Behavioral Health keeps Soldiers in the fight
Maj. Alexander Ragan, Behavior Health officer for the 36th Engineer Brigade, based at Fort Hood, Texas, speaks to a group of Soldiers about the importance of monitoring their overall health during the deployment to Liberia. Operation United Assistanc... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

PAYNESVILLE, Liberia (Dec. 16, 2014) -- It's a common story for many deployed Soldiers. The stress from their deployment causes problems with their marriages and other relationships, which distracts them from their jobs as Soldiers. Helping Soldiers deal with that stress is where the Behavioral Health Team can play a vital role.

"We look at the stress levels of the force and help mitigate any symptoms that may be keeping them ineffective," said Maj. Alexander Ragan, Behavioral Health officer for the 36th Engineer Brigade, based at Fort Hood, Texas.

Ragan recalled one particular Soldier was going through a divorce while being deployed in Afghanistan. With the help of the behavioral health team, the Soldier and his wife were able to set up individual counseling sessions and save the marriage.

Being deployed to Liberia as part of the humanitarian-focused Operation United Assistance often brings a different type of stress than most combat deployments, said Ragan. The Department of Defense is planning to reduce the number of U.S. Soldiers in Liberia. For now, that leaves some Soldiers with a lot of extra free time.

"Sometimes, there's insecurity on what their role is in the overall mission. They don't understand why they are in Liberia or what they are supposed to do," Ragan said.

Ragan, a Littleton, Colorado, native, said the team tries to help the Soldier normalize the feelings he or she is having. They explain to the Soldier that feeling like a small piece of a big puzzle is sometimes common, and it is actually good that certain individuals have free time. It means the locals in Liberia are effectively slowing down the spread of the Ebola disease.

"Anybody who has a good personality can talk and ask 'How are you doing?' and that sort of thing. Our role is to do that consistently, having the stamina and patience to work with someone who is struggling on a consistent basis," Ragan said.

But he prefers to be proactive.

"I work on prevention," said Ragan. "I think of it as mental body armor for when something significant happens."

Part of that is being available and creating an environment to get to know the individual Soldiers. Ragan said it's more common for him to talk to a Soldier outside of his office. He explained that sometimes, Soldiers are reluctant to come to his office and admit they are struggling with an issue, so Ragan builds bonds with them where they are.

Spc. Jessica Arent, a behavioral health specialist from Peterborough, New Hampshire, helps run many classes to reduce stress and connect with Soldiers, such as Conflict Resolution class or even hosting an open mic night.

The team works to arm the Soldiers of the 36th Engineer Brigade with the right tools and habits to help them effectively deal with any sort of distraction or hardship that may arise. That includes things like eating healthy, getting enough sleep and finding each individual's way to release stress.

"Everyone has different things," said Arent. "There's the gym here, hip-hop aerobics class, many people read or play spades. Really, it's about finding out what works for you."

Spc. Suhwa Lee, originally from South Korea, recently attended a conflict resolution class hosted by Behavioral Health.

"I see a lot of my peers going through something," he said. "They are getting stressed out from not being able to see their family and things like that."

Lee said he was given a list of ideas to help him and his fellow Soldiers cope, including resources such as a smartphone app.

Arent said deployments can be stressful, but otherwise this deployment in particular is a great experience.

"I think a lot of us are going to look back on this and appreciate it. I mean, I have never been to Africa before," she said. "This is just a great opportunity."

Related Links:

U.S. Army Behavioral Health

Fort Hood engineers train with personal protective equipment for Liberia mission

U.S. Army news, information about Army's response to Ebola threat

36th Engineer Brigade cases colors, preps for Liberia deployment

Volesky: Fewer Soldiers will deploy to West Africa than planned

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