By Lt. Col. MICHAEL DAVIDSON
Command information officer
FORT POLK, La. — The Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk community is built on a foundation of teamwork and taking pride in caring for Soldiers, Families civilians, and contractors, and families. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people in many ways, often leaving the team with feelings of depression and isolation. And depression and isolation can be a potent mix leading to thoughts of suicide, according to current studies conducted since the onslaught of COVID-19.
There is help and hope on the installation. The empathy and compassion and willingness to help and serve have established an environment that JRTC/Fort Polk is going through this together, said Lt. Col. Michael Davidson, command surgeon.
As more Soldiers and Family members are placed into isolation or quarantine, the Polk team has risen to the challenge of ensuring the well-being of the community.
“The presence of leadership and care givers within our community has allowed the medical, behavioral, and chaplain teams to provide resources to build and establish trust for each other,” said Davidson.
Organizations throughout the installation have confronted head-on the challenges presented by the pandemic.
For many Soldiers, the best help comes from those they serve with daily — their battle buddies, chain of command and unit ministry teams.
Spc. Chase Cassady, 5th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, recently spent 14 days in isolation.
The self-professed introvert said even he got stir crazy after a few days alone.
“But my chain of command called me about three times a day, and my squad leader and medic would call,” he said. “I was contacted by our chaplain’s assistant who asked me if I was being taken care of and fed.”
Cassady said it was a surprise how much attention he received from his chain of command.
“I was expecting to be by myself for two weeks with food pushed under the door,” he said. “But they really took care of me.”
It was the same for Spc. Marcus Bloxton, 317th Engineer Battalion, also recently spent 14 days in isolation.
“They (chain of command) fed me and checked up on me every day,” he said. “They sent me stuff to keep me entertained and made sure I stayed busy. Both of my NCOs, my lieutenant and Chaplain (Jonathan) Dukes paid me visits. It was tough, but they helped me through it.”
Davidson, said many of the installation’s chaplains and behavioral health professionals have developed programs and are actively reaching out to Soldiers to address their emotional wellbeing and potential depression resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the programs:
• Chap. (Maj.) John Smith and Capt. Daniella Preece, behavioral health officer, both with the 3rd BCT, 10th Mtn Div, work closely to reach their Soldiers and stay in contact with unit commanders, conducting wellness checks.
• Smith and Preece have created a Patriot wellness email address for Soldiers and Families to ask questions and identify challenges as they adjust to COVID19 restrictions.
• Preece and her unit ministry team posted a video to Facebook to discuss some of the challenges they have noticed. The team plans to have at least one video per week where they will address the challenges of the Patriots and their Families.
• Behavioral health providers are operating on a rotating schedule with one team (one or two providers) operating from home via telework, and one team operating from the clinics.
• Providers are working closely with nurse case managers to coordinate care for high risk Soldiers and Family members. In addition to virtual appointments, face-to-face visits are still permitted and are prioritized for this patient population. Behavioral health providers are encouraged to maintain contact with their aligned unit leadership.
• To continue developing the behavioral health specialist skillset, as well as meet growing community needs, educational videos aimed at "psychological first aid" and other content are being prepared. The videos will be uploaded to the BJACH/Behavioral Health website. NCOs are also creating a Facebook page containing videos and other educational links. There are three officers currently preparing content.
• Plans are in the works for creating a Facebook live "town hall" for children to help them make sense of everything that is happening.
• Other ideas for frontline staff support include: Therapy by walking around teams, possible support groups, and pushing out relevant content such as bioethical and legal considerations for health care providers.
These programs come as no surprise to Spc. Jose Alvarez, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd BCT, 10th Mtn Div, who recently spent two weeks in isolation.
“Basically, people were checking on me all the time,” he said. “If I needed anything they provided it. Chaplain Peerce called me once and sent me texts twice. Although it was boring, they made it doable.”
In addition to the Team Polk activities, there are other coping tips for those who find themselves in emotional distress related to COVID-19 or any other trying situation, including:
• Set a limit on media consumption, including social media, local or national news.
• Stay active. Make sure to get enough sleep and rest. Stay hydrated and avoid excessive amounts of caffeine or alcohol. Eat healthy foods when possible.
• Connect with loved ones and others who may be experiencing stress about the outbreak. Talk about your feelings and enjoy conversation unrelated to the outbreak.
• Get accurate health information from reputable sources. For health information about COVID-19, please contact the Centers for Disease Control at cdc.gov or your local healthcare provider.
• The national Disaster Distress Helpline (www.samhsa.gov) is available to anyone experiencing emotional distress related to COVID-19. Call (800) 985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to speak to a caring counselor.
• If you’re experiencing emotional distress related to COVID-19, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
• For coping tools and resources, visit the Lifeline website at suicidepreventionlifeline.org or Vibrant Emotional Health’s Safe Space at vibrant.org/safespace.
• The National Domestic Violence Hotline, (800) 799-7233, has highly trained advocates available 24/7 to ensure services and continue to support survivors.
For additional resources, visit the JRTC and Fort Polk web site at https://home.army.mil/polk/index.php/about/suicide-prevention.
The bottom line, said Davidson, is getting on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic together.
“The JRTC/Fort Polk is a family team built on taking care of each other and preventing harm to any member of our team through the strong sense of community engagement at all levels,” said Davidson.