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Tools for Line Leaders Managing Personnel in Distress

soldiers shaking hands

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Dayton Mitchell/Released

Warriors at all levels meet the demands of military service every day, whether it’s serving in a combat environment overseas or in garrison operations at home. As a line leader, it is important to understand how combat and operational stress can affect personnel and impact a unit’s performance.

The information below is designed to help you identify warriors in your unit who may be in distress, and provide information on you how you can assist them in regaining full mission readiness throughout the entire deployment cycle.

Identify Personnel Experiencing Stress

Even the most motivated and well-trained warriors can find themselves in difficult situations that can impact psychological health and readiness. A key first step is to determine if any of the individuals under your supervision are exhibiting signs of combat stress. Whether operating in a combat environment or post-deployment, the following behaviors can indicate that a service member may be experiencing symptoms of combat stress:1

  • Lacking ability to focus
  • Becoming overly irritable or angry
  • Showing decreased problem-solving skills
  • Displaying decreased self-confidence
  • Lacking ability to make sound decisions
  • Having trouble sleeping or oversleeping frequently
  • Experiencing frequent mood swings
  • Isolating or withdrawing from buddies and other unit members
  • Taking unnecessary risks
  • Showing decreased job performance
  • Misusing drugs or alcohol
  • Relationship problems at work and home

It is also important to understand that stress can result from operational circumstances outside of battle, including sexual harassment or assault, excessively high workload, relationship issues, financial difficulties or other personal problems.2 Be aware of these additional stressors when managing your personnel.

If an individual under your command does show behavior that leads you to believe he or she may be experiencing psychological health concerns, it is imperative that you take action. Your unit — and the entire chain of command — depend on you to manage the situation effectively.

How to Manage Personnel in a Combat Environment

If your unit is operating in a combat environment, you can pursue one of three general tactics to address concerns about a warrior’s psychological well-being:3

1. Keep Warrior in Current Role

  • Do This When:The warrior shows stress reaction symptoms that do not put himself/herself or others at risk, or do not interfere with the current mission.
  • Actions to Take: Reassure the warrior that experiencing stress is common, and allow him/her to rest, clean up, eat, sleep and remain with buddies.

2. Rest Warrior in Parent or Support Unit

  • Do This When: If your unit is operating in a combat environment, you can pursue one of three general tactics to address concerns about a warrior’s psychological well-being:
  • Actions to Take: Assign the warrior to less critical duties in safer areas for six to 36 hours of rest and work. Closely monitor the warrior’s psychological wellbeing.

3. Refer Warrior to a Chaplain, Medic or Behavioral Health Professional

  • Do This When: The warrior is disruptive or potentially dangerous to self, others or the mission.
  • Actions to Take: Bring the warrior to a chaplain, aid station or medical treatment facility, maintain contact if he/she is not returned in a few hours and welcome the warrior back to the unit upon return. Try to make your warrior’s experience as seamless as possible.

Although all line leaders may pursue these three general tactics at different times, each military service provides its own specific guidelines for managing personnel in distress. Use the following resources to find more detailed information about managing personnel experiencing combat stress while deployed.

If you decide to refer a warrior for care, it is important to understand that chaplains, medics and behavioral health professionals each have different skills to help warriors cope with combat stress.

  • Chaplains: Provide confidential spiritual counseling, and are often particularly non-threatening to warriors. Although their counseling is confidential, chaplains can share general information about warriors’ mission readiness with line leaders.
  • Medics: Are trained to treat both physical and some psychological injuries that prevent warriors from carrying out their duties. Although confidentiality may be limited, it is important to explain to service members that seeing a medic in order to regain mission readiness is not a sign of weakness, but is in fact a sign of strength.
  • Behavioral Health Professionals: Specialize in helping warriors overcome psychological concerns with limited confidentiality. Many service members may be wary of seeing a behavioral health professional, so it is important to point out that these professionals have received extensive training to understand and treat combat stress.

