Commentary: Asking for help... A step in the right direction
August 20, 2009
BASRA, Iraq (Army News Service, Aug. 20, 2009) -- A Soldier paces back and forth his 22nd floor suite with a room key in his hand. It's well past lunchtime and he's starving, but he can't stop pacing. He's checked himself from head to toe, but something still isn't right. He has his keys, wallet, sunglasses, extra money and a small knife in his waistband.
He makes another run at the door but stops short. Looking in the mirror he sees a man in board-shorts, a t-shirt and flip-flops. He thinks he looks like a tourist, but so what; this is Hawaii. Everyone looks like a tourist.
He decides the game has gone on long enough, three full hours to be exact. Finally, he charges across the room and grabs the doorknob. A twist, a pull and he's in the hallway. Now, how hard was that' He walks a few steps to the elevator and presses the down arrow. Almost instantly the doors slide open to reveal a half dozen smiling faces. His heart begins to pound as sweat beads on his forehead, but he manages a slight smile and says "I'm going up."
As soon as the doors slide shut he makes a b-line back to his room, fumbles with his keycard and collapses into a chair. He stares at the ceiling thinking how ridiculous this is. He's not in Iraq and even when he was it didn't scare him. He's never been afraid of anything or anyone, even when he should have been. He's got the scars to prove it. So what in the hell is going on now'
"Most Soldiers who come to Combat Stress report depression, anxiety and sleep difficulties and these are usually linked to conflicts with their families back home or with their units here on the ground," said Lt. Col. John Kuzma, 34th Infantry Division psychiatrist. "Interestingly, most complaints are not about post traumatic stress disorder, although some Soldiers who have deployed previously will sometimes get flashbacks from events they experienced here."
My first trip to combat stress was in 2005. I didn't go because I was particularly stressed, though I was under a lot of pressure at work. I went because it was right across the street and the girl in the reception area was a friend of mine. I'm not a fan of flavored coffee, but when I would get an email from Kay that said the coffee was on and the flavor of the day was pumpkin pie, I couldn't resist.
Kay was the type of person who could put a smile on the Grinch's face. We would sit and talk about work, home and anything else that came to mind. I had no idea I was being counseled.
About midway through my second tour I noticed my aggression level was getting a bit out of control. I spent most of my time outside the wire on combat missions. I'd been shot at a few times, blown up and even loaded a few new-found friends into medevac helicopters, knowing there was no help for them on the other end. I knew I needed to talk to someone, but a salty old grunt like me at combat stress...not a chance.
"The most common concern that Soldiers relay to me is that they were afraid that going to combat stress would be a sign that they were weak or were looking for a way to go home," said Kuzma. "Our mission is to help Soldiers complete their deployments and in the vast majority of cases we can do that."
Over the next few weeks the frustration grew. I took it out mostly on office furniture, slow computers and phones with obnoxious people on the other end. Friends and co-workers recommended combat stress, but I didn't want to seem weak. Then one day the levee broke. I called a chaplain a dumb b----. Counseling was no longer a suggestion; it was an order.
Walking into that clinic the first time felt strange to say the least, but in the long run it helped. My co-workers no longer scattered when I walked in the room, my boss no longer kept a stack of counseling statements pre-printed with my critical information on them and even the chaplain forgave me.
"The flurry of programs, briefings and materials you are getting may seem a bit overwhelming at times but I believe it shows the Army's determination to help Soldiers identify when they or their buddies need help and to make sure that help is available" said Kuzma.
It's been nearly two years now and for the most part I've been fine. Recently though, I've seen some old patterns emerging, as well as some strange new ones. No one needed to order me to Combat Stress this time. It got me through my last deployment and I have confidence it will get me through this one. The first step is the hardest. You just have to make the decision to reach out and grab that doorknob.
By the way; Hawaii was beautiful ... once I got out of the hotel room.
(Staff Sgt. Dave Lankford serves with Multi-National Division - South Public Affairs.)