Invisible wounds: France faces up to war trauma

·5-min read

Christophe came close to death in Afghanistan, Raphael saw one body bag after another in the Sahel region of Africa, while Omar does not even want to talk about what he experienced on the battlefield.

Bit by bit, the trauma settled in, over the course of many years.

The French military recognises the problem of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for its troops, among the busiest and most exposed in the Western world in terms of active deployments in deadly environments.

But it is seeking to ease the trauma endured by thousands of them with new techniques also practised by Western allies including Canada and the United States.

Omar, 35, a former navy commando, has battled PTSD for a decade, causing his relationship to break up and repeated hospitalisation after deployment in Guiana in 2012 and then the experience in Afghanistan that he still refuses to discuss.

Youssef, 44, a former military intelligence agent, took part in numerous operations that left him sometimes violent, sometimes filled with fear.

"An unpleasant force surges up in you, your family abandons you, people don't really understand," he told AFP.

Some 2,800 French soldiers were found to be suffering from psychological injuries from 2010 to 2019, five times more than the number with physical injuries.

In the ground army alone, 70 percent of the 1,000 injured servicemen on long-term sick leave suffer from PTSD.

The problem has become all the more acute with France's almost decade-long deployment in the Sahel region of Africa to fight jihadists, where 50 of its troops have been killed and some 5,000 French troops are operating.

For victims such as Omar and Youssef, who like other sources asked for their surnames not to be disclosed, conventional sports rehabilitation and therapy had little effect.

To better support them, the French armed forces are now experimenting with a new approach, already successfully applied in Canada, Israel and the United States to offer a step-by-step re-emergence into daily life and help planning a future.

- No white coats -

This is the principle behind Athos House, a residence run by the military in Toulon in the south of France which looks after some 15 veterans who have stared death all too closely in the eye.

Here, there are no white coats or hospital beds but sporting activities, communal meals, painting, DIY and vocational activities to learn new skills for jobs after the military.

The veterans are free to come and go as they please.

"They can find peace among themselves," said Luc de Coligny, a former French marine who leads the residence. A similar one can also be found outside the southwestern city of Bordeaux.

"We are aspiring to something other than therapy for those affected," said doctor Xavier Desruelles, a medical adviser to the army chief of staff.

"They must learn to get used to life again while they have a tendency to close in on themselves."

Omar has found new hope here.

"We are surrounded by comrades with the same experience, we understand each other," he said.

He has returned to sport, lost weight and found a smile. He is also preparing to end his military career by starting training as a heating engineer.

Youssef makes clear his "desire to be cured" and wants to find a job that involves "green spaces", saying: "Office, computer, I couldn't."

- 'Closed in on myself' -

Psychologists say that it is the close proximity with death that is the most major trigger for PTSD among soldiers and the symptoms can take weeks or months to even begin to emerge.

Christophe, 35, a former member of the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment, was in 2009 in his armoured vehicle when it was hit by a homemade bomb in Tagab, Afghanistan.

Three of his comrades were killed. He survived, burned from his neck to his thighs.

But his PTSD only revealed itself four years later when the suicide of a fellow Afghanistan veteran "brought it all out".

He was involved in a brawl in a nightclub, an altercation during a football match and the anger and shouting in the family made his young children cry.

"It's hard not to be understood by your loved ones. As a result, we isolate ourselves," he said.

Colonel Raphael Bernard, a veteran of operations from Lebanon to the former Yugoslavia and Ivory Coast, found that it was deployment in Mali that pierced his mental armour.

In 2015, jihadists launched an attack on the UN camp in Kidal where he was deployed.

Posted on a roof, ready to open fire, he was hit by "bits of brain from the jihadist who was at the wheel of a suicide vehicle".

And at the end of 2019, Colonel Bernard saw on the tarmac of the Gao base the body bags of dozens of Malian soldiers, then of 13 French soldiers killed in a helicopter collision.

"It was a violent feeling: visual, olfactory and psychological", he recalled.

"I was no longer sleeping, I was having nightmares. I closed in on myself, in a kind of emotional anaesthesia."

His friends complained of his shouting, his relationship with his wife was affected.

Now he believes he is recovering and is retraining for work in the hotel sector.

- 'March or die' -

The psychological trauma of war only began to be recognised during World War I, where modern mechanised conflict caused new mental injuries that led to the coining of the term "shell shock".

Psychological injuries were only officially recognised by the French army in 1992.

The true turning point was the deployment in Afghanistan where troops were plunged into a bloody theatre of war and the army began to develop proper psychological help for before and after deployment.

Even then, victims often found themselves in a daunting paper chase to have their status recognised, with the impersonal bureaucracy only adding to the trauma.

A macho culture that prevents troops opening up about their feelings does not help and only 5-10 percent of patients remain in the French army.

"We are told so often: 'March or die'. When you can no longer march, it's hard to accept," said Omar.