Survivors of the USS Cole disaster in Yemen are distraught yet in good spirits, fatigued but determined to stay with their ship. And, Navy officials add privately, volunteers have been streaming forward to serve on the crippled destroyer despite a scary situation.
Those aren’t necessarily contradictions, say psychologists and military observers.
After an apparent terrorist attack like the one on the USS Cole — where at least seven sailors have been killed, another 10 are missing and presumed dead, and dozens are injured — military victims become torn between duty and grief, discipline and shock, anger and despair, external toughness and internal turmoil.
“What terrorism does is turn warriors into worriers,” says Joseph L. Mancusi, who headed the Department of Veterans Affairs’ psychology program for five years in the early 1980s.
In the military, “you’re trained to take action in the face of danger,” he says. “But if you don’t know where it’s coming from you stay on heightened awareness and you worry.”
“It’s not like a combat engagement,” says Justin W. Schulz, a Denver psychologist who specializes in combat stress disorders.
“There’s nobody to respond to, to shoot back at,” he says. “It leaves people feeling helpless.”
American servicemen are not strangers to terrorist attack while posted abroad. In 1983, a suicide truck bomber killed 241 Marines and sailors when he crashed into their barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1996, a truck bomb killed 19 Air Force personnel at the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia.
And many, including Mancusi and Schulz, believe that much of the Vietnam War, with its often unseen enemy, had the effect of terrorism.
“Most of the fatalities did not occur from fighting with people,” Schulz says. “Most occurred from booby traps and land mines, which is comparable to a terrorist attack.”
Based upon hat they’ve seen in the past, the two psychologists believe USS Cole survivors will be shaken.
“The men who were there should be really traumatized,” Mancusi says. “Every noise, every bump in the night will keep them awake.”
However, Mancusi adds, military men and women sometimes live in a culture where they tend not to talk openly about fear. That can heighten anxiety.
Despite this rather bleak prognosis, Rear Adm. Joe Henry, director of Navy military plans and policy in the Bureau of Personnel, described the crew of the Cole as “fatigued but in good spirits,” and said they were in the process of making telephone calls home.
Psychologists say such family contact is invaluable to sailors who’ve been through traumatic situations, because unlike domestic victims of terror, they are miles from the emotional support of family.
It also helps calm some of the uncertainty and fear the families themselves endure as the disaster pans out.
“The whole idea of terrorism is that if it happened now, it can happen tomorrow,” says Sue Schwartz, the associate director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, and the wife of a Marine Corps pilot. “Whenever this kind of thing occurs it brings it home — the stark realities that this can happen. We kind of get quiet and hold our breath.”