How to Manage Personnel Throughout the Deployment Cycle

It’s critical to address personnel crises while deployed, but symptoms related to combat or operational stress can occur at any point during the deployment cycle. Therefore, leaders must also take actions in the long-term to prevent and manage stress. Try the tips listed below:3,4

  1. Address Concerns at the Individual Level
    • Spend time with your personnel and listen to what they say; this may reveal concerns that lead to distress in your unit.
    • Be supportive and emphasize that seeking care displays strength, responsibility and good judgment.
    • Give warriors a chance to recover and restore their self-confidence by returning to their operational duties only when they are able.
  2. Address Concerns at the Unit Level
    • Just like individuals, units can suffer from distress. Organizational stress affects the unit’s morale and in turn can impact its mission. Encourage your unit to communicate openly and maintain healthy lifestyles to help reduce organizational stress.
  3. Foster a Climate of Mutual Support and Trust
    • Encourage active management of stress as a good long-term investment in promoting well-being.
    • Accountability for personnel’s well-being is strengthened by leadership’s example and the emphasis attached to the effective management of stress.
    • Work hard to maintain connections and trusting relationships with personnel who have had professional treatment for traumatic stress injuries.
  4. Help Unit Members Build a Community
    • A warrior’s social network offers support, protection and a sense of purpose. Leaders can let each team member know where they fit in the unit, voicing appreciation for the member’s efforts. For many warriors, the unit is like a family, so fostering this sense of community can yield great rewards.

What Not to Do

Taking the correct actions such as those listed above when addressing a psychological health concern is critical. Conversely, taking the incorrect actions can be harmful and counterproductive to returning members of your unit to mission readiness. When managing personnel in distress, keep the following in mind:1

  1. DO NOT Take Anger Out on Others
    It is natural to feel frustrated with someone who has lost control, but expressing anger about this does not help. Calmly communicate with the service members in distress to understand the source of their stress and encourage them to seek support to help them cope.
  2. DO NOT Attempt to Dismiss Stress
    If you believe a service member needs help coping with stress and other psychological health concerns, encourage him or her to seek care from a health professional. Early intervention greatly increases successful care and positive outcome.
  3. DO NOT Assign Blame
    Let your unit know that experiencing psychological stress as a result of deployment is common. Assigning blame can affect unit cohesion and trust.
  4. DO NOT Rush Back to Duty
    Give warriors a chance to recover and restore their self-confidence by returning to their operational duties only when they are able.
  5. DO NOT Revoke Your Trust
    Work hard to maintain connections and trusting relationships with personnel who have had professional treatment for traumatic stress injuries. Keep in mind that being willing to seek help is a sign of strength and courage and will ultimately benefit the unit.

Empower Your Warriors to Build Psychological Strength

Service members under your supervision may wrongly believe that seeking psychological care will show weakness, decrease leadership’s confidence in them, harm their military career or create a divide with buddies in the unit. As a leader, it is imperative that you communicate to your unit not only that these perceptions are false, but that seeking care is the best way to return to peak performance and, ultimately, to accomplish your unit’s mission.

Additional Resources


1"Combat Stress: A Natural Result of Heavy Mental and Emotional Work," Real Warriors Campaign. Last accessed Feb. 17, 2016.
2"Navy Leader’s Guide for Managing Sailors in Distress," Navy Medicine. Last accessed Feb. 17, 2016.
3"Combat and operational stress control manual for leaders and soldiers." [PDF 750KB] (2009 March). U.S. Army.
4"Airman’s Guide For Assisting Personnel in Distress," Air Force Medical Service. Last accessed Feb. 17, 2016.
5Kilbride, Tim. “Seeking Support Makes You Stronger, Not Weaker – Get Help for PTSD.” DoD Live. Published May 15, 2009.
6Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. “DoD/VA Suicide Prevention Conference.” Defense Department. Speech delivered on June 22, 2012.

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