WHEN A TROOPIE IS SHATTERED BY FEAR:
How young soldiers learn to live with the terror of war
By MARGARET MORGAN
"I told no one about my fear. If I had they would have thought me a sissy. But all the time - day and night - you're terrified. And then my fear began to show..."
It's deathly quiet. Your heart beats against your ribs and your ears buzz. When a twig snaps you tighten your finger on the trigger. And it's terribly hot. Sweat streams down your body as flies swarm around your face.
In the words of 20-year-old Jacques Kok who was an infantryman on the border for seven months: "On both sides of the clearing in which your patrol is walking the cliffs tower above you. You could run into an ambush any minute. You have to be alert, step gingerly and look for tracks until the sun sinks. And all the time - day and night - you're horribly frightened ... Anything can happen at any moment."
When he returned from the border Jacques spent 14 weeks in the psychiatric unit of 1 Military Hospital, Pretoria. The symptoms: post-traumatic stress - an anxiety state.
Jacques Kok is just one of many soldiers suffering from this post-war stress, something that has been researched for years. In World War II it was called battle fatigue and 25 percent of soldiers fell victim to it. After the Israeli Six Day War 12 percent of the troops needed psychological treatment. And in America they talk of the Vietnam Syndrome which still chills veterans. South African soldiers call it "bossies" when their comrades are physically whole but spiritually wounded after a tour of duty on the border.
A veteran for whom the border situation got too much recently told the C B Powell Bible Centre's winter school in Pretoria of his painful experiences. "It's like landing on the moon. I never expected anything like it. The whites, the blacks, the unknown terrain of land mines, murder and cruelty - everything was strange and different."
JACQUES KOK, who grew up in the concrete jungle among the skyscrapers of Hillbrow, also found the border quite different from what he had expected. He joined up as a 17-year-old, full of dreams of unknown border adventures in the army. He asked to become an infantryman because he wanted to be where the action was - in the "red zone". But his adventures turned into nightmares.
He sits on the edge of the rocking chair in his sunny flat. He plays nervously with a cigarette lighter as he recounts his border terrors. He has brooding brown eyes, a modern hairstyle and equally modern clothes. To the naked eye he looks like any other young Hillbrower but he believes the border changed him. It also made a man of him, he says.
"I can say now I was frightened but when I was in the bush I couldn't admit it. I felt like an onlooker. Everyone in my group put on a brave face - they spoke and acted like hardened, fearless border fighters. I couldn't tell anyone I was scared - they would have thought I was a sissie.
"Apart from that there isn't much conversation. Night and day you have to be as quiet as a mouse. Actually you don't want to talk either - you're too nervous. You try not to think about the here and now or about what could happen; but about home, the past and the future.
"You don't sleep properly at night. It's a restless sleep. The slightest noise wakes you up. When the sun rises after 13 hours in your sleeping bag you're thankful.
"I was never caught in an ambush. I never had contact with terrorists, but it could have happened. And that utter, continuous tension, the unpredictable and unholy area ... It feeds on you. It's you against Nature but also you against the enemy.
"Other things that upset me were the slaughter of animals. I'd never before seen how animals were killed and when we were back at base and we killed a buck I almost couldn't swallow the meat. To a chap brought up on a farm, of course, it was nothing.
"Then there was also my mother's illness. She had cancer and it made me feel powerless that she was so sick, that I couldn't do anything for her and that I was so far from her.
"There was also the uncertainty about my future. I didn't know what I'd do once I got back. Later I didn't even care what would become of me - I was completely aimless. I had no self-confidence and felt profoundly sorry for myself.
"It began to show, began to take effect. My neck began to jerk. I thought I'd injured a neck nerve because I was carrying a heavy weapon. My comrades guessed it was battle fatigue and it was after a doctor on the border sent me to 1 Military's psychiatric department that I realised there was something wrong with me."
Now, a year later, Jacques can talk about his border fear because he's worked through it - it's over. Although he's still looking for work and studying part-time he's full of hope for the future. But he also notes his colleagues back from the border for months are often only now beginning to show the signs of post-traumatic stress.
Pretoria psychiatrist, an expert in the field of battle fatigue, says post-traumatic stress can manifest itself even months after a soldier's home-coming and, untreated, can last or years. Although the soldier may return whole in body, no-one really realises how many psychological injuries some men are carrying around.
"The soldier on the border doesn't just experience anxiety about death. He also feels he can do nothing about his wounds. That his life is not really worth anything. His helplessness makes him angry -and this is one of the many symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
"Another symptom is grief and mourning. He can grieve over the death of a friend who was shot next to him. Or he will mourn his familiar, protected world, his house and his community of which he's no longer part. He also feels terribly alone and no one, not even someone who was on the border, realises what these troopies go through."
What can fathers and mothers, family, wives and friends do to put this soldier back on his feet?
Be on the look-out for signs like sleeplessness, loss of appetite, depression or other abnormal behaviour.
The most important thing is to get the soldier to talk. He needs a sympathetic and patient ear. Give him a chance to discuss his experiences over and over. The more he talks, the more he repeats, the more quickly he'll be healed.
Although the community carries this burden of aftercare, the army tries as much as possible to prepare the soldier for war. The most important facet of this is thorough training. A well-trained soldier who's fit and knows how to handle his weapons is sure of himself and knows what's at stake.
For the past eight months the army has been carrying out an initiation or stress-reduction operation. The main aim of this is to give soldiers and commanders the chance after a certain period in the bush to offload their stress. This is what Brigadier Fred Oosthuizen, Director: Psychological Services of the army, explains.
To get rid of their stress the soldiers are first taken to a safe assembly point not too far from the battlefront. Here they get clean clothes, clean bedding and the opportunity to wash and sleep peacefully. During the day they get the chance to listen to music, attend a church service and just unwind.
But the most important thing during this three-day off-time is that the soldier has to discuss his experiences. A group of 10 to 15 soldiers then describe their feelings about events on the border with a professional group leader. These group leaders are usually ministers of religion, medical officers, social workers or psychologists trained to handle stress.
Because there is a camaraderie and because everything discussed remains confidential they can speak of their fear, their feelings of oppression or relief.
"If a soldier was, for example, in a Ratel that went over a land mine and some of his comrades died he gets the chance to speak of his experience. This means a lot to the group when they hear he's just as scared as they were, that he also lost his appetite, that he also suffers from sleeplessness, has nightmares about an experience and that he sometimes battles to talk about it. It's reassuring to everyone in the group that their reactions are normal. This is the opinion of Commandant Albert Janse, a clinical psychologist who's acted as a group leader on the border.
After three days the soldier is ready to go home or back to the front. It's very important that he buries his experiences and handles upsetting episodes so he can start a clean page.
If there are soldiers who haven't worked through their stress the group leader recognises them and refers them to a psychologist. Who knows, if Jacques Kok had taken part in a discussion group he may have worked his stress through more quickly
Jacques Kok (20) who was on the border for seven months. I was never ambushed. I never even shot at any one but the endless tension tests you to the limit" After his border service Jacques was treated for stress for more than three months.
On patrol in the bush - this is where your nerves reach breaking-point, a troopie says.
REFERENCE: `You magazine, 25 August 1988, p. 20 - 21
This was from a South African magazine, and published apparently without any interest from the Official Secrets Act. Cmdt. Janse features in Chapter 7 of `Pro Patria', as does the debriefing teams.