BAGHDAD — To help troops deal with the mental strains of battle, members of the 55th Medical Company (Combat Stress Control) are trying to get closer to them.

Today, the soldier hoisting sandbags, working at a checkpoint or assigned to a foot patrol could be a member of the stress control team, said Spc. Erik Gonzalez, 23, a mental health specialist assigned to Balad.

“We talk to the soldiers where they are. We go to them when they’re standing guard, wherever they’re working,” said Gonzalez, from Chicago. “We’re right out there with them, so talk to us.”

“We want them to know that we’re soldiers, too,” said Staff Sgt. Thomas Hicks, 36, a medic and occupational therapist working out of Camp Cooke in Taji.

“If we walk a mile in your boots, we know what you go through. If we’re sitting in a clinic all day, we’re not getting anything done.”

Members of the medical company say some soldiers, from the commanding echelons on down, still perceive asking for help with mental health problems as a sign of weakness. They say some leaders, at times, have shunned the aid offered by mental health professionals operating in combat fields.

“We go out there and tell commanding officers that we’re actually a force multiplier, that we’re here to increase the odds that they walk away from here with all their soldiers,” said Hicks, from Muncie, Ind.

In July 2003, the Army’s surgeon general deployed a team to Iraq to study the mental health of troops following an increase in the number of suicides in the theater that month.

From August to October 2003, the 12-member team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and personnel experts studied several areas of mental and behavioral health among the troops. Their recommendation included embedding combat stress teams with the troops on the front lines.

But a 2004 post-deployment screening conducted by the U.S. military showed that more than 50 percent of servicemembers were reluctant to seek treatment for combat stress because they feared it would affect their careers or future promotions.

The military’s approach today to mental health differs from that in past conflicts. Today, the philosophy is to get help to the front lines, so troops don’t have to be separated from their units if a move to the rear is unnecessary. This way, troops aren’t separated from their units, their friends or their support, and they can get back to the job more quickly, said Maj. Heidi Ogden, 35, a psychiatrist working in Baghdad.

The combat stress teams, embedded with Army units throughout Iraq, work primarily a prevention mission, living the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

“We want to arm soldiers with skills to deal with stress, anger, frustration, loneliness and other emotions that might prevent them from being their best on the job,” Hicks said.

The presence of the mental health specialists is often greeted with laughter, sometimes nervous laughter, said Spc. Matthew Walerysiak, 22, an occupational therapist working in Baghdad.

Their services are available to all, from infantry and artillery to support personnel. Everyone in a combat zone experiences some degree of stress, they said.

“We’ve heard some say ‘I don’t see combat, I don’t need your help,’” Walerysiak said.

“You’re still in a combat zone where people want you dead,” Hicks tells them. “That’s stressful.

“You’ve left your life to be here, and if you’re in the National Guard or reserve, you’ve left your normal life and your job to be a soldier. Soldiering is stressful.”

Sometimes the stress isn’t caused by being on the front, team members said. Soldiers’ thoughts can be miles from the battlefield, focused on matters on the home front.

When prevention fails, or if not taken advantage of, the short-term cure is the “restoration unit” in Baghdad. That is where troops go, usually for about 72 hours or more depending on the care required, for treatment that includes intensive stress management and an opportunity to relax, Ogden said. Mostly, it’s a warm, dry bed, hot meals and time away from stressors.

When necessary, troops are flown to the Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, or to the United States for in-depth, long-term care, Ogden said.

“But that’s the last resort. What we try to do is treat them at the front lines,” she said.

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