel) in 2004. As the years rolled by, operational commitments did increase, but with it improved the availability of resources, life styles and more open interaction among officers at least at Battalion/ Regiment level.
The reasons for increased stress levels among Indian Army officers have been attributed by many to:-
- Lack of freedom among junior officers to give free feedback about work concerns.
- Incompetent senior officers.
- Lack of avenues to express domestic and marital concerns.
- Lack of support from senior level especially when situations went out of control.
- Difficult and emotionally demanding work,
- Uncomfortable management/leadership style of senior officers.
- Non-recognition of efforts.
- Complexity of performance review system – Annual Confidential Reports.
- Lack of mutual trust and unsupportive culture, especially while one is in command of a Company/ Battery/ Squadron – where the Annual Confidential Reports become critical for promotion to the rank of Colonel.
It was so when I joined in 1982 as a Second Lieutenant, but it did improve leaps and bounds as years passed by. To cite an example, when I was a Major, our General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Division passed an order that the entire Mechanical Transport of the Battalion/ Regiment to be jacked-up for a week in case of any vehicle accident. Our neighbouring Regiment did have an accident and the Commanding Officer had to walk to the Divisional Headquarters for a dressing down by the GOC. I always wondered as to whether that GOC knew how a Battalion/ Regiment functioned, especially its transport section. Such Generals became a rarity as years went by and might even be extinct by now.
Another bugbear was the availability of married accommodation for officers and soldiers. It improved tremendously over the years and Separated Family (SF) accommodation for those deployed in field areas too more than doubled. More married officers’ accommodation was available at training institutions where officers underwent various military courses. During our young officer days, it was an anathema for any student officer to bring their spouse for a training course, but a lot had changed while I was in command at Devlali, co-located with School of Artillery.
Resources needed for executing operational tasks improved manifold with better weapon systems, equipment, vehicles, etc. Grants and funds available at the disposal of the Commanding Officers multiplied with each passing year, which tremendously improved operational efficiency. There were marked improvements in the living condition of soldiers and officers in field areas, especially along the border and Line of Control. The road communication network improved with time. Soldiers and officers mostly travel today by air while proceeding on vacations – an unheard of luxury during my service days.
Improved communication with the advent of cellular phones have revolutionised the communication aspects of officers and soldiers. Even the remotest posts have reliable communication systems and soldiers easily keep in touch with their family, spouse and children. Gone are the days of the snail paced ‘Forces Letter.’
The better financial status of officers and soldiers coupled with modern banking facilities like credit/ debit cards, online banking, easy credit and advances have made life much more comfortable. Gone are the days of ‘installments’ and being perpetually indebted to the Regimental Wet Canteen Contractor. I remember buying Marina a Fashion Maker Sewing Machine, my first wedding anniversary gift to her on six monthly installments.
The lifestyles of today’s Indian army Officers and soldiers have gone up many a rung. It was a rarity to find a Regimental officer other than the Commanding Officer owning a car during my young officer days. While I commanded our Regiment, many soldiers were driving to the Regiment in their cars.
During our young officer days the common saying was “No one ever died because of work, but by the lack of it.” It was also said that “It is better to be in a field area and carryout professional work than be in a peace station and carry out more administrative tasks.”
Taking into account the above two dictum to be true even today in the Indian Army, increased operational commitment should not result in over-stressed officers and soldiers.
Why there is increased stress among Officers and Soldiers?
Today’s military spouses – of both officers and soldiers – are better qualified with equal or greater aspirations than their spouses. Many spouses prior to their marriage were working in managerial or high-end jobs and some had to leave their jobs to be with their spouses for a better family life. Those spouses continuing with their jobs remained separated, maintaining a long-distance relationship.
These factors causes work-family conflict which results in exhaustion, both physical and emotional. Many a times this leads to depression, anxiety, frustration, anger and increased levels of psychological strain. This work-family conflict adversely affects the quality of the officer’s/ soldier’s relationship with the spouse as well as the quality of time spent with children, family and friends.
Here I would again cite my personal example. The evening the result of my promotion to the rank of Colonel was announced, Marina invited all our friends for a party at home. Everyone trooped in and complimented me. After everyone assembled, Marina said “This party is to celebrate my husband not making it to a Colonel. Now I can have my plans rolling and he can take a back seat.” Marina emigrated to Canada and after two years the children followed and then I landed in Canada. By then Marina was a licensed pharmacist and earning handsomely. Thus, I became a house-husband taking care of our children and the household. The turn of events may not be so for many Indian Army officers, especially those who do not make it in the deep selection to the rank of Colonel and then even deeper selection upwards.
Another major cause of concern for Indian Army is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A study in Canadian Armed Forces showed that among those invalidated out or those who sought voluntary retirement due to medical disabilities, about 40 percent were for mental health issues, about half of those were diagnosed as PTSD. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS) noted that military service meant moving often and spending time on duty far from family and was a major source of mental health risks – a standard practise for most Indian Army officers and soldiers.
Most Indian Army officers and soldiers suffer from PTSD due to the intense combat situations they face – Canadian Armed Forces hardly face any such situations. Luckily the military echelons never accepted the existence of PTSD in the Indian Army! I had never even heard of PTSD while in service with the Indian Army until I read a paper by a US Military Doctor on the subject. Now think of the PTSD suffered by the driver of the vehicle that met with an accident wherein the GOC jacked-up the entire Regimental fleet. Did anyone address the PTSD suffered by that soldier driver?
Was I prepared to command the soldiers on being appointed the Commanding Officer?
I will emphatically say “NO.” It was merely by observation of one’s Commanding Officers and analysis. The Senior Command Course every officer underwent prior to taking over command was nothing but re-frying of what one learnt during Junior Command Course as a Major and also Staff College Course.
Our son when in Grade 12 worked at the city’s swimming pool as a swimming instructor and lifeguard. One day he said “I teach the kids for thirty minute class and to become an instructor and lifeguard I had to undergo ten levels of swimming, three courses on leadership and swimming instructorship, first aid, Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), child psychology and obtain a life saving certificate. What qualifications did you have to parent?”
I did not have any qualifications to be a parent. It was all by trial and error and also by the knowledge gained through reading and interactions. Now I asked myself – “What qualifications did I have to be a Commanding Officer? Was I trained for it? Did I have any formal qualifications like first aid, CPR or soldier psychology?”
There was a suggestion to employ more psychiatrists and psychologists to help soldiers tide over the pressure situations they face. Where will these psychiatrists and psychologists be located? Will they be available to the officers and soldiers in the field?
It would be prudent to train the officers during Junior/ Senior Command Courses in the psychological aspects of command and HR management to be effective Company/Squadron/ Battery Commanders and Commanding Officers.