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Cops back from the war: What problems do they pose?
By Chuck Remsberg, Senior PoliceOne Contributor
Part 1 of a 3-part series
Thousands of American law enforcement officers have been called to military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and authorities are increasingly focusing attention on how well some of those can reintegrate into domestic policing once they return home.
Isolated instances of serious problems have made headlines, raising concerns about potentially persistent negative effects of combat experience.
• In Texas, an officer recently back from reservist deployment to Iraq, opened fire on a suspect who was running through a crowded shopping center. The rounds narrowly missed the officer’s partner and one lodged in a van occupied by two children. “Everyone believes he should not have fired,” the officer’s attorney told USA Today. “His assessment of the threat level was wrong. He was assessing as if he was back in the military, not [as] a police officer.”
• In Georgia, an officer who’d served in Iraq with the National Guard was sentenced to more than 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He was part of a misdirected drug raid in which an elderly woman was killed. His lawyer says he was undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition afflicting a significant percentage of returning vets.
• In Nevada, a trooper who’d been in Iraq as an Army Guardsman, pleaded guilty to felony reckless driving and was sentenced to 2 to 12 years. According to the New York Times, he was driving 118 mph when he slammed into another car, killing four people and critically injuring another.
No one claims that all—or even a majority—of post-deployment veterans are menaces to society once they pin a badge back on and resume patrol duties. But by the same token, says Dr. Stephen Curran, a Maryland psychologist who counsels officers, “You can’t just put people back in [law enforcement] jobs, give them their guns and expect that things are going to be fine. Getting back into the flow of things is a challenge.”
Most manage the transition successfully. For others, the struggle can be more problematic.
To explore the issues involved in LEOs returning from combat zones, Dr. Beverly Anderson, clinical director and administrator of the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Police Employee Assistance Program, convened a unique, invitation-only symposium at the department’s training academy. More than 200 police and mental health professionals representing 73 federal, state, county and city agencies in seven states attended to hear a panel of experts explain the harsh realities of returning to life stateside. PoliceOne was the only communications agency invited.
Drawing on the panel’s presentations, Part 1 of this exclusive series examines the roots of post-deployment adjustment problems. Part 2 will explore the challenges these present to officers, their families and their departments when they come home. In part 3, we’ll look at measures knowledgeable observers believe are necessary to assure a successful transition back to the streets.
WAR ZONE REALITIES.
During deployment, officer soldiers operate in a world that’s different in both subtle and significant ways from the domestic policing they left behind and will eventually return to.
When you’re in insurgent/terrorist-saturated combat zones, said Capt. Aaron Krenz, a criminal justice-trained reintegration operations officer and Iraq veteran with the Minnesota National Guard, “a box laying at the side of the road is a threat. You don’t trust anyone. Your life and your buddies’ lives depend on your being able to spot something out there, so you’re hyper-vigilant. You’re the law of the land, but you feel insecure. You’re expected to react without taking time to think about it. You start cutting emotional ties to your family, figuring they don’t need to know about things that are happening.
“It’s a selfish mentality, all about survival. And it doesn’t travel well when you come home.”
In the war zone, “we had unlimited powers,” explained Sgt. Patrick Campbell, a National Guard medic in Iraq and now a law student and legislative director of the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans Assn. “If we wanted to stop someone, we stopped them. If we wanted to pull people out of a house, we pulled them. There was no need for probable cause or reasonable suspicion.”
Animosity and frustration regarding the local population quickly develop among combat warriors, noted Maj. David Englert, chief of the Behavioral Analysis Division of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. The common perception becomes that “they lie to us, they hide the enemy or are the enemy, they’re dirty and smell bad, they’re abusive to their women, their kids are constantly begging.”
Offensive vs. defensive driving tactics were noted by several panelists. “Every moment on the road, you had to make a split-second decision,” said Campbell, whose infantry unit was ambushed three times within its first four hours in Baghdad. “We’d drive down the center of the road and any car that got too close got shot. It was tempting to play bumper tag with irritating traffic.”
Krenz remarked, “When you swerved around a box or a plastic bottle, it wasn’t reckless driving. It was a survival technique. We’d get where we were going but we might push a dozen cars off the road to get there.” Englert added the “two rules of convoy: 1) Don’t stop; 2) Don’t let any car get between you and the guy ahead. You drive with a constant fear of being attacked or hitting an IED.”
