By Kate Huntley
The Ukrainian Foundation for Public Health reported that 57% of veterans require psychological support in a 2020 study examining the mental effects of conflict on soldiers. The Russo-Ukrainian conflict has destroyed homes, communities, and cities, torn apart families from their loved ones, instigated feelings of fear and terror in Ukrainian people, and caused sobering tolls of lost lives.
While deployed in this region, Gerald had the opportunity to visit a maintenance and training support facility for soldiers in Powidz, Poland. During his visit, the facility hosted a brigade of the Puerto Rican National Guard. Gerald emphasized that the soldiers in these facilities around Powidz are primarily completing training exercises and performing maintenance on their vehicles and equipment in order to improve their combat readiness. For many of these young combatants who joined the army expecting to be fighting to defend their country, sitting and waiting in these facilities can feel lonely and lead to self-isolation and, in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide.
Knowing this, deployed Red Cross volunteers work with command leadership teams to distribute comfort kits, provide snacks, and organize recreational activities. The Powidz installation works with the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation department for the armed services in order to improve the quality of life for soldiers stationed in these facilities. Some of the items the Red Cross has brought include bicycles, TVs, and sports equipment. The soldiers also have access to the Exchange, a 7/11 style convenience store that gives them the opportunity to shop for their favorite snacks and amenities. These leisure and comfort items are critical to the mental and emotional well-being of deployed soldiers.
Part of the Red Cross presence in this region is to offer a listening ear to soldiers undergoing psychological distress as a result of the high-stress environment of war. Gerald explained that most of the soldiers in the facility are between eighteen and twenty-four. Separation from loved ones is traumatic for both deployed service members and children and loved ones at home, and prolonged separation can lead to depression and other severe mental health disorders. The Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress explains that those working with refugees and people directly impacted in Ukraine can offer mental health support through numerous pathways, including connecting people to loved ones to strengthen support, remaining aware and sensitive to trauma history, using sensitive calming techniques, ensuring the safety of treasured belongings, and helping people with problem-solving to remind them of their strengths and values.
At the Powidz site, Gerald had the opportunity to speak with the commander of the Puerto Rican battalion, who was effusive in his praise on what the Red Cross presence meant to his soldiers. He emphasized that the emotional support and recreational activities that the Red Cross provided were crucial to the success of their operation. Tragically, other local installations without the same level of support have been struggling to boost morale and keep spirits high, which has led to behavior incidents and suicidal ideations. Command leadership teams across the European theater thanked the Red Cross for undoubtedly saving lives.