On the Front line of Combat Stress Control




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On the Front line of Combat Stress Control

Active-duty soldiers returning from combat go through a seven-day re-integration program immediately after they arrive at their home station. During this period, soldiers work a half-day schedule where they can set up medical appointments, take care of finances, and receive training on dealing with the stresses they may be facing trying to adjust to life at home. This schedule also enables the commanders to observe their soldiers for three or four hours a day and identify soldiers who are having difficulty adjusting or who show signs of depression.

National Guard and Reservists receive the same classes, but because in many instances the demobilization stations are often not in their home state, a number of them are unable to go home at night and ease into family life.

Sharpe was critical of the training that he received when he re-deployed. He received classes on military benefits and had a physical but said there "was not enough emphasis on mental health care." Sharp has kept in contact with many of the soldiers he served with in Iraq and said many of them want counseling but don't know where to turn.

When questioned about the lack of information about mental health, Army spokeswoman Nesbit suggested that the information is presented but the soldiers occasionally just don't see the relevance of the information because they are too focused on getting home. "The only thing they want to do when they get here is to go home; it is difficult to get people to pay attention," Nisbet said.

Deployments are also very stressful on the families who've had to create a daily routine without their deployed soldier. During the deployment, a soldier's spouse takes on additional responsibilities in the home such as finances, household repairs, disciplining of children, and other day-to-day activities. Some spouses feel overwhelmed by the responsibility, causing anxiety, stress and occasionally, substance abuse. Others thrive on the additional responsibility and are not eager to relinquish it when the deployed soldier returns home, experts say.

Even though family members are excited to see their loved one home safe, reunions can often be awkward and tense as everyone adjusts to the changed family dynamics. Having the service member home 24 hours a day after being gone for 12 months can be extremely stressful even in the most loving families. That is why counselors say that having three or four hours apart at the outset helps with the adjustment period. Family members are also encouraged to attend classes offered by the unit's Family Support Groups to prepare them for the adjustments that will need to be made when the soldier returns home, Nisbet said.

National Guard and Reserve soldiers face one challenge their active-duty comrades usually avoid: When part-time soldiers do return home, they may have little interaction with other soldiers and sometimes feel like they are the only ones going through the emotional adjustments.

Single soldiers face an additional strain because they have no set support structure, said David Keith, the director of military service at Military OneSource, an independent agency contracted by the Department of Defense to provide counseling and other assistance to soldiers and their families. Single soldiers, especially those in the Guard or reserves, who may not return to civilian jobs right away, may have little social interaction with others, feeling that they no longer fit in.

"I felt a bit isolated, like the rest of the world around me went on with their lives the past year," said Kamps. "I felt like I was sent to another planet and lost a year of my life." Isolation, loneliness, and culture shock are common experiences for single soldiers after extended deployments.

Another problem is that the small day-to-day activities of civilian life can seem boring, mundane and insignificant to a soldier returning from combat, according to Army One Source officials.

" I've felt like I've had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and I've gotten upset when people have complained about little things," said Kamps.

Many soldiers expressed frustration that Americans seem more concerned about who will win the latest reality TV show then they are about the soldiers in Iraq.

"It seems like the majority of the population doesn't give a darn. We've got men and women overseas dying. See, Americans have always been blessed, they've never experienced war on the homeland," said Williams.

Soldiers who do make an effort to interact with civilians after they return are often faced with questions such as, "Did you kill anyone over there?" or "Did you ever get shot at?" Davis, who has been asked these questions by acquaintances at school, finds these questions very personal and inappropriate.

Deployed soldiers have very little time to themselves, have virtually no privacy and go through each day with an agenda usually planned by their superiors. For some returned soldiers, the biggest challenge is just figuring out what to do with all their free time.

"Getting up in the morning and not really having something to do, no PT, no formations," explained Andrew Davis, an Army Reserve specialist, "planning things out was tough."

Davis, 22, enlisted in the Army Reserve when he was 17. In 2001, he put off his first semester of college to attend required military training. Afterwards, he began studying English and political science at the University of Massachusetts in January 2002, and was able to complete one year before being called to active duty for service in Iraq. Davis served as an intelligence analyst at the military headquarters in Baghdad.

He was eager to return to school when he re-deployed home last spring. But back on campus he discovered that many of his friends were on the verge of graduation and he was still barely a sophomore. He felt he no longer fit in with his college peers, and decided not to return to U Mass, instead transferring to Harvard Extension to attend a continuing education program.

"I really don't want to be around 18- or 19-year-olds," Davis explained. "Their opinions are totally based on what they've learned in class and not on what they've learned in life. It's hard to talk to people like that because they have no real perspective."

The 24-hour news cycle can put an additional strain on soldiers and their families both during and after the deployment. Soldiers who want to move on are faced with images of Iraq and soldiers dying everyday on television.

"One of the biggest challenges is the fact that news coverage is live," said Keith, the One Source director. "Family members seeing events unfold are often worried that their loved one could be involved in the latest set of attacks. With instant e-mail and cell phones, soldiers and their families can be in constant communication, which can lead to additional stress and expectations, he added.


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