Sri Lankan Soldiers Lack Counselling
By Dinouk Colombage
As number of murder cases involving soldiers increase Sowmiya Ramanayaka, contributing psychologist lecturer at the Australian Defence Force Academy, urged the authorities to pursue counselling programs for all the soldiers who had been involved in the war.
Ramanayaka told The Sunday Leader that “having worked with soldiers who have fought in wars, I have seen first-hand the psychological stress they suffer.” Ramanayaka, who has worked with Australian soldiers upon their return from Afghanistan, explained that the longevity of the Sri Lankan war has most definitely affected the soldiers mentally.
She explained that “most soldiers who have seen fighting suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). Its causes cannot be scientifically attributed solely to conflict, but a soldier who has undergone intense fighting will begin to mentally react differently to a stressful situation.”
Ramanayaka further added that while this may be a common disorder amongst soldiers it can be carefully controlled with counselling. “Often a soldier, or anyone for that matter, who is suffering from PTSD will suffer flashbacks to a traumatic experience. When this occurs they will lose all sense of reality and their actions will be determined by what they are remembering. This is why often a soldier who is suffering from PTSD will lash out violently at those around them,” she explained.
While admitting that she was unfamiliar with the details of the murders involving soldiers in the recent past, Ramanayaka did state that with the increasing number of such incidences the authorities should be taking a greater interest in identifying the core reasons behind them. “For disciplined men and women to be getting involved frequently in domestic violence and murder indicates that there could be larger issues not being addressed”, she said. Asked how the authorities in Australia deal with post-war stress in their soldiers, Ramanayaka responded that many troops returning from a tour of duty in a war zone are given leave to return home to their families. “If you have spent 6 months to a year on the front line you will begin to lose your connection with everyday life. Many psychologists have recommended that these soldiers are separated from army life, and spend time at home with their families”, she said.
Ramanayaka said that she was not sure what the procedure was regarding the release of soldiers on leave in the Sri Lankan army, but recommended that these sorts of alternatives be explored.
Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasuriya, military spokesperson, told The Sunday Leader that a detailed program was in place to help provide counselling for soldiers. He explained that as you go up the hierarchical ladder there are mechanisms in place to help soldiers receive counselling.
Elaborating on the program in place, Wanigasuriya stated that “a corporal is in charge of seven privates in his platoon; he will hold a formal interview with each of them every week and officially record any problems they may have.” He went on to explain that in turn four platoons are organised into a company, it is then the company commander’s duty to meet with the soldiers who are under his command and once again provide any form of counselling they require. Wanigasuriya illustrated how as you climb the chain of command each commanding officer is in charge of overseeing his soldiers’ mental wellbeing.
However, it is only at the divisional level that a qualified psychological doctor is available to examine the soldiers. Wanigasuriya explained that it is up to the commanding officers to determine whether or not a soldier is in need of such counselling. “Officer Training involves leadership training which includes counselling, the officers will know how to identify the issues facing a soldier under his command”, he said.
Ramanayaka denied that this was an adequate system explaining that “a fellow soldier does not have the outside perspective a trained psychologist would. Very often issues which a trained professional would recognise would be missed by an individual who is in the same situation as the patient.”
Asked if there were any special programs in place to help counsel soldiers who were involved in the war, Wanigasuriya responded that specialised lecturers such as Dr. Sarath Wijesuriya (Senior lecturer at the Colombo University) visit soldiers in the field and provide counselling to them. He also added that a meditation program had been put in place, but stressed that it was “in no way a form of religious indoctrination.” Wanigasuriya explained that this was a program in place only for soldiers who wished to take part, and that it was being conducted by the Vipassana Meditation Centre.
Questioned on the recent murders involving soldiers in the army, Wanigasuriya explained that each case had been thoroughly investigated and found that there had been no signs of PTSD with those involved.
Last week a soldier in Kandy broke in to the home of his girlfriend and shot her and her mother and father before shooting himself. Wanigasuriya explained that the soldier had only enlisted in the army a year ago and has not seen any fighting. “This was purely a crime committed because of his personal issues, I am not condoning it but it would appear he would have committed this crime even if he had not joined the army”, Wanigasuriya stated.
He went on to explain that earlier this month a private who had been in the army for 9 years had killed his commanding officer who had been in service for 6 years. “This was a case of the soldier being jealous of a younger man who was promoted ahead of him”, he explained. Asked if this outburst was a result of PTSD Wanigasuriya responded that “it is unlikely as it was a calculated murder. Many victims of PTSD cannot control their actions or emotions. There were other people in the vicinity but the soldier did not attack them.” Despite the explanations given by Wanigasuriya, Ramanayaka questioned why more and more soldiers were resolving internal conflicts with murder. She suggested that this may be a new symptom of PTSD and should be examined.