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FRIEDBERG, Germany — A week after Capt. Travis Patriquin and Spc. Vincent Pomante III died in combat last month, the spouses of soldiers who knew the men or who had provided support to the grieving families met to talk.

The dozen or so wives gathered in the Friedberg chapel annex, in the room used for Sunday school and receptions. A circle developed and the overhead lights were dimmed. Chaplain Bruce Fredrickson, an Army colonel, was the first to speak about the deaths and the pain and anxiety that followed, and soon others in the room began to share their feelings.

One of the spouses in the room that evening was Courtney Slack. Her husband, Capt. Andrew Slack, had shared quarters with Patriquin in Iraq. Having spent nearly a year together, the two 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division soldiers had bonded in a way only combat veterans can fully appreciate.

“I really didn’t know how to make him (Andrew) feel better,” Courtney Slack recalled Friday. After the fatal bomb attack, “whenever he called, he just wanted to talk about other stuff.”

Patriquin and Pomante were killed Dec. 6 by a makeshift bomb that went off near their vehicle in Ramadi, Iraq.

Toward the end of the two-hour counseling session, various coping techniques for stress were discussed and doors of support were thrown open, should the need arise later.

“I couldn’t say one negative thing about it,” Slack, an English teacher at Wiesbaden Middle School, said of the meeting. “It was just a positive experience overall.”

It’s a debriefing method that is catching on in other communities, too.

Adopted in Friedberg and Giessen more than a year ago, the program has since spread to the 1st Armored Division communities of Baumholder, Hanau and Wiesbaden. The particulars associated with a Combat and Operational Stress Control Team, as it is known, will be discussed next month at a conference for Army garrison commanders in Europe.

“Family members are resilient,” said Wendy Lakso, the health promotion coordinator for U.S. Army Garrison Hessen, which covers the involved communities. “They understand the deal.”

Counseling of this sort has been available to servicemembers in some form for years. What makes the Giessen-Friedberg program unique is that it has been expanded to include family members and troops back on the home front.

“Everybody is a victim of combat stress,” said William Lennon, clinical director of the Community Counseling Center for U.S. Army Garrison Giessen.

The Giessen-Friedberg program, Lennon said, “is really buddy aid, and buddy aid is part of the Army tradition.”

There has long been a stigma attached to mental health counseling, especially in the military. Typically, folks in uniform have avoided seeking such assistance — at least on their installations — because it was viewed as detrimental to their careers, since supervisors were often notified afterward.

Then came the summer of 2002, when a rash of domestic killings and suicides at Fort Bragg, N.C., triggered an Army review. In most of the cases, the perpetrators were soldiers returning from duty in Afghanistan. Many supporters of counseling were spurred to action. But while some progress has been made, proponents acknowledge a lot of work remains.

“We’re in the turn, but I don’t think we’ve turned the corner yet,” said Army Col. Herman “Tracy” Williams III, the commander of USAG Hessen.

Lennon, a substance abuse counselor, sensed the need for a new direction in his community after 1st Brigade soldiers returned home from Iraq in summer 2004. There was an increase in alcohol abuse, he said, and in many cases soldiers came to his office of their own accord. A lot of them were having nightmares, waking up and then drinking themselves back to sleep.

“The problem I saw was that soldiers were not seeking help for combat stress,” Lennon said.

By early 2005, some in the brigade hierarchy started to heed Lennon’s concerns. Over the course of that year, as the unit prepared for its second tour to Iraq, he gained the support of Col. Sean MacFarland, the brigade commander. Chaplains and various community specialists were mobilized and coordinated, extensive training in critical incident stress management was offered and from it all the COSC Team was eventually created.

A key member of the overall effort was MacFarland’s wife, Lynda, who had already formed an extensive spousal support network. Today, all eight of the brigade’s battalions have trained people in place to help family members at a moment’s notice, and that support is likely to intensify in the coming weeks as the unit prepares to head home.

“The Army,” Lynda MacFarland said, “has definitely moved away from the stigma” that seeking help is a weakness.

She and Lennon noted that combat stress is quite different from post-traumatic stress disorder in that it is characteristically short- term.

“We all are experiencing combat stress, whether we are in (the war zone) or not,” Lynda MacFarland said.

For Courtney Slack, it was just reassuring to hear that her husband’s reluctance to talk at length about his fallen battle buddy is normal. With the deployment winding down, he needs to maintain his focus, she said, for his sake and those around him.


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