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Leadership and stress in combat

Leaders must understand this human dimension and anticipate Soldiers' reactions to stress. Information from FM 6-22 and FM 6-22.5

Combat is sudden, intense, and life threatening. It is the Soldier's job to kill in combat. Unfortunately, combat operations may involve the accidental killing of innocent men, women, and children. Soldiers are unsure how they will perform in combat until that moment comes. The stresses experienced in combat and even the stress preparing for, waiting for, and supporting combat can be substantial.

Leaders must understand this human dimension and anticipate Soldiers' reactions to stress. It takes mental discipline and resilience to overcome the plan going wrong, Soldiers becoming wounded or dying, and the enemy attacking unexpectedly.

When preparing for war, leaders must thoroughly condition their Soldiers to deal with combat stress during all phases of operations-mobilization, deployment, sustainment, and redeployment. (See FM 6-22.5 for more on combat stress and FM 3-0 for descriptions of specific deployment phases.) The most potent countermeasures to confront combat stress and to reduce psychological breakdown in combat are:

  • Admit that fear exists when in combat.
  • Ensure communication lines are open between leaders and subordinates.
  • Do not assume unnecessary risks.
  • Provide good, caring leadership.
  • Treat combat stress reactions as combat injuries.
  • Recognize the limits of a Soldier's endurance.
  • Openly discuss moral implications of behavior in combat.
  • Reward and recognize Soldiers and their families for personal sacrifices.
To reduce stress, the leader should:
  • Lead by inspiration, not fear or intimidation.
  • Initiate and support stress management programs.
  • Provide information to focus stress positively.
  • Ensure each Service member has mastered at least two stress coping (relaxation) techniques, a slow one for deep relaxation and a quick one for on the job.
Source: FM 6-22.5 Combat Stress

Units are stabilized during mobilization and in preparation for deployment. Stabilization allows leaders and Soldiers to build a trust relationship while the unit undergoes rigorous combat skills certification or theater-specific training. Confidence in leaders, comrades, training, and equipment are key factors for combat success.

During initial deployment, units should be eased into the mission. A daytime operation could precede a night raid, for example. Training and drill can continue while leaders deepen a personable leader-to-led relationship with their Soldiers based on trust and not fear of rank and duty position.

During sustaining operations, units at all levels should discuss and absorb critical operations experiences and help individuals cope with initial combat stress. Soldiers can be encouraged to reveal their true feelings within their circle of warrior comrades. If the unit suffered casualties, leaders should openly discuss their status. In this phase, it is important to keep people informed about wounded and evacuated team members and to weigh the unit's losses and successes. Memorial services should be held to honor the fallen. Soldiers and leaders who do not succeed during operations should be retrained, counseled, or reassigned. The unit should be allocated appropriate rest periods between missions. Ensure Soldiers with serious issues have access to mental health professionals if necessary.

When preparing to redeploy, Soldiers should talk about their experiences. Leaders and commanders should be available first and refer or bring in backup like psychologists or chaplains when needed. During this phase, leaders must emphasize that Soldiers have an obligation to remain disciplined, just as they were during deployment. Soldiers must participate in provided reintegration screening and counseling. Leaders should stress that it is acceptable, and not shameful, to seek appropriate psychological help.

Once returned to their home station, organizations and units generally remain stabilized to further share common experiences before the individuals are released to new assignments. This can be difficult for returning Reserve Component forces that are often released very soon after redeployment.

When possible, Soldiers should have unfettered access to medical experts and chaplains to continue their physical and psychological recovery. Experts helping and treating the psychologically wounded must work hand-in-hand with the unit chain of command to stress the importance of maintaining good order and discipline. Aggressive or criminal behavior to compensate for wartime experiences is not tolerated.

The Army has implemented a comprehensive mental health recovery plan for all returning Soldiers to counter post-traumatic stress disorder. Sound leadership, unit cohesion, and close camaraderie are essential to assure expeditious psychological recovery from combat experiences.


