Multiple tours of duty allowed despite mental health risks
Connection? … Sergeant Blaine Diddam’s death and the number of times he was deployed.
AUSTRALIAN special forces are being allowed to deploy on back-to-back tours of duty, sometimes doing half-a-dozen tours in as many years, despite the military acknowledging that such deployments may have a detrimental effect on mental health.
The issue has been in focus this week after Australia suffered its 33rd combat death in Afghanistan, Special Air Service sergeant Blaine Diddams. He was shot dead during a firefight in the Chora Valley on Tuesday.
While members of the Australian special forces community have rejected claims that the death of Sergeant Diddams, who has served seven tours in Afghanistan since 2001, was partly caused by his numerous tours, some have acknowledged the strain of a decade of war.
One of the defining characteristics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been an increased use of special operations forces to gather intelligence, train local forces and catch or kill senior enemy figures.
The successful raid to kill Osama bin Laden last year by the US’s Joint Special Operations Command was illustrative of their highly successful expanded role.
Politicians from most Western nations have also embraced their special forces as they present less risk of adverse publicity stemming from high casualty rates.
However, in 2010 the Australian Defence Force’s Joint Health Command provided a ministerial submission to the Defence Personnel Minister, Warren Snowdon. It refers to ”emerging research, which has found respite periods between deployments is important to good mental health”.
Emerging research suggests ”the amount of respite period between deployments may be more important than the length or frequency of deployments”, the report states.
It is for that reason that Australia’s Special Operations Command has a policy requiring 12 months’ rest between deployments. However, that policy is rarely adhered to.
Instead, most SAS and commando troops can acquire volunteer status, which means they can then be redeployed immediately after returning home.
They are approached by their commanding officer and asked if they are of volunteer status. They then sign a waiver and are redeployed, sometimes within weeks of returning home.
Sergeant Diddams is an example of the huge effort put in by special forces soldiers in Afghanistan, with his service record showing he was deployed to Afghanistan six times since 2007.
Between May 2007 and July 2008 alone he was deployed three times and had less than three months’ rest in Australia, his record shows.
Special forces soldiers have rejected claims made this week, however, that Sergeant Diddams’s death was in some way connected to how many times he had been deployed.