I-Team: Army stress

November 9, 2009 9:00:00 PM PST
Military doctors are on high alert these days. When news broke last week about the deadly shooting spree at Fort Hood, mental health experts at the VA hospital in Durham immediately began looking for signs of emotional stress in their patients. They say such tragedies could set off or reactivate symptoms of post traumatic stress in those back from Iraq or Afghanistan.

There's plenty of history of stress in the military. North Carolina National Guard Sgt. Jacob Blaylock talked about the pain he was in on a video made on April 20, 2007.

"We go home in six days. I lost two friends on the 14th. I'm having a hard time dealing with it," he told the camera.

Nine months after that video was made, the grief and guilt stricken soldier shot himself. He was just 26 years old.

Suicides in the military are on the rise, and an immediate concern for Army leaders. In 2004, there were 87. That's steadily gone up every year. This year, there have already been 117.

Figuring out how to help soldiers who've suffered the horrors of war is not easy.

"Suicide is a very, very difficult problem to study," explained VA psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Capehart.

Capehart is the medical director of the Iraq-Afghanistan veteran program at the VA Medical Center in Durham. He also served in Afghanistan as a US Army Reserve psychiatrist six years ago.

"The people who commit suicide are not available to be interviewed," he explained. "We don't know what is on their mind when they chose to die."

Last week's shooting at Fort Hood is a big concern for doctors. They say news of the attack could trigger stress symptoms in soldiers.

"It may add to the stress they already feel," said VA Medical Center Chief Dr. Richard Weiner.

Mental health experts point to multiple deployments which take their toll on emotionally stressed and tired troops fighting one of the longest wars in history.

"Well I've heard as many as 8 to 9 [deployments]. That's unusual, most have less," said Weiner.

Studies show one-fifth of the more than 1.7 million who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are believed to have symptoms of anxiety, depression and other emotional problems. About half of those who need help do not seek it.

Adding to the problem is the understaffing of army psychiatrists. There are about 400 serving 553,000active duty troops around the world.

Maureen and Patrick Dwyer spent five years trying to get help for their son Patrick. He became an instant celebrity when his picture landed on the cover of magazines around the world. He was an army medic helping a wounded Iraq child.

The young soldier overdosed in July of last year.

"He went away to in-patient treatments. None of it worked. And the problem is that there is not enough adequate resources for the individuals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," said the soldier's father.

After the suicide of Sgt Jacob Blaylock, the North Carolina National Guard instituted a program last year called Yellow Ribbon.

"The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program is a Department of Defense program. It looks at that critical period - actually all periods - from pre-deployment, during deployment and post deployment," offered Major Matt Handley with the NC National Guard. "30-60-90 days following the soldier's return from home they are able to bring family members, soldiers and resources together in a relaxed atmosphere to find out if there are issues that need to be addressed."

The Guard held one of its Yellow Ribbon programs this past weekend. Captain Katherine Zyla, who recently returned from Iraq, attended with her fellow soldiers.

"I know that there was some anxiety coming home about what to do in this economy, so the Yellow Ribbon ceremony that I just got back from this weekend was an awesome opportunity for them to be reconnected into the civilian world and experience some of the opportunities the civilian world has to offer," she said.

In its effort to combat and prevent soldier stress, a year ago the Army launched a computer program called comprehensive soldier fitness. Soldiers can test their physical, spiritual and mental skills with the touch of a keyboard. The army says it's a holistic approach to building strong minds and strong bodies.

And last year, the Army also announced a $50 million dollar program to investigate why soldier suicides occur. It also has boosted its mental health programs for soldiers and their families in the past two years and instituted a national suicide hotline. That number is (800) 273 - TALK.

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