I’ve noticed an interesting development in personnel assignments in the military services. More and more I am hearing of family members being assigned to the same unit deploying into combat. I imagine this is being done at the request of the service members, but I wonder if this policy is wise. While having a relative nearby might provide some level of comfort in the tense environment associated with a deployment, the psychological effect on someone if their family member is killed or injured is my concern. The impact on the family members back home if a catastrophe occurs should be a worry as well.
A true story about the loss of multiple brothers memorialized in a movie is that of the World War II Sullivan brothers, “The Sullivans” (also known as “The Fighting Sullivans”). All five were assigned to the USS Juneau and died when it was sunk in 1942. Another movie that reflects on this issue is “Saving Private Ryan.” This movie is a work of fiction, but there was a soldier evacuated from the European theater during World War II because all of his brothers were killed. The sole surviving son was a family and societal issue not to be ignored.
While both of these movies contain elements of fiction, both also raise the issue of the risk of having multiple family members in combat simultaneously. “The Sullivans” in particular highlights the risk if all members of a family are serving together when a catastrophe occurs. In the movie, all of the brothers appear to die simultaneously. Depending on the story read, two or three of the brothers survived the sinking but died while awaiting rescue. Over 100 sailors survived the sinking, with only 10 of them being alive when rescued due to exposure, injuries and shark attacks.
When I ponder the impact of families in war, I also think of the commanding general of the 106th Infantry Division who had a heart attack during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II after two of his regiments were surrounded and captured. His son was captured with them. Maj. Gen. Alan Jones’ heart might have given out regardless of whether his son was captured. Nonetheless, I imagine the unknown status of his son must have added to the stress he had to feel with the loss of so many of his soldiers when surprised by the massive German attack.
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Both Joneses survived the war. Nonetheless, the safety of a loved one has to weigh on the mind of anyone in combat.
One of the recent examples of family members in the same unit was a mother-daughter pair in a National Guard unit that deployed to Iraq. Both are now home. In a television interview, the mother commented about feeling the need to be a mother and a soldier simultaneously. That’s understandable. Wearing a uniform does not abrogate the feelings a parent has for a child. To expect someone to be able to segment their emotions so that a parent-child relationship does not have an emotional impact just seems unwise to me.
I am certain my feelings for my children would cause some sort of reaction on my part. I might even be more demanding of a child to ensure that no accusation of favoritism could be made. However, is this really beneficial to good order and discipline in a unit? I have no scientific evidence to back up my concern, but it seems logical to me that the risk of the appearance of favoritism, coupled to the emotional impact of the death or injury of a family member, should raise a few questions about the wisdom of this policy. I am relatively certain that I would be very angry if I saw my child hurt or killed in combat. Separating my emotions from my duty would be a struggle.
Family members have been serving together in uniform since the founding of the nation. Our history of relying on militias for defense has ensured that this has always affected the military services. Close friendships can bring similar feelings of loss or concern for loss in combat. These feelings also bind a unit together so that its cohesion is enhanced, which increases its ability to withstand the rigors of the battlefield.
Nonetheless, there is a difference in feelings for a friend and those for a family member. If I had not continued to see more and more instances of family members serving together being mentioned in the media, this issue would not have caught my attention. Whether a conscious policy or simply coincidence, family members seem to be serving together today more often than in the past -- or at least I’m hearing of it more often. This may very well increase the cohesion in some units because the bonds that hold a family together may enhance that same closeness desired in a military unit. However, a risk is being accepted as well. Losing a friend causes an emotional shock. Losing a family member will produce a severe emotional shock. The shock of losing multiple family members at once will be very hard on families back home.
I hope none of these service men and women find themselves providing evidence of my worry, but I also hope the leaders in those units have considered this and are prepared to cope with the impact.