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

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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

For Borce, who is now one of the top officers at FOB Arian, it was more than a cautionary tale. Velez was Borce's responsibility. How had his soldier unraveled without him noticing?

Back home, Borce developed his own triggers. For the first time, he felt anxious in large crowds. He went to the Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City and felt tightly wound, ready to burst.

He tried talking to civilian therapists, but he did not seem to be making progress.

"I felt like I was being blamed," he said.

His commanders and his subordinates said Borce is an impeccable leader, the kind of soldier his unit needs here in Ghazni province. He was chosen to redeploy. He followed orders. But he acknowledges that he was still reckoning with what he had already been through, even as he boarded the plane for Afghanistan in January.

Like dozens of others, he has met with Krauss. He has also tried hard to monitor himself.

"The first deployments were balls to the wall," he said. "I've learned to control it."

Not far from Borce's office, across the sparse base plopped in the middle of the Afghan desert and soon to be leveled, Staff Sgt. Jerry Price works in FOB Arian's medic station.

Afghans are now doing the bulk of the fighting here, and the majority of the casualties Price treats are from the country's nascent army. But the wounded and the dead whom he thinks most about are from his first deployment, in 2003.

Price was in Iraq just as the insurgency exploded, a young medic suddenly responsible for keeping his wounded friends alive.

He saved some, but others he could not, a helplessness that weighed heavily on him. When he returned home, he said, there was no support network. He was told to check off the right boxes on the Army's mental-health assessment.

"The mentality was that you had to be hard. There was no concern for behavioral health, even though at the time I had a lot of issues," he said. "Some of the stuff I saw really messed me up."

That mentality has changed, he said, and for plenty of reasons. Last year there were 349 suicides among active-duty U.S. troops, more than the 295 Americans who died last year in Afghanistan.

Price did not feel pressured to return to Afghanistan. But he knew that if he didn't, and soldiers from his unit died, he would have a nagging thought: "If I was there, maybe I could have saved them."

Army officials call Price's attitude an example of the resiliency they are looking for in redeployable troops. He may still be reckoning with the ghosts of past tours, they say, but he knows how to cope. To keep the soldiers mentally healthy, Army psychologists suggest exercise and hobbies for down time. They even provide a therapy dog with which soldiers can decompress.

Krauss, 31, of Philadelphia, travels more than almost any other soldier in her brigade, often stepping off a Black Hawk and strolling around a base making small talk until a soldier asks offhand if she has a minute to meet privately.

"Are you free later this afternoon?" a young soldier asked casually during a recent walkabout.

Despite the Army's new attention to mental health, there are still questions about the effectiveness of its "composite risk assessment," which is used to gauge the mental state of its soldiers.

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