Mental Health, Military Style

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 at 05:58 PM

There have been plenty of stories about U.S. troops suffering psychological problems in Iraq, which puts public pressure on the military to either do something about it, claim they are doing something about it, or be so confusing that no one knows what they're doing about it.

Read this from the 7/14/06 DoD News Briefing with a Col. MacFarland from Iraq, and see which option you think they're chosen:

Q. Colonel, I'm Carl Osgood with Executive Intelligence Review.  There's been a number of stories recently about troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health problems.  I'm wondering, how much of an issue is combat stress for you and your troops, and what kind of measures are you taking to deal with it?

COL. MACFARLAND:  Well, well, thanks for that question.  Combat stress is something that we are very concerned about, and whenever a unit suffers a loss -- which occurs all too frequently, unfortunately -- we immediately put a combat stress team, which -- we have organic teams of brigades down with that unit.  They spend a few times, and they talk to the soldiers and work with them.  And, of course, we all have our unit chaplains as well who do a terrific job.

So we do the immediate, on-the-scene counseling and working with the units, helping them to overcome the stages of grief and get them back into the fight, and at the same time setting the long-term conditions for their sustained mental health.

Did you catch that all important limitation at the beginning of the Colonel's answer?  "whenever a unit suffers a loss..."  He's describing the system for grief counseling when a member of the U.S. unit is killed.  He said nothing at all about the psychological effects of a U.S. soldier killing an Iraqi, or seeing someone's brains splattered all over his boots, or similar little traumas.  He said nothing about the sheer stress of feeling threatened and overwhelmed every minute of every day.

AND, I'm really taken with the "And, of course, we all have our unit chaplains as well who do a terrific job."  I've been in the Army.  At one point in training, I had lost 20+ pounds because I have food allergies and the mess hall kept serving stuff I couldn't eat.  I complained to the Drill Sergeant who made a mental note that I was a troublemaker and passed me up to the Commanding Officer.  He made a mental note that I was a troublemaker and passed me on to the chaplain.  He asked if I wanted him to pray with me.  When he saw the look of horror on my face, he made a mental note that I was a troublemaker and sent me back to the mess hall where, once again, they were serving stuff I couldn't eat.  I started sneaking out of the barracks to spend what little money I had on food at the PX, which left me open to discipline if they caught me sneaking out, but did preserve my life long enough to complete my enlistment.

Maybe they take PTSD more seriously than they took physical survival.  Maybe the chaplains have learned to say more than "would you like me to pray with you?"

I hope so.