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Sunday, June 04, 2006

After Haditha: Shift in Combat Zone Stress Treatment

I was a flight attendant for a major airline for 15 years. Although always in the forefront in aviation, it's a well-known fact that often the most sweeping upgrades to safety are made in the wake of a deadly accident. Much the same appears to be happening in the wake of the alleged war crimes at Haditha. Yesterday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports on a few of the changes taking place on the battlefield to help troops better cope with the stress of warfare. Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

From the Seattle PI:

Doctors call the treatment "three hots and a cot." Soldiers and commanders see it as a much-needed lifeline in the middle of a relentless and bloody war. The U.S. Army has sent psychiatrists to Iraq to help soldiers showing signs of combat stress since the 2003 invasion. But now it is sending doctors to the country's most intense combat zones to pull soldiers from units for extensive therapy.

The idea is that giving soldiers time to rest and eat well without leaving Iraq reduces stress and quickens the return to duty. "Every time you evacuate the soldier further from where they work, your chances of getting that soldier back to full duty decrease," said Lt. Col. Elizabeth Bowler, an Army psychiatrist in Iraq. "The closer we can treat to the front, the better our chances."

The shift in treatment comes as military leaders assess what may have led U.S. Marines to allegedly kill civilians in the western town of Haditha on Nov. 19. Realizing that combat stress may have been a factor, commanders in Iraq have asked soldiers to be extra vigilant in identifying signs of combat stress in those around them.

The tangible changes will include more 'regular' meals like burgers and fries vs. endless days subsisting on meals-ready-to-eat (MRE's); more opportunities to 'chill out' in air-conditioned tents; and giving soldiers more time to 'get away from it all' by watching a movie now and again.

[T]he changes reflect drastic adjustments in the way the military approaches mental health among its soldiers. Commanders now recognize the importance of mental health. "It used to be that if you went to a combat stress team, you were a loser. Now we expect it," said Lt. Col. Thomas Kunk, a battalion commander with the Army's 502nd Infantry Regiment.

U.S. military commanders in Washington have also acknowledged combat stress as a reality in Iraq."When you're in combat theater dealing with enemy combatants who don't abide by the law of war to do acts of indecency, soldiers become stressed," Army Brig. Gen. Donald Campbell, chief of staff for U.S. forces in Iraq, told a Pentagon briefing. "They see their buddies getting blown up on occasion and they could snap."

Good to hear that the stigma around reaching for mental health help is no longer tacitly approved.

Sgt. Jason Redick, 27, of Lapeer, Mich., saw his friends torn apart in an explosion that struck an armored Humvee in his convoy last November. "It's still vivid, everything about that day," Redick said this week, staring blankly into the sand. "I can remember everything."

It's the stuff of nightmares for those like Redick who have sought help in a dusty, air-conditioned tent at Forward Operating Base Mahmoudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad. "There are guys here suffering," said Staff Sgt. Robert Davis, 31, Newton, Mass., an Army therapist at Mahmoudiyah who meets with soldiers at all hours.

Soldiers call these sandy flats Iraq's "Triangle of Death" because of the number of roadside bombs in their sectors. The consistent enemy contact has made seeking help for mental anxiety commonplace: more than 40 percent of the nearly 1,000 soldiers in Mahmoudiyah have been treated for mental or emotional anxiety.

But Army psychiatrists say that as the war in Iraq drags into a fourth year, they see the effects of multiple deployments on soldiers. "They come back here and there's almost like a rekindling," Bowler said. "They'll have a couple of experiences here and suddenly all of the things are fresh like it happened yesterday."

It always seems to come back to the issue of multiple deployments having an overwhelmingly negative, cummulative effect on our troops, doesn't it?

Please consider thanking the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for covering this issue. Hopefully, more positive changes can flow from the sad events we've been hearing about lately.

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