Unrelenting fear can be difficult to escape. “In many areas of the combat zone,” said Englert, “bases are mortared almost every day and sometimes several times a day. Three of my agents were severely wounded in a suicide bomb attack inside the Green Zone while they were having lunch. There is no front line. When you go jogging you carry along a tourniquet so you can treat yourself if you’re hit.
“A ‘day off’ is hardly ever a day off. With loud sirens going off after rocket and mortar attacks, poor sleep is a common issue. People come back from the war worn out.”
And then there are the mind-bending experiences. Campbell told about two enemy snipers who tried to take out another medic from his unit but failed only because a chest plate saved him. Soldiers pursued the attackers’ pickup truck and riddled it with a thousand rounds. Wounded, the pair still clung to life. The person who treated them and brought them back from the brink of death was the medic they’d tried to kill. Indeed, Campbell’s first patient in Iraq was an insurgent who’d tried to plant a bomb to destroy him and a buddy.
Krenz described a married soldier with four children who killed three insurgents during an attack on his armored vehicle. He agonized about how he’d tell his family what he’d done, but “there was no time for him to sort things out before he had to be back on the road,” Krenz said. “What happened to that memory? He stuffed it.”
“I was shot at, blown up, nearly killed 15 times while I was there,” Campbell said. No psychological debriefing on any of his experiences took place. “You have to be like a porcupine over there,” he declared, “so nothing can get to you from the outside. But the memories don’t go away.”
CASUALTIES OF THE MIND.
The challenge of LEOs and other combat veterans attempting to reintegrate into families and jobs when they return from the war culture can be complicated by the type of injuries commonly suffered on our current battlefields. Dr. Louis French, a clinical psychologist who heads the Brain Injury Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (and the brother of a former cop), offered a sobering briefing on new research findings.
Nearly 70% of injuries to troops in Iraq are caused by IEDs, French said, with these weapons constituting the leading cause of death. Flying objects from a device or “energized” from the environment by the explosion of course can inflict severe and obvious damage. Often less noticeably, shock waves from the blast can produce dangerous sudden pressure on the body and perilous movement or concussion of the head in particular. Among survivors, temporary unconsciousness is common.
French estimated that while in the war zone 10% to 20% of our fighting troops experience traumatic brain injury (TBI), often from an IED detonation. Even mild TBI can affect impulse control, emotions and demeanor, cognitive awareness and memory, aggressiveness, sleep patterns and other behavioral aspects, he pointed out.
By the time they leave the war theater, at least two-thirds of TBI victims appear to be free of undesirable neurobehavioral symptoms, French said. Within a year, 85% to 95% “are completely better—back to baseline with no issues.” Some, however, “will continue to suffer” ill effects.
“A strenuous explosion can make you sick the rest of your life,” French said. “There are medications that can be helpful, but they are not foolproof.”
Another potential war zone injury—“one for which no Purple Heart is given”—is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which French said shares a “great overlap of symptoms” with TBI. “If you are wounded, you’re three times more likely to develop PTSD,” he said.
Englert cited research indicating that up to nearly 35% of service personnel showed evidence of PTSD or other significant stress disorders immediately after returning from Afghanistan. According to Krenz, 30% of National Guard reservists “show signs of mental health issues four to five months after demobilization.” And as officers know from experience with critical incidents in domestic policing, serious stress conditions, unresolved, can have a long-term detrimental impact.
Englert also mentioned another mind-risk that can affect an LEO’s performance once he returns home. That’s a fatalistic philosophy some soldiers absorb from the local population. “Those people think the day you are going to die is determined the day you are born,” Englert explained. That orientation can lead to “reckless behavior, because you think, If it’s my day, it’s my day and if it’s not, it’s not. My fate is out of my hands.”
“No one comes away from war unscathed,” said French, in a bottom-line summary of life in a combat zone. The other seminar presenters emphatically agreed. Campbell put it this way: “No one crosses a river without getting wet, and no one goes to war without being changed.”
In the next installment, we see how those changes may manifest themselves when law officers return to their families and the job.