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GERMANY: Back From War, Shattered Survivors

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Feb 24 2009 (IPS) - Quickly after the idyllic scenes presented in the film, the story changes. The group of vigorous young men are home, greeted at the airport with flowers, hugs, kisses by loved ones and girlfriends. And then you find that the main character of the film ‘Willkommen zu hause’ (‘Welcome Home’) is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The soldier is shown to have survived an attack by Taliban militias in Afghanistan, and now he cannot forget the bloody scenes he witnessed. But his story is not fictional. PTSD has been a real life problem among thousands of soldiers all over the world, and among many German soldiers returning home from Afghanistan.

The day ‘Welcome home’ was broadcast, Feb. 3, the German ministry of defence admitted what it had been trying to conceal for months: that the number of German soldiers suffering from PTSD after serving abroad, especially in Afghanistan, has been steadily rising since 2006.

According to official figures, 245 German soldiers were reported suffering from PTSD in 2008, up from 55 in 2006 and 130 in 2007.

But these figures do not tell the whole truth. Internal documents of the German military medical service say that during 2008, 174 other soldiers were treated for psychological disorders. The German army does not call these “psychological disorders” PTSD – and this downplays the real figures.

Besides, “many soldiers don’t want to be seen as wimps,” Ulrich Kirsch, director of the Deutsche Bundeswehrverband, the union of German soldiers, said in an interview. “Therefore many try to come to terms with PTSD alone, and avoid asking for psychological help.”

Many soldiers have reported their psychological suffering only after leaving the army. Taking them too into account, the number of unreported cases of PTSD is widely believed to be far higher than the official figure.

Until recently, the official position of the German ministry of defence was that PTSD is not a problem. But a week after the ARD network broadcast the film, the German parliament debated new supportive measures for soldiers suffering post traumatic disorders.

Minister for defence Franz Josef Jung said during the debate that less than one percent of German soldiers abroad suffer from PTSD. The international average, as in the U.S., he said, is about 4 or 5 percent. “We are doing very well.”

Jung insisted that enough is being done. “We have anonymous online counselling,” he said. But this online counselling is not part of the official treatment. It was set up by master sergeant Frank Eggen who offers the online counselling during his spare time.

The official line has come under severe criticism. Reinhold Robbe, commissioner at the German parliament in charge of army affairs, accuses the military leadership of “intentionally repressing and trivialising the traumas of soldiers.”

Robbe said Germany must establish a centre for the treatment of soldiers suffering from PTSD. “We need to put an end to the stigma surrounding the post traumatic distresses,” he told IPS.

“The ministry of defence does not take this problem seriously,” Karl-Heinz Biesold, a psychologist at the military hospital in Hamburg told the weekly Der Spiegel Feb. 16. “In the U.S. there has been a national centre for PTSD since 1989.”

The German army has a budget for 42 full-time psychologists. Twenty-one of these positions are vacant.

The German ministry of defence policy on dealing with PTSD is influenced by the unpopularity of military involvement in missions abroad, especially in Afghanistan. Opinion polls have consistently shown that about two-thirds of people want troops withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Some 7,200 German soldiers are deployed in missions mostly in Afghanistan, Georgia, the former Yugoslav countries, Lebanon and Sudan.

About 4,000 soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan. These include about 100 special forces soldiers participating in the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom in southern Afghanistan, and more than 3,500 soldiers in the UN International Security Assistance Force (ISAR) in the north to protect development workers. Besides, Germany has contributed six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft.

German presence in Afghanistan is expected to grow following the strategy change ordered by U.S. President Barack Obama, who has said he expects European countries to join the so-called surge to fight Taliban militias.

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