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France faces up to war trauma

PARIS: Christophe was close to death in Afghanistan, Raphael saw one bag after another in the Sahel region of Africa, and Omar doesn’t even want to talk about what he experienced on the battlefield.

Gradually, the injury resolved over the years.

The French military recognizes the problem of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for their troops as one of the busiest and most vulnerable in the Western world in terms of active deployment in deadly conditions.

But he is trying to alleviate the trauma suffered by thousands of them with new techniques that are also practiced by Western allies, including Canada and the United States.

Omar, 35, a former military paratrooper, struggled with PTSD for ten years, which led to the severance of his relationship and re-hospitalization after deploying to Guiana in 2012, and then to the experience in Afghanistan, which he still refuses to discuss. …

Youssef, 44, a former military intelligence agent, has been involved in numerous operations that have resulted in him sometimes becoming violent and sometimes full of fear.

“An unpleasant force rises in you, your family leaves you, people don’t really understand,” he said. AFP

It was found that from 2010 to 2019, about 2,800 French soldiers suffered psychological trauma, five times more than the number with physical injuries.

In the Army alone, 70% of the 1,000 wounded soldiers on extended sick leave suffer from PTSD.

The problem has become even more acute with nearly a decade of France’s deployment in the Sahel region of Africa to fight jihadists, where 50 of its soldiers have been killed and about 5,000 French soldiers are in action.

For victims like Omar and Yousef, who, like other sources, asked not to be released their names, routine sports rehabilitation and therapy had little effect.

To better support them, the French military is now experimenting with a new approach already successfully applied in Canada, Israel and the United States to offer incremental revival in everyday life and to help plan for the future.

– Without white robes –

This is the principle behind Athos House, a military residence in Toulon in southern France that cares for 15 veterans who stared death too closely in the eye.

There are no white coats or hospital beds here, but sports activities, co-food, painting, DIY and professional activities to learn new skills for post-military work.

Veterans can come and go as they please.

“They can find peace among themselves,” said Luc de Coligny, a former French Marine who leads the residence. A similar one can also be found outside the southwestern city of Bordeaux.

“We are looking for something other than treatment for the victims,” said Dr. Xavier Desruel, medical adviser to the army chief of staff.

“They have to learn to get used to life again as long as they have a tendency to withdraw into themselves.”

Here Omar found new hope.

“We are surrounded by comrades with the same experience, we understand each other,” he said.

He returned to sports, lost weight and smiled. He is also preparing to end his military career by starting his training as a heating engineer.

Yousef makes clear his “desire to be cured” and wants to find a job that is related to the “green space”, saying: “Office, computer, I could not.”

– “Lock on yourself” –

Psychologists say that close proximity to death is the most serious contributor to PTSD among soldiers, and symptoms can appear after a few weeks or months.

Christophe, 35, a former member of the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment, was in his armored vehicle in 2009 when it was hit by a homemade bomb in Tagaba, Afghanistan.

Three of his comrades were killed. He survived, burned from neck to hips.

But his PTSD only surfaced four years later, when the suicide of a fellow Afghan veteran “brought it all to light.”

He was involved in a fight at a nightclub, an altercation during a football match, and anger and screams in the family made his young children cry.

“It’s hard not to be understood by your loved ones. As a result, we are isolated, ”he said.

Colonel Rafael Bernard, a veteran of operations from Lebanon to the former Yugoslavia and Côte d’Ivoire, found that it was the deployment to Mali that had pierced his soul armor.

In 2015, jihadists attacked the UN camp in Kidal, where he was.

Sent to the rooftop, ready to open fire, he was struck by “pieces of the brain of a jihadist who was driving a suicide vehicle.”

And at the end of 2019, Colonel Bernard saw sacks with the corpses of dozens of Malian soldiers on the Gao base runway, and then 13 French soldiers killed in a helicopter collision.

“It was a cruel feeling: visual, olfactory and psychological,” he recalled.

“I didn’t sleep anymore, I had nightmares. I shut myself up under a kind of emotional anesthesia. “

His friends complained about his screams, which affected his relationship with his wife.

He now believes that he is recovering and is retraining to work in the hotel sector.

– “March or Die” –

The psychological trauma of war came to be recognized only during the First World War, when modern mechanized conflict caused new mental trauma, which led to the emergence of the term “concussion shock”.

Psychological injuries were only officially recognized by the French army in 1992.

The true turning point was the deployment of troops to Afghanistan, where troops were thrown into the bloody theater of war, and the army began to develop appropriate psychological support before and after deployment.

Even then, victims often found themselves in a horrific paper-based pursuit of status, and impersonal bureaucracy only exacerbated the trauma.

A macho culture that does not allow troops to openly talk about their feelings does not help, and only 5-10% of patients remain in the French army.

“We are so often told: ‘March or die’. When you can no longer march, it is difficult to accept, ”said Omar. – AFP

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