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DOD counseling program starts at Pacific Air Force bases

Visits won’t be reported except in homicidal, suicidal, criminal cases

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — You can call them directly on their cell phone if you have a crisis at home, a parenting dilemma or an issue at work. Or if you’re just stressed and need a professional to talk to.

They’re called Military and Family Life Consultants, licensed civilian clinicians with no military affiliation.

Five Air Force bases in the Pacific have had one since March: Misawa and Yokota Air Base in mainland Japan; Kadena Air Base, Okinawa; Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska; and Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. Eventually, all PACAF bases will.

A consultant visit won’t be documented in a mental health medical record or reported to one’s commander, officials said.

“The consultant is a civilian working for a civilian company,” said Maj. Victor Baumgarten, Family Support Center director at Misawa Air Base. “There’s no feedback” to the chain of command. The consultant “can’t even confirm if he’s talked to someone — it’s that sort of level.”

The Secretary of Defense’s office offered the program to all four services in fiscal 2005, PACAF officials said, and each military service is rolling it out at different times. OSD is contracting the program through the company Mental Health Network, which screens and hires counselors, said Julie Mason, a community readiness consultant at PACAF. Most are professional counselors, social workers and psychologists who stay at a base 45 days at a time. The program augments the helping agencies already providing services on base, she said.

“There’s such a focus on quality of life right now,” said Dr. Mischell Navarro, also a community readiness consultant. “We want to engage military members and their families and make sure we’re meeting their needs.”

Appointments are free and available to active duty, National Guard, and reserve members, their families and civilians. Mandatory reporting requirements still apply for suicidal or homicidal tendencies and criminal activity.

Baumgarten believes the program grew from a need to address post-deployment issues.

“So much of this goes back to Fort Bragg,” he said.

Five soldiers killed their spouses at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2002. Cited as contributing factors were existing marital problems and the stress of separation while soldiers were away on duty. “There’s been a need in the military that’s been identified for years but really hadn’t been addressed,” Baumgarten said.

The consultant will help people with short-term problems that don’t require therapy or meet clinical definitions of mental health disorders.

“Something that causes someone enough discomfort that they need some help but it’s not serious enough that it warrants a clinical diagnosis,” Baumgarten said. “It’s the old principle, ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ … If you take care of the problem while it’s still in its infancy, then you prevent it from becoming a diagnosable problem or a problem that impacts your career.”

He said although great strides have been made over the past 15 to 20 years to erase the mental health stigma, some people still fear seeking help through the chaplain or Life Skills. People “need a safe place to talk about these low-intensity issues,” Baumgarten said. “There really has been a gap in service that this addresses.”

Said Senior Airman Frank Pooler, 29: “I think it will help. I think some people are still scared if they go to Life Skills, they’ll report it to their commander, regardless of what they say.”


Help is just a phone call away

Military and Family Life Consultants already are in place at three Air Force Bases in Japan: Misawa, Yokota and Kadena. They can be reached at the following numbers:

Misawa: Directly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 090-1796-3542; or through the Family Support Center at DSN 226-4735.

Yokota: Directly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 090-6037-1823 or through the Family Support Center at DSN 225-8725.

Kadena: Call the Family Support Center at DSN 634-3366 or 634-0101.

All contacts with the consultant are confidential, though mandatory reporting requirements apply. This means consultants are required to report suspected cases of spousal or child abuse, suicidal ideation and threats to others.

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