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Pursuit of Mental Health Care Keeps Warriors Strong

By Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Clifton
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 7, 2009 – Soldiers and medics can recognize physical combat injuries and external wounds easily, but it is much more difficult to spot and treat mental wounds.

In May, the Army observes Mental Health Month, and recently Army Secretary Pete Geren paid a visit to soldiers assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Jackson, S.C., to speak with them and their families about how they are addressing mental health challenges with the help of family and Army programs.

"The Army has a corner on being strong and being able to drive on, no matter what happens, and that makes it harder [for soldiers to request help]," Geren said.

One wounded warrior, Army Sgt. David Marklein, served as an infantryman for two deployments in 2003 and 2006 with 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division. During his first deployment, Marklein was the personal driver for Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Cooke, the brigade's command sergeant major.

While on a Christmas Eve mission, their Humvee struck an improvised explosive device, killing Cooke. Marklein had no external injuries, but his eardrums were blown out and he suffered damage to his head, neck and back.

Marklein and Cooke had been very close, and his death changed Marklein in a way he would not admit until a series of events that would not unfold until after his second deployment put his personal life and Army career into jeopardy.

"When I got off of the plane, my wife knew there was something different about me," said Marklein, who admitted he couldn't see the change in himself. "Subconsciously, there was something wrong, but I wouldn't face it.

"I would go to bed at night angry, and wake up in the morning just as angry," he said.

Instead of addressing his problem, he narrowed his focus to his work, ensuring his soldiers received all the support he could provide. He buried himself in counseling his soldiers and preparing them for promotion boards, all the while leaving a “trail of wreckage” at home.

"There are a lot of people suffering out there," he said. "They weigh how much they think it is affecting their life, and they don't seek treatment. I thought I could grunt my way through it. If I just focused on my work, I would be good to go."

Eventually, the suicide of his younger brother, a civilian firefighter, and a verbal argument with his first sergeant were the catalysts for him to seek help.

"I knew I was almost at my end," Marklein said.

Now a member of the WTU at Fort Jackson, Marklein is receiving treatment for his traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said the difference between himself before treatment and now is like “night and day.”

Similarly, Army Spc. Chris Hussey, who has been with the WTU since December 2007, relates to Marklein's situation and says that before getting help, he frequently avoided social situations and ignored his personal life.

"I would feel anxiety and depression, and there would always be a sense of hypervigilance when I was in public places," said Hussey, who survived five separate bombing attacks during his tour in Iraq as a combat medic. "When I would go out to eat, I'd check where all the exits are and plan exit routes. It was automatic.

"Eventually you have to find something that makes you want to get help," he continued. "For me, the thing that made me want to get better was my two sons."

Hussey, who has been in the WTU for more than 16 months, praised the unit's commitment to soldiers.

"I see a psychologist three times a week and a psychiatrist one a week," he said. "I also meet with anger management therapists, neurologists, and occupational therapists.

"The time you spend with these doctors in this unit is phenomenal," he continued. "You just can't get that kind of treatment with outpatient or day visits."

Marklein and Hussey, like so many of the other combat veterans dealing with TBI and PTSD, praised the WTU's commitment to focusing on their recovering health.

"They put a mirror in front of me and wouldn't let me turn away," Marklein said of the WTU's programs. "Of course, I was resistant at first, but now I don't fight it, and I'm getting better every day. If it wasn't for the help I've received for my TBI and PTSD, I would be divorced and my life would be in shambles."

Geren noted the value of soldiers coming forward with their problems, and he expressed the hope that more will do so.

"When we start having more and more people coming out and discuss publicly their personal experiences,” he said, “I think they'll continue to chip away at it. We're not where we want to be, but we're making progress."

(Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Clifton is the photojournalist for the secretary of the Army.)

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