Treatment Available to Troops Suffering From Combat Stress
By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 15, 2004 The military member who goes to combat and the one who comes back are never the same person, the Defense Department's director of mental health policy said today.
"No one comes back unchanged," said Army Col. (Dr.) Tom Burke in an interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service.
Burke and other DoD health officials try to reach out to those returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan who may be suffering from combat-related mental health problems or post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
Last week, the Army released a first-of-its-kind medical report that showed front-line action had adversely affected the mental health of some service members. Burke, who advises DoD leaders on mental health issues, said combat veterans and their families should watch for changes in behavior that can range from mild depressive and anxiety symptoms to trouble sleeping and nightmares.
"In the majority of the cases, these symptoms are transient; they are common and diminish with time," he said. The service member may have the occasional sleepless night or memories that come back out of nowhere for years, "and that's normal," he added.
Other symptoms to look for, he said, are sad and withdrawn moods, tearfulness, problems sleeping -- too much or too little -- and problems with appetite, memory loss and concentration. Drug and alcohol abuse also are symptoms of a problem, he added.
But the problems aren't always mild, and the symptoms are not always subtle. "If a person starts talking about hurting themselves, killing themselves, it's important to not panic but to take that kind of talk very seriously and get them to help," Burke said, "even if it involves calling 911."
Burke said that mental problems can go on for years if not treated, and that symptoms of combat-related mental illness don't always happen right away. "They develop over time," he said.
An Army study published in the July edition of the New England Journal of Medicine stated that only 6 percent of soldiers and Marines returning from combat duty experienced mental health problems. Burke said the low number didn't amaze him, based on what the Army has learned from studying prisoners of war suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The number of 6 to 12 percent is not surprising," he said. "The experience in the past among POWs," he said, "is (that) about 50 percent have PSD; among Vietnam veterans, over the years, about 30 percent; Gulf War I, 10-15 percent," he said.
He said that declining percentage of combat-related mental health concerns might be attributed to the military's approach to getting better mental health services to soldiers before, during and after deployment.
"I would like to believe that part of that is because of the proactive care on the battlefield and the full range of services by the military healthcare system," he said, "and the proactive preventive services that are provided by the combat stress control units that are assigned with the combat units."
Also, he said, screening now takes place before deployment, preventive service is provided during deployment, followed by more screening during redeployment and follow-up care at treatment facilities.
Burke said the low percentage also indicates that the majority of service members surveyed are faring well under combat conditions. That may be due to realistic training and having the "best equipment in the world," he said.
He said that tougher training and better equipment, along with a more stable rotation schedule "has contributed to the resilience of the service member and their ability to handle the stresses of combat."
Burke said that Defense Department doesn't "want to see the soldiers of today live through years of suffering when there's help available now. The military has a number of resources to help those seeking help, he noted, starting with the service member's chain of command. He also encourages service members to talk with comrades or their chaplains.
He added that DoD "really cares" very much about its service members and their families, and he encouraged them to take advantage of the various programs that are available.
"The help doesn't work if you don't come in to use it," he said. "Mental health problems are problems that have solutions."
Service members can get confidential counseling service through the military services' "One Source" program. The 24-hour-a-day service is for service members and their families, and provides quick, professional assistance with problems.