Series: Defining present-traumatic stress

About this series
Stars and Stripes examines the mental health of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and how they cope with war’s internal burden while deployed. Stories will explore the work of psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and chaplains to reduce the combat-related stress of troops; the efforts of senior officers to balance the needs of soldiers with the demands of the U.S. mission; and the fear of asking for help that still exists within the Army.
This series is produced with the support of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism.

Capt. John Alamodin, right, a social worker with the 85th Medical Detachment, 1st Medical Brigade, talks with Spc. Paul Meade, a behavioral health technician with the unit, inside an aid station at Forward Operating Base Lightning in eastern Afghanistan. "You try to help (soldiers) in a way that allows them to stay focused," Alamodin said. Martin Kuz/Special to Stars and Stripes

Fighting the shadows: Helping troops find peace of mind amid war

In Sgt. Frederick Schrom's worst moments, the dense, iron-tinged odor of blood struck like a punch. His stomach convulsed, bile scalding his throat. At night, images of the injured and dead wrenched him awake.

Pfc. Durell Siverand, left, and Pfc. Alex Valdivia, mortuary affairs specialists with the 54th Quartermaster Company, prepare a flag that will cover a transfer case carrying the remains of a U.S. servicemember from Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Martin Kuz/Special to Stars and Stripes

Death shapes life for teams that prepare bodies of the fallen

The first body was the most difficult. Pfc. Durell Siverand found a family portrait in the dead soldier’s wallet that showed him posing with his wife and two daughters. A mortar blast had killed him on the day he turned 21.

Spc. Steven Vasko, left, and Spc. Michael Marti Caballero stand before a "fallen heroes" memorial at Bagram Air Field. Pictured between them (with white background) is Sgt. Justin Johnson, a member of their platoon, who was killed in a mortar attack on the base this summer. Martin Kuz/Special to Stars and Stripes

Banding together to fight — and heal

Across the country, behavioral health specialists attempt to bring together a squad or platoon within 72 hours after the unit experiences a calamity: a soldier’s death or serious injury, a mission that yields civilian casualties. The sessions represent part of the military’s wider effort to alleviate the mental burden of troops at war.

U.S. troops with the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment search for improvised explosive devices while on patrol near Highway 1 in eastern Afghanistan's Ghazni province. Martin Kuz/Stars and Stripes

'For some reason, I’m alive and he’s not'

First Lt. Joshua Fosher was 15 feet in front of him; Capt. Dusty Turner was about as far behind. The distance saved the two Americans from his fate. Yet they were casualties in a less obvious sense. The blast inflicted hidden wounds, physical and psychological, that lingered long after Kiepura returned to Poland in a metal box.

Spc. Amanda Dwyer and Sgt. Jonathan Dwyer, members of the Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team stationed in eastern Afghanistan, belong to an extremely small minority of married Army couples who deploy to a war zone with the same platoon. Martin Kuz/Special to Stars and Stripes

Downrange together, learning to put marriage before duty

Even living under the same roof, the Dwyers found the war dividing them after their unit arrived at FOB Shank in March.

Lt. Col. Matt McCollum, left, and Capt. Philip Song with the Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team unveil the sign that now hangs outside the Austin Resiliency Center at Forward Operating Base Shank in eastern Afghanistan. The center is named for Pfc. Barrett Austin, who died in April from injuries he suffered when a roadside bomb exploded beneath the armored truck he was driving. Martin Kuz/Stars and Stripes

'Resiliency center' grows out of effort to provide respite from war

In the era of asymmetrical warfare, when the demarcation between the front line and the rear echelon has dissolved like a mirage, the 'resiliency center' serves as an oasis, if only for the running time of “Bridesmaids.”

Maj. David Trogdon, chaplain of the 3rd Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team stationed in Afghanistan's Logar province, suffers from PTSD. "If I can help reduce the stigma, then it's worth me talking about it," he said. Martin Kuz/Stars and Stripes

Chaplain with PTSD returns; shows troops there’s a way out of darkness

The soldier lay on a stretcher, his lower legs a mash of pulverized bone and blackened flesh. Doctors and technicians ringed his broken body. Chaplain David Trogdon watched in silence for an opening. Then he came forward and squeezed the soldier’s hand in his own.

During a visit to Combat Outpost Baraki Barak in eastern Afghanistan, Capt. Travis Hairston, right, consoles a soldier whose wife in America had recently admitted to having an affair. Martin Kuz/Stars and Stripes

To ease war’s personal strain, chaplain shares the burden

The work of chaplains in a combat zone inspires metaphors that liken their role to a release valve or catch basin. They listen more than they preach. Those who cultivate a ministry of presence serve as roving counselors, adept at creating rapport, undaunted by four-letter banter and mindful that pressing religion on troops can halt conversation faster than a mortar siren.

Spc. Travis Barrett, left, talks with Capt. Mickey Basham, chaplain of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, about an attack in Aghanistan's Logar province that seriously wounded a member of Barrett's platoon. Martin Kuz/Stars and Stripes

Downrange, no longer suffering the code of silence

The prevalence of PTSD has provoked questions within the Army about the wisdom of senior officers badgering lower-ranking troops to repress their combat trauma while deployed, and the unofficial code of silence, long regarded as a barometer of soldier strength, has drawn scrutiny of late as a doctrine that merely defers war’s psychological toll.

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