Stress Management Techniques:
  • Assure every effort is made to provide for the troops' welfare.
  • Instill confidence in each Service member and his equipment, unit, and leadership.
  • Be decisive and assertive; demonstrate competence and fair leadership.
  • Provide sleep and/or rest, especially during continuous operations, whenever possible.
  • Ensure sleep for decision making personnel.
  • Set realistic goals for progressive development of the individual and team.
  • Systematically test the achievement of these goals.
  • Recognize that battle duration and intensity increase stress.
  • Be aware of environmental stressors such as light level, temperature, and precipitation.
  • Recognize that individuals and units react differently to the same stress.
  • Learn the signs of stress in yourself and others.
  • Recognize that fear is a normal part of combat stress.
  • Rest minor stress casualties briefly, keeping them with their unit.
  • Be aware of background stress sources prior to combat; e.g., family concerns and/or separation, economic problems.
  • Provide an upward, downward, and lateral information flow to minimize stress due to a lack of communication.
  • Practice stress control through cross-training, task allocation, tasks matching, and task sharing.
  • Look for stress signs and a decreased ability to tolerate stress.
  • Practice and master stress-coping techniques.
  • Face combat stress; it is unhealthy to deny the stresses of combat.
Source: FM 6-22.5 Combat Stress



Leaders need to understand that danger and fear will always be a part of their job. Battling the effects of fear does not mean denying them. It means recognizing fear and effectively dealing with it. Fear is overcome by understanding the situation and acting with foresight and purpose to overcome it. Army leaders must expect fear to take hold when setbacks occur, the unit fails to complete a mission, or there are casualties. Fear can paralyze a Soldier. Strong leaders share the same risks with their Soldiers, but use competence and extensive training to gain their Soldiers' trust and loyalty. The sights and sounds of the modern battlefield are terrifying. So is fear of the unknown. Soldiers who see their friends killed or wounded suddenly have a greater burden-they become aware of their own mortality.

Combat leadership is a different type of leadership where leaders must know their profession, their Soldiers, and the tools of war. Direct leaders have to be strong tacticians and be able to make decisions and motivate Soldiers under horrific conditions. They must be able to execute critical warrior tasks and drills amidst noise, dust, explosions, confusion, and screams of the wounded and dying. They have to know how to motivate their Soldiers in the face of adversity.

What carries Soldiers through the terrible challenges of combat and operating in support under hazardous conditions is good preparation, planning, and rigorous training. Realistic training developed around critical tasks and battle drills is a primary source for the resilience and confidence to win along with the ability to gut it out when things get tough, even when things look hopeless. It is leader competence, confidence, agility, courage, and resilience that help units persevere and find workable solutions to the toughest problems. The Warrior Ethos and resilience mobilize the ability to forge victory out of the chaos of battle to overcome fear, hunger, deprivation, and fatigue and to accomplish the mission no matter what the odds.


It is important for Soldiers to acquire and maintain a warrior mindset when serving in harm's way. Resilience and the Warrior Ethos apply in more situations than those requiring physical courage. Sometimes leaders will have to carry on for long periods in very difficult situations. The difficulties Soldiers face may not only be ones of physical danger, but of great physical, emotional, and mental strain.

An essential part of the warrior mindset is discipline. Discipline holds a team together, while resilience, the Warrior Ethos, competence, and confidence motivate Soldiers to continue the mission against all odds. Raw physical courage causes Soldiers to charge a machine gun but resilience, discipline, and confidence backed by professional competence help them fight on when they are hopelessly outnumbered and living under appalling conditions.

As Erwin Rommel wrote in 1937, it is still valid for the complex combat environment of the War on Terrorism: Training to high standards-using scenarios that closely resemble the stresses and effects of the real battlefield-is essential to victory and survival in combat.

Merely creating a situation for subordinates and having them react does not induce the kind of stress required for combat training. A meaningful and productive mission with detailed constraints and limitations and high standards of performance induces a basic level of stress. To reach a higher level of reality, leaders must add unanticipated conditions to the basic stress levels of training to create a demanding learning environment.


Helpful Links Covering Combat Stress:

  • Leaders Guide for Managing Marines in Distress
  • News Article: Army takes proactive strides to manage combat stress
  • Combat Stress Control
  • California National Guard Combat Stress Control (CSC) / Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)

  • FM 6-22.5 Combat Stress (PDF)


Source FM 6-22 Army Leadership and FM 6-22.5 Combat Stress