In Summary
  • Initially, Ms Mukuria was reluctant to admit that she had been scarred by war.

  • Psychologists in the military work with the soldiers and are also called upon to support their families when they are killed or injured in war.

  • With funerals, families and the events that follow, the survivor’s guilt grows.

Lucy Wairimu Mukuria was at home going about her chores when she heard some minor explosions.

She ignored them, reassuring herself that it was just the neighbourhood boys playing, but was in for a surprise.

One of the boys thought it would be funny to set off a the fireworks near her. When he did, Ms Mukuria broke into tears and only regained her composure after her daughter and hugged her.

“That incident was humbling. I thought I was doing well. I felt disappointed as I wasn’t doing any better,” the retired army major said.

Ms Mukuria suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What might seem like a minor incident brings back bad memories from Somalia, where she often travelled. She was a military psychologist for 11 years.

Initially, Ms Mukuria was reluctant to admit that she had been scarred by war.

SUPPORT FAMILIES

Ms Mukuria’s own reactions to the trauma she witnessed in Somalia brought the realisation that something was seriously wrong.

Psychologists in the military work with the soldiers and are also called upon to support their families when they are killed or injured in war.

Ms Mukuria was in that role after the El Adde attack in Somalia in January 2015.

“I used to go to the hospital. My palms would start sweating when I went to the wards or as I took family members to the mortuary. Then I would cry,” she recalled.

She would be virtually dysfunctional in those times. The USIU — Africa graduate later realised that she needed help.

“I denied suffering from PTSD. That wasn’t good. I took the easy way out. Nobody is immune to psychological suffering. Not even the psychologist herself,” she said.

She attributes her denial to the way she had been trained to approach her job.

COUNSELLING

 “It was negatively framed. Like you’re supposed to be mawe (tough), but that is not human. I think that is why I denied it. It denied other people the ability to help me. They did the moment I allowed it,” she said.

Ms Mukuria was fortunate to recognise that she had a problem and sought help. Other military personnel have not been that fortunate.

Dr Susan Gitau has been counselling Kenya Defence Forces soldiers since 2012, when she was asked to debrief 248 troops who had returned from Somalia.

One of the soldiers she handled, a captain, was her neighbour in Thika.

He had served in Somalia twice but came back a broken man. He eventually killed himself.

Sammy Morell

Sammy Morell, a pilot who was killed in a helicopter crash in Lamu in 2015. PHOTO | CORRESPONDENT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“Before Somalia, Kenyan soldiers had not been involved in a major war and there was no alarm about PTSD. Things are now different. There is a big number of soldiers, who are returning home broken. Not even their families or the society know how to handle them,” Dr Gitau said.

“Society idolises soldiers and this makes the already bad situation worse.”

TRAUMATIC EVENT

 PTSD manifests itself in the form of flashbacks. It returns the person to the state he or she was in when the traumatic event happened.

Some can react dangerously and even hurt or kill people.

Dr Gitau said that if PTSD is not treated, it only takes a slight trigger for the patient to experience battlefield flashbacks.

If the flashbacks keep recurring, the soldier develops acute PTSD. When the condition becomes chronic, some begin abusing drugs.

 “The war flashbacks often occur when the soldier sees something he experienced in the battlefield like blood or an image of a suicide bomber. The image become a trigger,” she added.

 The problem is usually passed on to close family members. They are often confronted by a changed husband and father.

“The war is also fought by wives, who know nothing about dealing with someone who wakes up at night and begins strangling them,” Ms Mukuria said.

“The context is that all this time, they live with the threat of being ambushed and attacked. One goes home one day and is supposed to get into bed with his wife, something he has not done for months. At night, the person lying next to you moves and you react.”

HIGHLY IRRITABLE

Dr Gitau said PTSD makes a person who was once calm and collected — like many soldiers are — highly irritable.

They also tend to become hyper vigilant. They jerk, wake up at night and pace around the room and develop panic attacks that become part of their lives.

The worst bit comes when hopelessness sets in.

“They take drug overdoses and develop substance disorder,” she said.

People with PTSD experience recurrent negative thoughts and emotions. Typically, someone who always had a smile on their face and loved being around becomes disinterested in people, family and work.

“This happens because the victim has not been treated and has reached a level of hopelessness. If they are tested for depression, the results show a very high level of PTSD. At such a moment, you are not sure if the person will be alive next time you see him or her,” Dr Gitau explained.

She added that most soldiers she has handled do not want to talk about their battlefield experiences and often become defensive when the topic is introduced. The soldiers also blame their leaders for sending them to battle.

MINOR ISSUES

Ms Jessica Kiplagat’s husband, Sammy Morell, was a changed man when he returned from Somalia for the first time.

“My husband looked confused and often talked alone. He also became quarrelsome, picking up fights over very minor issues,” she said.

 The helicopter pilot became a smoker and a heavy drinker. He also kept to himself most of the time.

“No one, not even the military, cared. He did not get any help,” Mrs Kiplagat recalled.  

 Soldiers who survive deadly attacks often suffer from “survivor’s guilt”.

According to Dr Gitau, they are affected by the fact that they survived while the people they trained, lived, travelled and then eventually came under attack with, died.

With funerals, families and the events that follow, the survivor’s guilt grows.

Even as other people celebrate the fact that the soldier did not die, he plunges towards depression.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE

“You live with these people who are happy because you are alive. But you are like ‘what does it mean?’. That can weigh on somebody, depending on their level of emotional intelligence and social support,” Ms Mukuria said.

Top military officers also suffer from the “commander’s guilt”. This happens when the soldiers they sent out to fight end up dead or missing in action.

“Unfortunately, we live in a society where men and emotions are synonymous. The truth is, the things that drive men to be strong, to man up, are actually anxiety and fear,” said Ms Mukuria.

When they cannot bear being in dangerous situations anymore, some soldiers leave without permission, finding their way home and into hiding.

They become deserters, a serious offence in the military. Such soldiers are hunted down and court-martialed. They are eventually thrown into prison along with rapists, robbers, murderers and other offenders.

Paul, not his real name, is a man on the run. He sits near the exit whenever he goes to social places and is constantly on the lookout.

Paul fled from his unit’s camp in Somalia where he had been deployed for the second time. He had made it clear that he did not want to go back.

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