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COMPASSION FATIGUE |

May 12, 2008

COMPASSION FATIGUE
Name: CAPT Beau Cleland
Posting date: 5/12/08
Stationed in: Iraq
Hometown: Florida

I sometimes wonder if I'm getting callous about death and suffering, like some crotchety old veteran in the movies or something. You tell me.

Example 1:

We are searching a neighborhood, and an old woman approaches us with four or five other female family members. They are squatting in this nice house while the owners are gone (dead?), but fear they will be evicted soon. They have no male relatives, no food, and nowhere to go, since their house was blown up by either the US or al Qaeda. She produces some snapshots of a completely demolished house to show us.

I have absolutely no idea what I could possibly do for them, so I vaguely direct them to a US FOB in that part of the city and tell them to ask for the civil affairs people there. I feel slightly sad, but really my predominant emotion is tiredness.

Example 2:

A man with his face wrapped in fresh bandages stumbles up to my humvee while we are cordoning a neighborhood with our Iraqi Army unit. He knocks on the window, so I open it and have my interpreter ask what he wants. He starts wailing and crying that the local police in the area beat him and stole his money, and could I please fix the situation for him.

He's clearly drunk and weaving around, and again I have no idea what I can do for this guy. I make vague promises to let "someone" know -- probably the MPs who babysit the local cops, but I really don't think they can or will do anything about it. He persists in crying and begging, and I get annoyed instead of sympathetic, and motion for the IA soldiers to shoo him away. He almost gets shooed with a rifle butt until some people from his neighborhood take him away -- and slap him around. Tough day for that dude. I just feel a little sick.

Example 3:

I'm covering on radio watch while the rest of the team is out getting a truck fixed. There is lots of contact as we build a wall down a contested street and the enemy tries their best to stop us. Tanks, Bradleys, helicopters, artillery, CAS -- the whole gamut is getting used like crazy as Real War(tm) returns for a period to the streets of Sadr City. So as this stuff goes on, the guy on duty notes significant radio traffic. Here's what I write that day (paraphrased and edited for OPSEC, naturally):

1400: Red 1 reports contact, SAF and RPG. 4 x EKIA (enemy killed-in-action) at grid x. Engaged with main gun and coax.

1418: AWT (air-weapons team) engages RPG team with Hellfire at building 44. 2 x EKIA

1424: Ironclaw 22 reports IED strike. 0 x casualties, 2 x flat tire

And so on. For several hours I make similar notes, then I write this:

1604: Red 3 reports 1 x MAM (military-age male) running in front of tank towards barrier with a black duffel bag. Engaged with coax, 1 x EKIA. Suspected IED in bag.

1610: IA positions on RTE Beer receiving heavy PKC and RPG fire. 2 x WIA. Evaced to hospital.

And here it came....

1627: EOD reports possible IED is cleared. Bag contained cigarettes. Smoking kills.

I just made a joke about a (possibly) innocent civilian being cut down by a tank because he wanted to get some cigarettes and was too dumb or lazy to go around the battle area. Then I laughed at my own joke -- I was by myself, but I enjoyed the irony even with the bitter guilt heaped on top.

I've thought about this a lot in the last couple of days, and I've come to the conclusion that this place has so much suffering, so many problems, that if I internalize them I'm just going to mess myself up mentally and emotionally. Laughing is a necessary defense mechanism against the inevitable bad feelings. I mean, I didn't kill that man. But I would have. I know I would had I been in the same situation as that gunner -- his actions were completely justified. And yet I still felt uneasy.

And so I made a joke, knowing he was probably not a combatant. But I don't think I did it to be callous. I did it to keep myself sane. Don't get me wrong, we help people all the time. Every day there's something done to aid people around here. But there's just more stuff to fix than we could possibly handle and still be able to do our jobs. Everyone has a problem and the US Army is the magic bullet that can solve it for them. So I make myself not care when I can't afford to, or face being overwhelmed.

