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Warrior Care: Pentagon Examines New Treatments for Warriors’ Psychological Care

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 6, 2008 – The Defense Department is investigating new treatments as part of a focused, sustained campaign to assist wounded warriors suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, a senior U.S. military official told Pentagon journalists recently.

The effort is being launched in conjunction with the department’s Wounded Warrior Care Month observance this month.

“This is a team effort with all of the services, the DoD, the [Veterans Affairs Department and] the private sector, reaching out to really launch what will be a sustained campaign focusing on our warriors and loved ones, what we’re doing for them and planning to do,” Army Brig. Gen. Loree K. Sutton, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, told American Forces Press Service and Pentagon Channel reporters Oct. 14.

For instance, force health protection officials recently introduced a DVD titled, “A Different Kind of Courage,” which provides servicemembers’ perspectives on seeking treatment for PTSD and TBI, Sutton said.

“It’s a good tool that provides a number of vignettes of servicemembers who talk about their experiences,” she said. “We’d love to be able to share with the services, share with the country, all of the knowledge that’s going on about the brain.”

There’s no shame in seeking psychological help, Sutton said, noting it’s important that servicemembers and families conduct periodic self-assessments of their mental well-being, and seek help when necessary.

Such a concept runs counter to the stereotypical image of the tough servicemember who fights through pain – or even psychological distress, she said.

“There’s sort of a paradox there,” Sutton said. “Just as within a vehicle, or aircraft or ship, for example, to sustain your performance, you have to take care of yourself. You have to do regular maintenance and checks.”

Reaching out to servicemembers suffering from PTSD and TBI also involves changing how the military health care community operates, she said.

“And so part of our effort really is aimed at transforming our culture -- to move from what has been a very illness- and medically focused culture and broadening it, absolutely broadening it, to where we’re focused on resilience, on performance, on those things that individuals, families, leaders and communities can do that will both maintain their wellness” and sustain performance over time, the general said.

Military health care also is exploring the use of new therapies for PTSD and TBI, Sutton said. Some $300 million has been invested for research into psychological health and brain injuries, she said.

The funding is helping therapists better understand what happens to the brain after it undergoes traumatic injury, Sutton said.

“We’ve got significant gaps in our knowledge,” Sutton said, noting the research points to the advantages of employing alternative techniques in treating servicemembers suffering psychological-related issues due to PTSD or brain trauma. For example, she said, evidence is emerging that alternative therapies such as acupuncture, yoga and meditation are effective in treating PTSD.

Another study, Sutton said, demonstrates the usefulness of animal therapy.

“Animal facilitative therapy can be very useful,” Sutton said, citing a program at Fort Myer, Va., that treats injured warriors using interaction with horses.

Nutrition is another tool that can treat psychologically wounded servicemembers, Sutton said, citing the correlation between eating the right types of food for achieving peak mental and physical health. “You wouldn’t put diesel into a sports car,” she pointed out.

Vitamin supplements may also have their uses, Sutton said. However, she cautioned that people should consult their doctors before embarking on any nutritional regimen that includes the use of supplements.

The good news, Sutton said, is that 80 to 90 percent of troops with mild concussive injuries will heal with time. The military, she said, employs before- and post-deployment screenings for potential brain injuries. The test measures reaction times, memory and cognitive abilities, Sutton said.

The critical issue involving PTSD, the general said, is having servicemembers and their family members recognize that the stress and din of battle can carry psychological ramifications.

“It’s a very traumatic -- both physically and psychologically -- situation. The mind and body do what they have to do in that moment to survive,” she said.

Tough and realistic training greatly assists servicemembers in contending with the physical and mental challenges of the battlefield, Sutton said.

After servicemembers emerge from life-threatening battlefield situations, Sutton said, it’s important that they’re made to understand that flashbacks and nightmares are the mind’s way of re-integrating itself between graphic past memories and the present day.

Early intervention is critical in assisting servicemembers suffering from PTSD, Sutton said, noting there are two major therapies known to be useful in treating post-traumatic stress. Exposure therapy, she said, involves servicemembers recalling or imagining stressful moments they experienced on the battlefield. Cognitive processing therapy, she added, directs people to examine their thought processes and how they react to events.

Conducting counterinsurgency operations “is one of the most psychologically-corrosive environments known to warfare,” Sutton said.

“You’re not sick if you need a little [psychological] tune-up,” Sutton said. “You’re experiencing normal responses to clearly what is beyond the pale of human experience; it is beyond what most folks could ever even imagine. And, of course, our troops are doing this repeatedly.”

Now is the time “for us to really bring every tool in that we can to bear,” Sutton said, by working across DoD, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the private sector to assist servicemembers suffering with war-related psychological issues.

For example, initiatives are being worked with the video-gaming industry to develop devices with bio-feedback that injured servicemembers can use to exercise and strengthen their psychologically battered minds, Sutton said.

“We need to develop tools that they can use and have fun with, but also to learn and share and grow,” she said.

Wounded Warrior Care Month also marks the launch of the Wounded Resource Directorate at VA, Sutton said, which backs up similar organizations and wounded warrior call centers managed by the armed services.

The VA program and private-sector initiatives are indicative of America’s desire to assist its wounded warriors, Sutton said.

“By working together, we can take full advantage of the complete and comprehensive array of programs, of knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm that exists for our warriors around the country,” Sutton said.

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Related Sites:
Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury
Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center
Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress
Warrior Care News
Warrior Care Web Portal
Wounded Warrior Resource Center
"A Different Kind of Courage" Video


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