A Fort Campbell, Kentucky based Army unit that deployed to Afghanistan suffered five casualties. Within a very short period of time there was a unit blackout: all unofficial communication back to the States was cut off – or so it is policy and was ordered, but that isn’t what happened. Instead, word went ’round the world via email, cell phones, and social networking. People who should’ve known nothing were finding out all kinds of things. This absolutely should not have happened, but who is to blame and can it be stopped?
The bridge between those in combat and their loved ones was built by the Department of Defense. It slowly but surely allowed (or didn’t effectively halt or monitor the use of) cell phones, email, and social networking including Facebook and Twitter, effectively rendering letter writing a thing of the past.
For loved ones in combat and at home, this heightened level of connectivity promises a heightened level of assurance. In reality it offers nothing more than a tiny ray of hope for an even tinier increment of time. The reassurance for parties on both sides of the communication doesn’t last. For all intents and purposes the connectivity becomes an addiction whose fixes must, at best, come reliably in order to sustain that tiny ray of hope. At worst they must increase exponentially, especially when the connectivity has been compromised.
In pre-hyper-connected days, the spouses of the deployed had no choice but to build a defense of their own. They honed the skill of putting worry on the back burner and readjusted into a functional routine that did not depend on regular communication with their loved ones. They did this because there was no connection other than letter writing and maybe, just maybe a phone call (which did not take place where or when active combat was nearby).
Conversely, the near-constantly connected minds of today’s spouses rarely build a fortress to contain and temper loneliness, anxiety and fear because they don’t think they need it. When (not if) the fortress is needed, where does this unprepared mind go? High and to the right (i.e.: chronic sleeping problems, prolonged anxiety, loss of routine, unusual weight loss or gain, substance abuse, depression, domestic violence, etc).
My own experience with the transition from letter writing to hyper-connectivity brought my bathroom to rubble. I had teenagers and a young child when my husband and his fellow Marines first set foot in Iraq in March 2003. It was his seventh deployment into his 29th country. I was not the only one with suddenly-troubled teenagers or a young child whose behavior regressed. While I had a close-knit group of military friends nearby, my family was almost lethargic with support.
This, along with the otherwise ordinary troubles brought about by daily life, was plenty to deal with. What should not have entered into the mix was the opportunity for my husband to call me directly from a combat theater (during what he thought was downtime) while I helped my daughter out of the ball pit on a McDonald’s playground. We held to our custom of saying “I love you” before anything else, which was good because the next thing heard was an explosion on his end. He didn’t respond to my asking if he was okay and instead the call dropped.
Shortly thereafter, calls from senior wives of the Command said only that there had been an incident with casualties. This did nothing but confirm fear, not facts. As if that weren’t enough, news reports inundated the TV, radio and Internet with too many words painfully summed up by, “Something happened but we’re not sure what.”
I calmly placed my children with friends, removed myself to my bathroom and tore it to pieces with top-of-my-lung expletives. Unfortunately, my oldest daughter had returned to get a sweater and bore witness to just how worried I really was. This effectively catapulted my “You don’t worry until I worry” argument right out the window with a bar of soap and a ragged copy of Reader’s Digest.
The media’s practice of making “breaking news” out of “maybe, might and could be” grew like an insidious bacteria in the first few months of the Afghanistan war and broke out into a full blown epidemic in the first few months of the Iraq war. It has since shown no sign of receding. While this may leave civilians feeling more connected, it does nothing but aggravate an already tenuous situation for many a waiting loved one – especially families of reservists who do not have peers and programs within driving distance.
The old adage, “No news is good news,” has been turned on its head by the near daily use of insta-communication via social media and cell phones. For all intents and purposes there is no longer such a thing as “no news” – except when there is definitely news. For many a spouse of the deployed of yesteryear, silence was golden. No more. For today’s hyper-connected spouse, silence means someone died and/or is severely wounded – but who?
The only people who know everything (relatively speaking) have no dog in the fight, as it were. It is not their loved one who may or may not be dead, but they do know who is and isn’t dead. What the spouses and other family members get from the fiasco of insta-communication is a little knowledge – and a little knowledge has proven time and again to be dangerous. Among the younger and less experienced spouses, speculation can be rampant and imaginations can become tortuous.
Those of us looking back on our spouse’s time in combat can’t help but compare our experiences to those of spouses whose loved ones are deployed now. Many of us can’t imagine the stress and strain experienced by today’s spouse who is unnecessarily privy to an unnatural amount of information that does little to ease the burden and instead often feeds it with useless fear in bulk. This digital generation of spouses thinks there is a “need” for this level of connectivity because they’ve never experienced a deployment without it. They know no other way – and the Department of Defense appears glad to have dispensed with the cost of educating them otherwise.
In this day and age, the policy to shut down all communication when something has gone wrong achieves the opposite goal because it sends the message loud, clear, and far: something is very wrong. Every spouse potentially involved knows their worst fear may be realized: their loved one is dead or wounded. This is also directly counter to the military’s policy that a spouse not be informed of a tragedy by any means other than face-to-face contact.
At Fort Campbell, five of 120 spouses were to get the dreaded official visit, but 115 spouses began the grieving process for no reason at all and five of them began the process prematurely. All 120 of them should have been spared the anguish and torment that is knowing just enough to turn a life upside down.
Hyper-connectivity only sounds good in theory and has proven to have tragic consequences when (there is no “if” in combat) things go wrong. Unfortunately, there appears to be no way to undo it. While we can point fingers at everyone from the big wigs in Washington and those who breach Command protocol to the spouse back home whose method of spreading rumors makes a satellite look like a soup can, the bottom line is that someone (not everyone) hit the hyper-connectivity switch and hasn’t looked back.
My question to the Department of Defense is, “Anything else in the box, Pandora?”