Team Helps Troops in Afghanistan Fight Stress
By 2nd Lt. Monika Comeaux, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORWARD OPERATING BASE FENTY, Afghanistan, Dec. 31, 2007 Mechanics repair vehicles, small-arms repairmen fix weapons, and dentists fix teeth. Members of the Combat Stress Control Detachment working with Company C, 173rd Brigade Support Battalion, here help set troops’ minds straight.
A weathered sign indicates members of the Combat Stress Control Detachment at Forward Operating Base Fenty, Afghanistan, are assisting someone in need of their expertise. Photo by 2nd Lt. Monika Comeaux, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A small team of airmen and soldiers work hand in hand to help deployed servicemembers battle stress here and at some 20 surrounding forward operating bases.
The issues troops for which troops seek help vary, team members said.
“It depends a little bit on where the individual is based out of,” said Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Jeffrey Wiser, a psychiatrist with the Combat Stress Control Detachment. “I think a lot of people in the forward locations deal with combat stress reactions. FOB Fenty and some of the areas south and east of here tend to be more operational stress, home-front issues and difficulties within the unit.”
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Laurie Wienclawski, a mental health technician on the team, said the team sometimes helps troops hours or days after they have witnessed tragic or shocking events. “The 173rd has lost a lot of people. Being back home, you hear about soldiers being killed and wounded in action. Until you are deployed and actually live it and see it and hear about it, it doesn’t seem real until you are actually there,” she said.
Servicemembers don’t always come out to seek help with their problems. Some internalize issues, and only people who really know them notice a change in their behavior, daily routine or sleep patterns, the combat stress experts said. It is important for everyone to know the typical behavior of their battle buddies, or to know their “baseline,” the experts said.
Wienclawski said she hoped being a woman would make it easier for troops to talk to her. When she hit the ground, she found out that was not the case. Now, she said, she can best relate to troops by finding things in common with them, like family situation or background.
Since not everyone comes running with their issues, the Combat Stress Control Detachment sends out a small team to surrounding FOBs to “canvas” the neighborhood and see if someone needs their assistance. Weiser said Army Spc. Christopher Truax, a mental health specialist with Company C, is great at “mixing with soldiers and engaging them in conversation and prompting them to come in for evaluations or a more extensive interview.”
Truax, who studied psychology in college, learned about his military occupational specialty on the Internet. He said he finds his job rewarding. “We don’t wait for someone to come and see us; we go see them,” Truax said.
He usually travels with Army Capt. Bryan O’Leary, a 173rd Airborne Brigade psychologist working with the Combat Stress Control Detachment.
“We support a lot of people, and we go where the action is, because that is where the help is going to be needed a lot,” Truax explained.
Team members travel for three to four weeks at a time visiting remote locations. Since some places are really hard to get to, the team spends a lot of time at flightlines and trying to jump on convoys. There is no way to give out actual appointments, but they always notify command elements and aid stations that they are on the way so servicemembers can get the word.
Soldiers at Fenty are more fortunate; they can actually book appointments.
Just because people aren’t being shot at doesn’t mean they don’t get stressed out, Wiser said. Sixteen-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week schedules are chronic here, he said, and he added that he encourages everyone to relax and take time off if the mission permits. He also said he urges troops to remain engaged in hobbies, work out, and keep in touch with friends and family as much as possible.
“I just think it is important for people to know we are here, and I would encourage them to use the services,” Wienclawski said. “There is a stigma related to mental health, and sometimes that keeps people from going to mental health. That is true back in garrison, back in the home state, as well. I just want people to get help early on so it doesn’t progress and get worse.”
The Combat Stress Control Detachment handles most cases with full confidentiality. The only times they have an obligation to report anything to the chain of command is if they feel that an individual’s life or others’ lives are in danger, officials said.
(Army 2nd Lt. Monika Comeaux is assigned to 173rd Brigade Support Battalion.)