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Troops Deal With Stress of Working 'Inside the Wire'

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Feb. 22, 2005 – Working "inside the wire" of the enemy combatant detention facility can lead to stress for the U.S. troops working here. But experts and leaders are working hard to help servicemembers deal with the unique conditions of working on this isolated island base.

Stress-control issues are something the leaders of Joint Task Force Guantanamo "are always on top of and always looking out for," said Air Force Master Sgt. Tom Crowson, a security forces noncommissioned officer deployed here from the 509th Security Forces Squadron at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.

Stress issues within Joint Task Force Guantanamo are referred to as "combat stress," because servicemembers here are serving on one of the front lines in the war on terror. Troops here deal with some unique issues as well as the everyday concerns that can lead to stress on any deployment.

Army Sgt. Michelle Olson, a combat stress control specialist with the 1972nd Combat Stress Control Unit from Seattle, explained that servicemembers can become overwhelmed by personal problems with peers or leaders, relationship problems, or by the stress of dealing with detainees.

Troops in JTF Guantanamo man 24-hour operations, and the sheer workload can overwhelm some people, particularly those used to working routine, Monday- through-Friday jobs, Olson said.

Unique aspects of working in the detention facility can add to the stress. Troops working inside the wire must pass through several sets of intimidating double gates. They always cover their nametapes and never call each other by their real names while they're near detainees. And the U.S. servicemembers here can never forget that some of the men they are guarding have sworn to kill their countrymen.

As on most military bases, many avenues are available for troops seeking help dealing with stress issues or for leaders who feel a servicemember needs help. Members of the combat stress unit are on call 24 hours a day, and the unit's offices are located in Camp America, where many JTF members live.

Chaplains and social workers also are available through various base units and agencies, and the naval hospital here has a psychiatrist on staff.

Combat stress specialists work with troops to help them develop tools for dealing with their stress. "We certainly don't just say, 'This is what you need to do,' like, 'Here's a magic pill,'" Olson said. "We try to give them the facts about human behavior and how the brain works, and then we kind of guide them through what the best solution is."

Sometimes just talking with someone neutral about a problem is all it takes to deal with the problem. "They can just come in and be like, 'Grrr-grrr-grrr!'" Olson said, waving her arms around like someone having a temper tantrum. "Sometimes all people need is to come in and scream at me. Then the next time you see them, they'll be like, 'Hey, thanks for that.'"

Troops can also take stress-management, anger-management and time-management courses through the base's Fleet and Family Service Center.

But more importantly, Olson said, servicemembers need to look out for each other. "We have to take care of each other here," she said. "It's so easy if someone (appears to be having problems) to be like, 'You know, that's none of my business.'

"But it is our business," she continued. "And I encourage people -- leaders and peers also -- to just be proactive."

Leaders are constantly on the lookout for some signs that should be red flags that a troop might need help. Seclusion is the number one thing that would alarm him as a leader, Crowson said. "If all a troop wants to do is go back to his residence and go to bed, if he shuts the door and (won't) come out until he's ready to go back to work, and he's always tired and not hanging out with the rest of the group," that would be a sure sign the servicemember might need help, he said.

Other things to watch for include: poor sleep habits, agitated behavior, and excessive alcohol or tobacco use, Olson advised. She said increased drinking is a particular issue within the joint task force. "Unfortunately at Guantanamo, on average people will increase their alcohol consumption by 300 percent when they come here," she said.

Olson said it's important for leaders to stress the value of exercise, good nutrition and off-duty activities in combating stress problems.

"Some of the members of the Joint Detention Operations Group who work daily with the detainees and the security mission, that job can be fairly stressful for a whole number of reasons," said Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, commander of JTF Guantanamo. "They are working very closely with some men who are very dangerous.

"What we've found though is the opportunities afforded them when they come off shift and out of the camps, out from inside the wire, allow them an opportunity to relax a little bit and have helped significantly," he said.

Recreation opportunities abound at Guantanamo Bay. The seaside location and year-round warm weather make water sports easily accessible any time. The base also features a golf course and intramural sports teams, as well as several gyms.

Despite the stressful working conditions, Crowson said he's impressed with the level of dedication and camaraderie he's encountered among people from the various military services and components serving here.

"Lots of dedication, you see that all the time," he said. He related how some of the airmen on his team have experienced deaths in their families but chose to stay here because they were committed to the mission.

The 20-year Air Force veteran said he's also been impressed with the lack of interservice rivalry within the joint task force. "I heard all the negative things about the services, you know, Army can't stand Air Force, and so on and so forth," he said. "And there are certain areas here where there are issues. But 90 percent of it has been, without a doubt, the best experience of my life as far as working with other services."

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U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo, Cuba


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