Comments

the suffering of humanity has been around since man has been around on this earth. I am sorry that you are so close to it, and I am even more sorry that we cannot save all of mankind. Save you self, humor is the way we face all tragedy, that sometimes is all we have. Just do not ever get jaded, and pretend that is does not bother. Never use your humor to diminish another human, only to help you understand the weirdness of the cosmos. You will survive.

"if I internalize them I'm just going to mess myself up mentally and emotionally"

You are already there, and realizing it you have a chance to back off jumping over the edge. More people died from stupid things that you didn't see, here in America and in the Amazon, what you can control do so. Take care and really watch the others, that took that shot and found out about the cigarettes... they hurt even more or they have already cracked.

It is well that war is so terrible - otherwise we would grow too fond of it.

Robert E. Lee, Statement at the Battle of Fredericksburg (13th December 1862)

No CAPT. Cleland - you are not calloused - just trying to survive.

And I salute you and all our troops for your courage and sacrifice - each and every one of you -is making.

I wouldn't feel too bad about the joke. I worked in child welfare for a while and my wife still does. They don't make the jokes around people who don't understand, but horrible stuff day-in, day-out that you just can't seem to fix or stop will crush you if you don't deal with it. Humour isn't the only solution, but it is a reasonably healthy one. Stay safe. WS

No Sir, I feel your soul is still intact. Please keep going.

Just got done reading 'House to House' and it contains some outrageous morbid humor. It's a common method for those in combat situations to ease tension and take your mind off the pain. As long as you have some human compassion left in there somewhere, you'll be ok.

You aren't the only one. I've been the mother of a special-needs boy for nearly 11 years now. Sometimes I joke about killing him; this seems like a good alternative to actually killing him. And I disagree with the first poster, karen -- use your humor to fuckin' do whatever you need to do with it. Other people are not harmed by your nasty, dark, bitter, wonderfully cleansing humor, so feel free to plumb the black depths of your own heart with jokes. I sure do.

As for that second guy with the bandages -- the neighborhood people slapping him around sounds like a clue that mental illness rather than police brutality is his real problem. Mental illness is way, way too big a problem for you, man -- let it go without guilt.

Hey. I have a brother who is a cop and a brother-in-law who used to have to do rounds in the county morgue. People who deal with the unimagineable on a daily basis and seeing humanity brought to it's lowest, find coping mechanisms, that's the morbid humor that you are developing. It's normal. A certain degree of detachment is needed for sanity, the humor is a small barrier helping to create that detachment. I wouldn't worry about your compassion, the fact that you are asking about it means you are self-aware and will know if something arises that you need to worry about. Stay safe. And thank you.

Yep. I work in tax lien foreclosures and we talk about the "dead and the deadbeat." That's what fu**s up our day. It's painful, but humor will keep us human. And humane.

Captain Cleland, 'Graveyard humor' is a widely known, well researched and (most important) NORMAL human response to extreme situations of death, threat of death or unusual danger. In your present situation this humor is normal. It is evidence of sophisticated psychological defenses that help you cope mentally while you continue to do your job. Be well, and do good work, and keep in touch.

Growing up in a family of cops, as I did, exposes you to the blackest kind of humor. (As a kid I thought it was perfectly normal to refer to burn victims as "crispy critters") But I understand now that it's in our nature as thinking, feeling human beings to protect our hearts as best we can - we survive because we cope, and we cope by laughing, even under conditions of the most horrific violence and depravity. When we seek to CREATE violence and depravity...that's when we've lost our souls.

Be safe. Come home.

Valor is a gift. Those having it never know for sure if they have it till the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes. ~Carl Sandburg Please know you all are held in such a high regard, for the selfless sacrifices you make, both physical and mental, are a great price to the soul.

I Suffering of Humanity is every day more and more, because humans do not care about our neighbor, is only worried about what happens to him and his family and friends

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