Nearly 100 000 Swedish soldiers and officers have served abroad over the years. And that figure is only going to grow. With increased international commitments the level of concurrently serving officers/soldiers is due to double. Planning for the next duty period, starting in 2011, for the Nordic Battlegroup, which will have between 2000 and 2500 soldiers, is already under way. At the same time, there is a tendency for combat situations to become more common during international missions.
Most of those performing, or who have performed, international military service have relatively sound psychological health; and have so far, with very few exceptions, been spared the worst sort of traumatic experience. But there is no doubt that international service can be extremely wearing for both the individual soldier and his or her family. The question is: what is the best way in which Sweden, and the Armed Forces, can lend support to those who serve abroad?
Swedish veterans policy
The proposals contained in the report of the government inquiry concerning veteran soldiers, issued on the 1st October, provide, it is hoped, an indication of how that question can be answered.
"International operations have become much tougher and we need to acquire a complete picture of how those sent out to participate in such operations are affected. We need to fulfil our responsibilities well. A key issue to address is how we support family members, says Peter Öberg", special adviser to the inquiry.
Information, insurance cover, reactions of those around them, opportunities to communicate with near ones during a mission, research into how children react to a parent's absence, psychosocial and practical assistance are central to a pair of recent studies into the experience of being a family member or close friend of someone on mission abroad.
The results of a comprehensive survey conducted by the Association of Military Officers in Sweden during the spring of 2008 showed, among other things, that four out of ten close relatives experienced some form of negative physical or psychic reaction to service abroad.
Many expressed a wish for information on their own situation, as a friend or relative, and those emotional reactions which could be expected. Two out of three would appreciate having a personal contact, someone who would be able to respond to all the questions that can pop up - a system similar to a successful Danish scheme.
Families with young children
Not everything that is done for soldiers' next of kin in Sweden is given poor marks, but the results of both recent studies clearly show that there is scope for significant improvement - if future recruitment is not to be put at risk. Most exposed are families with young children.
One out of five in the group "families with younger children" were negative towards serving overseas before the start of a term of service abroad. Twice as many expressed negative feelings following a period of service. A phenomenon that is likely to have a detrimental effect on willingness to apply for further terms of service abroad.
Several worthwhile initiatives are in place up and down the country, according to Peter Öberg, but these need to be supplemented and coordinated by a common policy for families, to ensure consistent treatment across the country.
The government report proposes authoring information materials aimed at children. This is something which other armed forces have been already been doing. Those doing military service abroad with children of school age are to be given the opportunity to make an in-school presentation of what international service involves.
A dedicated website for each mission, an information source for friends and relatives that complements the occasionally biased news reports and a forum for contacting others in a similar situation, is another proposal. Forms of psychosocial support, such as mentor schemes, networks, expanded get-togethers for family and friends and individual contact persons are discussed in the inquiry's working material.
Follow-up of those who have served abroad is another crucial point. All of those who return home go through a homecoming programme, in which counselling sessions are offered. A follow-up meeting is arranged six months later. After two or three years veterans are contacted by the Armed Forces with a survey, which has the aim of identifying those in need of further assistance. However, the poor reply rate, of barely 15 per cent, presents difficulties.
"I am convinced that some form of personal contact is needed. We need to give an active lead on this issue. The fact that 80 percent of those who undertake international service disappear into civilian life, after their return home, makes our attempts to follow their progress difficult", Peter Öberg continues.
"… acknowledge veteran soldiers"
Bo Wranker, head of the department of Leadership and Management at the National Defence College, and, moreover, national chair of Sweden's only veterans association, The Peace Berets of Sweden (Fredsbaskrarna), welcomes the inquiry and expresses the view that "It's high time for Sweden to acknowledge her veteran soldiers".
Bo Wranker left the Armed Forces in 2004, having attained the rank of brigadier, with a large number of terms of service abroad to his credit.
"Ten to fifteen percent take impressions home that can be disturbing for them. The scale ranges from isolated incidents to the worst things that one can experience."
The only way to reach those in need of help is, according to Bo Wranker, via personal contact. Preferably with someone who has international experience.
"Talking directly to the Armed Forces can be difficult. Many are concerned for their career prospects, their image and that sort of thing. You just have to look to yourself. Perhaps it won't be particularly appreciated, going up to my superior officer and telling them that I need help dealing with my experiences?"
The PeaceBerets of Sweden organisation has for a number of years offered peer counselling to all veteran soldiers, not simply their own members.
Those involved in the Peace Berets' peer counselling scheme are trained in defusing, a term which refers to "defusing" an "emotional" charge, and are themselves veterans. This training is partly financed by the Armed Forces. Last year, Peace Beret peer counsellors had contact with almost a hundred veteran soldiers in need of support.
"When we notice that someone may be in need of more professional help, we try to bring them round to realising that fact for themselves, so that we can pass them on to the Armed Forces."
In the coming autumn the Peace Berets are to launch an around the clock helpline. This is also partially financed by the Armed Forces.
A lot to do
"There is a lot that can be done, says Bo Wranker. The Netherlands arrange return visits to the scene of events that have prompted traumatic reactions. A method that the Norwegians have now adopted."
Family members already take contact with the Peace Berets' counselling team. It is expected that more will do so once the telephone help line is marketed as a resource for both veteran soldiers and their near ones. Bo Wranker believes that the Peace Berets could function in the same way as their Norwegian sister organisation. But he doubts that Allan Widman, liberal member of the Riksdag, will be too cautious to go so far as to propose that sort of total solution for veteran policy.