August 19, 2013

Soldiers with post-traumatic stress being redeployed to Afghanistan

The Army is trying to answer a new question: Who is resilient enough to return to Afghanistan, in spite of the demons they are still fighting?

By Kevin Sieff / The Washington Post

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ARIAN, Afghanistan — The soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division were among the first Americans to arrive in Afghanistan in 2001. Now, they will be some of the last to leave.

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In Afghanistan, the most experienced soldiers, redeployed to do the job of wrapping up the U.S. mission, also are coping with high levels of post-traumatic stress. Capt. Stacey Krauss, a U.S. Army psychologist, speaks with a soldier this month at Forward Operating Base Arian, Afghanistan.

Washington Post by Kevin Sieff

They have served as many as seven combat tours each, with the accompanying traumas – pulling a friend's body from a charred vehicle, watching a rocket tear through a nearby barracks, learning from email that a marriage was falling apart.

But a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is not a barrier to being redeployed. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. Instead, the Army is trying to answer a new question: Who is resilient enough to return to Afghanistan, in spite of the demons they are still fighting?

As the Army has knowingly redeployed soldiers with symptoms of PTSD — and learned of the remarkable coping skills of some — it is now regularly embedding psychologists with units in the field. They are treating men and women recovering from 12 years of relentless combat, even as the soldiers continue to fight.

On FOB Arian, there is the young sergeant whose previous tour in Afghanistan — a relentless blur of firefights and rocket attacks — has left him unable to sleep.

There is the officer who returned home from Iraq and screamed in nightmares for his men to take cover, until his wife woke him up, bewildered.

There is the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Daniel Morgan, who watched as his marriage nearly disintegrated over the course of several deployments and who found himself sitting at a beach house in North Carolina a few years ago, stung by his inability to communicate.

"I wasn't ready for it," he said. "My head was still over there."

The men are not at home recovering. They are back in one of the most dangerous stretches of Afghanistan. The Taliban fires mortars at their base almost every day.

"You're never fully ready to redeploy," the sergeant said.

Mental-health professionals have traveled with troops in the past, but they were more typically used as a resource for soldiers when they returned to the United States. But in 2010, the Army's Mental Health Advisory Team recommended a 1-to-700 ratio of behavioral health specialists to soldiers in the field. In Afghanistan, that percentage is now even higher.

At FOB Arian, Capt. Stacey Krauss is one of dozens of behavioral health experts deployed across Afghanistan, where more than 60,000 U.S. troops are still based.

Krauss meets with her patients in a tiny room with plywood walls. She is a marriage counselor and a financial adviser and the one who hears soldiers recount the horrors of war. She is often the only person on Arian who knows how the soldiers of 10th Mountain are really holding up.

"They can meet the criteria for PTSD but still be able and willing to serve this kind of mission," Krauss said. "After multiple deployments, soldiers are able to build robust coping mechanisms."

In 2009, Maj. Loreto Borce was a company commander in Iraq when one of his soldiers, Spec. Beyshee Velez, shot and killed an American contractor. Velez, a medic, had treated close friends with gruesome injuries, including several who later died.

In February 2010, an Army mental-fitness board said Velez had experienced a "short psychotic episode" during the shooting.

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