Posted: Mar. 14, 2003 Combat stress Military psychologists are sent to the front
BY JULIAN E. BARNES Julian E. Barnes, a U.S. News senior editor, is reporting from Camp Arifjan, the Army's logistical hub, where thousands of reservists and active-duty soldiers provide support for combat troops in the field.
CAMP ARIFJAN, KUWAITThe surest sign that war may be imminent is the arrival in Camp Arifjan of the 883rd Combat Stress Control Medical Detachment. Or as Spc. Kristen Young puts it: "the head doctors."
All around Kuwait, American and British forces are erecting field hospitals and preparing to move doctors and nurses to the front to triage the combat wounded. But during this potential conflict, the military is conducting an experiment. Along with the battle surgeons, teams of shrinks also will move forward, hoping to patch up shell-shocked soldiers and, if necessary, send them back to the fighting.
The 883rdan Army reserve unit from Bostonhas three "fitness teams" of 10 soldiers each who will work with combat soldiers at field hospitals near the front. "This is the first time Combat Stress Control has been mobilized so far forward," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Cryan, who in civilian life is an addiction therapist. "It is a new vision."
The theory is twofold. First, Army psychologists believe many cases of battle stress can be treated quickly at the front. Many soldiers can be treated within 72 hours and sent back to their jobs without necessitating a return to hospitals for full treatment or therapy. Army doctors also hope that giving soldiers a little treatment right away will reduce post-traumatic stress disorder later. That, for now, remains an untested hypothesisbut one that will be tested if a conflict with Iraq comes, Cryan said. "Stress is a normal reaction to combat," he said. "We are there if they need to talk about what they have seen. They aren't going to be able to talk to a psychiatrist for an hour every week, but we hope these services will prevent them from having to see a psychiatrist when they get home."
The treatment the fitness teams will provide at the front is simple, not elaborate. "There are no couches in the field; basically it is a cot and a warm meal," says Lt. Col. Bryan Kelly, the commanding officer of the 883rd and a clinical psychologist in Barnstable, Mass. The soldiers of the 883rd believe much combat stress is caused by a lack of good food and adequate sleep at the front. But soldiers will also get a chance to talk about what they have seen.
If soldiers are suspicious of psychologists, the unit also has a chaplain, Capt. John Borges, a Seventh-day Adventist minister in Massachusetts. Some soldiers respond more quickly to spiritual appeals than psychological therapy. "The soldiers have to have something they can cling to for support, be it family, prayer, or Bible," Borges said.
Commanders have long been familiar with how combat stress can hurt fighting prowess and cause soldiers long-term problems. And the current generation of commanders is more aware that fighting stress and depression will help improve their battle readiness, Kelly said. "More commanders realize that combat stress can cause them to lose a solider they cannot afford to lose."