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ARLINGTON, Va. — During the wars of the 5th Century B.C., the ancient Greeks would perform plays about conflict for audiences of soldiers.

Some dealt with the psychological toll of combat on warriors, long before the coining of the phrase "post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Defense Department believes that talking about why and how servicemembers seek help for combat stress will help eliminate the stigma associated with psychological injuries.

So it is launching "Real Warriors" — a program in which servicemembers can talk about and listen to the stories of those who sought help for psychological injuries or traumatic brain injuries.

"This will be a campaign that is built upon harnessing the stories of our warriors, their family members, leaders as well as the various members of our community, whether it be the scientists, the faith leaders, the teachers, the civic leaders, the policymakers — we’re all in this together — and to be able to tell the story of real warriors facing real battles both on as well as off the battlefield, with wounds both visible and invisible," said Army Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton.

Sutton is director of the Defense Department Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, which will launch Real Warriors this spring, said center spokesman David Egner.

The campaign will include videotaping and distributing servicemembers’ stories about getting treatment as a way to motivate other wounded warriors to do the same, Egner said.

"Rather than focusing on the trauma they faced in war or their difficulties in reintegration, the campaign will look at what strategies servicemembers use to cope after deployment, what experiences lead them to seek treatment and examine how this decision helped them," he said.

The campaign was inspired by a program in which actors read from two of Sophocles’ plays before an audience of servicemembers and families, Sutton said.

Bryan Doerries is director of the Philoctetes Project, which takes its name after a play about a Greek warrior who is abandoned by his army after getting sick and later balks at rejoining his comrades.

"Philoctetes suffers from the ‘wound that never heals,’ " Doerries said. "I cannot think of a more powerful metaphor for psychological injury."

As part of the project, actors also read from "Ajax," a play about a warrior who has been deployed for several years and tries to kill his commanding officer, but ends up killing himself.

"He has lost control of his emotions and impulses and has exacted revenge on harmless animals," Doerries said. "I can think of no other story in world literature that more precisely and explicitly describes PTSD. That is the power of the project. ‘PTSD is from BC,’ as the veteran who attended our Julliard performance so aptly put it."

In late 2008, the actors read the plays at a warrior resilience conference that Sutton was attending.

The group watched the actors with "an air of reverence," Sutton said.

"Within the next 12 hours following this dramatic reading, I had two soldiers and three Marines who approached me and said, ‘Ma’am, can we tell our stories?’" she said.

John E. Fortunato is a military psychologist at Fort Bliss who helps soldiers dealing with PTSD. He said hearing vignettes from other servicemembers dealing with PTSD can be a useful tool in treating troops dealing with combat stress.

"It really does help them feel like they’re not sick or weak or somehow unworthy, especially of the person has any kind of rank," Fortunato said. But he cautioned it will be hard to keep a servicemember from talking about their trauma, and that could uncork some repressed emotions.

"At that moment, he could become very emotionally vulnerable," Fortunato said. "It’s like scratch the scab off and you could end up with someone who is bleeding."

Sutton said servicemembers will never be pushed to talk about issues they do not want to discuss. "We’re screening and evaluating all the volunteers who come forward to participate in this program to make sure they’re at a point in their journey to speak from a position of strength," Sutton said.

The initial interviews will be conducted by woman who worked in Iraq and understands the stresses of war, she said

"Everyone doing interviews for the campaign will be a volunteer," she said. "Anyone who wants to back out of an interview, stop an interview in midstream, or decides not to participate after an interview will be accommodated."

Sutton said the importance of allowing servicemembers to talk about seeking help was underscored by a conversation she had with five noncommissioned officers, who had recently gone through a two-week "warrior reset" program to help them deal with combat stress.

"I asked them — what was the important thing that you got from this experience?" she said. "And to a sergeant, they all said, ‘Ah man, just to know that I wasn’t the only one.’ And so that is a major theme of this campaign: You are not alone."

Servicemembers interested in telling their stories as part of the campaign can send an e-mail to:DCoE.Realwarriors@tma.osd.mil


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