Open for Discussion: Benelux group helps combat vets talk through issues
September 19, 2008
CHIAfE+VRES, BELGIUM - Although Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and Army organizations located here do not deploy battalions of Soldiers to combat, there are individual troops and small groups who are on constant rotations to battle zones. Additionally, nearby installations are often the next assignment for many who have finished a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Accordingly, two specialists are ensuring that SHAPE/ChiAfA..vres can meet the needs of combat veterans - the same type of care that larger deployable installations provide to servicemembers dealing with stress on multiple levels.
Bill Lennon and Chaplain (Capt.) Karen Bellin are developing the Combat and Operational Stress Control Support Group, which is designed to allow Soldiers to share their battle experiences.
"Combat stress is a normal reaction to a non-normal event," said Lennon, clinical director of U.S. Army Garrison Benelux. "In behavioral health, how we feel is driven by what we're thinking. If you want to change how you feel, you have to change what you're thinking."
"Or, what you're not thinking," added Bellin. "If we don't process traumatic thoughts properly, we can dissociate or try not to think about them. This group will help them think about it without stress."
Bellin, a chaplain for the U.S. Army NATO SHAPE Battalion, did a residency in clinical pastoral education at Brooke Army Medical Center, Texas, where she worked on the trauma team. She also conducted critical incident stress debriefings at Madigan Army Medical Center, Wash., as a chaplain clinician. Her vision to implement the COSC group here came from years of counseling Soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and combat stress.
Similarly, Lennon, who has been at SHAPE for about a year, has devoted his life to caring for the needs of Soldiers placed in extraordinary circumstances. He's helped hundreds of Soldiers who have returned from the current war, along with Soldiers deployed to Kosovo. He was also on the mental health team in New York that debriefed Coast Guard members who recovered the remains of all 230 victims aboard TWA Flight 800 after it exploded off the coast of Long Island in July 1996.
Both Lennon and Bellin have found that if Soldiers open up and discuss their concerns with fellow combat veterans who have similar encounters, it helps to eliminate negative emotions and to normalize the situation.
At each support group meeting, Soldiers share their experiences in a casual, confidential setting. Along with open discussions, Bellin and Lennon will explain other available methods to reduce stress and promote relaxation. It's also a place where Soldiers can discover other avenues of treatment available at SHAPE/ChiAfA..vres.
Lennon said his experience combined with that of a chaplain's is a perfect fit. "I deal with mental health. Chaplains deal with spiritual health. It's holistic healing of mind, body and soul."
And although Bellin is a chaplain, she tells participants that the group is not particularly religious-based. "When people have trauma, she said, "they may have questions about life and death, and questions about God."
She's heard some say their faith was shattered because they saw so much. She's had others ask, "Where is God in all of this'" In response, Bellin attempts to help Soldiers explore or process such questions and thoughts through facilitating conversation among peers or in an individual session.
She is also developing a Spiritual Fitness Library that will include books on PTSD, spiritual healing, self-help and stress management.
"I hope Soldiers walk away with a sense that they're not alone and that someone supports and cares about what they're going through," she said. "This will help Soldiers individually and strengthen our Army while also helping families. We're a constant support as long as they need it."
For more information or a guide on coping with combat stress, visit the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine Web site at http://usachppm.amedd.army.mil/dhpw/Population/combat.aspx