War's psychological effects monitored
NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain —– The heavy fighting in Iraq might be over, but some servicemembers will come home with horrible memories of the war’s violence.
The Defense Department’s top doctor says that the military is doing a better job identifying troops who might have a difficult time dealing with the battlefield’s horrific images.
Dr. William Winkenwerder, the assistant secretary for health affairs, said the goal is to identify servicemembers showing the first signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome before they return to their families.
“I think there’s just a much greater sense of awareness to identify individuals,” said Winkenwerder, who on Thursday visited a field hospital in Rota set up to treat combat casualties from Iraq. “And to, in some cases, talk them through their problems, and in other cases it may be getting them to more significant levels of care and intervention.”
Services entered the war in Iraq with last year’s shocking reminder that sometimes soldiers can bring the violence of the front lines to the home front. Four Fort Bragg soldiers returned from Afghanistan and allegedly killed their spouses. Two of them later killed themselves.
The string of killings prompted a review and some changes.
Before the war in Iraq started, the Army told commanders in the field to make sure they talk to soldiers who might be having problems and identify troops in their units who might need help. The Pentagon also increased efforts to combat war stress.
For the first time ever, the Defense Department sent teams of psychiatrists and mental health specialists to Iraq to look for soldiers struggling with the horrors of war. There are four roving “combat stress teams” in Iraq checking soldiers who might be at high risk.
Members determine whether soldiers should be pulled from their units to receive additional mental health treatment. In some cases, servicemembers will be given extra time to “decompress” before returning home.
At Fleet Hospital Eight, a 100-bed tent facility on the Navy base in Rota, there is a mental health department to deal with trauma-induced psychological issues.
Staff members survey each patient to see if they needed to speak with a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist.
“Very few [patients] came here for mental health reasons,” said Capt. Pat Kelly, the hospital’s commanding officer. “But as they got here, there were trauma-related issues that they needed to deal with.”
The ability to be in a combat zone one day and home with the family only two days later also is concern.
“There’s no question that the transition with travel being what it is today — [it] is shorter and it’s compressed — people do need time to decompress,” Winkenwerder said. “And so, that is a priority.”
The combat stress teams are reporting that they believe they are helping servicemembers who desperately need it, he added.
During his trip overseas this week, he met a psychiatrist who accompanied a group of servicemembers from Iraq to the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.
“From his perspective, the kind of interventions he’s doing are making a difference,” Winkenwerder said.