Editor's Note: This series examines the mental health of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and how they cope with war’s internal burden while deployed. Stories 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.
PADKHVAB-E-SHANEH, Afghanistan — Lt. Col. Matt McCollum began his remarks to some three dozen soldiers by mentioning nearly every major armed conflict in U.S. military history.
This wasn’t a preamble to recounting tales of valor. He wanted to connect the obvious narrative of American warfare to the less visible struggle against the mental aftermath of battle. Exhaustion, shell shock, the thousand-yard stare, post-traumatic stress disorder: By any name, the condition has remained the common enemy of troops across time, whether fighting the British at Lexington or the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“The feelings aren’t new, abnormal or something to be ashamed of,” said McCollum, commander of the Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team. “It’s a perfectly normal reaction to the stress and demands of combat.”
He spoke at Forward Operating Base Shank in eastern Afghanistan a few weeks ago during the dedication of a “resiliency center,” in Army parlance. In form and purpose, the simple wood building, roughly the size of a two-car garage and sheathed by canvas, resembles similar centers on a handful of U.S. bases.
Soldiers come here to relax on faux leather sofas and watch movies on a large-screen TV, enjoying the cool flow of air-conditioning and a healthy supply of unhealthy snacks and soda. The amenities suggest nothing so lavish as a college dorm’s party room. Yet in the era of asymmetrical warfare, when the demarcation between the front line and the rear echelon has dissolved like a mirage, the center serves as an oasis, if only for the running time of “Bridesmaids.”
McCollum backed the idea of a resiliency center at FOB Shank, nicknamed Rocket City for the almost daily mortar attacks that send troops sprinting for concrete bunkers. As much as the building itself, he represents the Army’s evolving efforts to reduce the mental pressure on soldiers in the war zone and its gradual awakening to the need for empathy.
“The mind-set has changed,” said McCollum, 41, of Columbia, S.C., who has logged 19 years in the military. “It’s gone from, ‘Suck it up, there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re weak,’ to a recognition that it’s a sign of strength to ask for help.”
A place to exhale
The Austin Resiliency Center honors the memory of Pfc. Barrett Austin, who died in April of injuries he suffered after a roadside bomb exploded beneath the armored truck he was driving in Wardak province. Three other soldiers were wounded in the blast.
The death of Austin, 20, of Easley, S.C., and the injuries to the others embittered 1st Lt. Paul Christensen, their platoon leader.
“What happened hit me pretty hard,” said Christensen, 25, of Plumtree, N.C. “Those guys are my responsibility. I felt like I failed.”
Sleep dodged him in the following weeks, and as his mental fatigue deepened, his temper quickened, aimed at himself and his men. Small lapses set him off: forgetting where he had left a notebook, a soldier showing up seconds late to a mission briefing.
His platoon sergeant intervened about a month after Austin’s death. “He physically dragged me to the combat stress clinic,” Christensen said. A couple of meetings with a psychologist on the base helped him unclench by degrees.
“I’m still angry,” he said. “But at least now I’m sleeping more regularly.”
He feels a mix of sorrow and pride at the sight of Austin’s name on the sign outside the resiliency center. Beyond the emotions, he considers the building a refuge from the rigors of deployment, a place to exhale.
“Guys can go there and it gives them a chance to think about something else,” Christensen said. “You need that out here because the war doesn’t really go away.”
‘There is help’
Austin died less than two months into McCollum’s third deployment to Afghanistan since 2008. He understood the anguish of the private’s platoon. In 2002, three months into a war that will reach its 12th anniversary next month, McCollum’s brother, Daniel, and six other Marines were killed when their refueling plane crashed into a mountain in Pakistan.
McCollum’s grief was immediate and prolonged. In time, with the support of his superiors, he surfaced from the void. The experience has shaped his approach to commanding a battalion, and he suggested that, by enduring the long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, senior officers of his generation have gained an acute awareness of the mental trauma of war.
“Leaders across the Army are more conscious now about the impact of combat stress based on how 12 years of fighting have affected them and seeing what it does to soldiers,” he said. “Now, like with all other medical situations, you’re trying to treat combat stress as far forward as possible and as early as possible before problems become a crisis.”
McCollum realizes that a wariness of behavioral health services persists across the ranks. In his closing comments at the dedication of the Austin Resiliency Center, he sought to reassure the soldiers gathered before him, offering a sentiment that few commanders, if any, would have spoken in public even a decade ago.
“Let us honor Barrett’s legacy by continuing our mission,” he said, “and if the time comes when the weight of the mission is too much, remember: There is help.”