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Military Directs Services to At-Risk Troops

Therapists are working to combat stress and trauma among soldiers almost from the moment they leave the battlefield in Iraq, and military officials say the interventions have prevented many soldiers from developing persistent psychological problems.

The Washington Post reported June 8 that among the 4,000 members of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade who served in Iraq, up to 800 had been identified as at-risk during psychological screenings. But fewer than 80 of these soldiers were still in treatment four months after returning home.

Combat stress teams were credited with heading off many problems: the soldier-therapists were sent in to talk with troops after patrols, firefights, or IED attacks and identify those having problems coping with stress. The teams have the authority to pull solders out of their units for up to a week for group therapy sessions.

"The point is to get at some of these issues before they start to fester back [home]," said 3rd Brigade psychologist Capt. Christopher Hansen. "In Vietnam, nobody did much about this stuff until it was too late."

The Vietnam experience helped prompt the military's commitment to dealing proactively with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among the latest generation of soldiers. Almost 20 percent of Iraq veterans are estimated to have PTSD symptoms, which can include irritability, insomnia, flashbacks, anxiety and depression, and also lead to alcohol and other drug problems.

Some have pointed to stress as the reason for recent killings of Iraqi civilians by U.S. troops, but experts say the soldiers with PTSD are rarely violent. "In point of fact, violence or aggressive behavior is simply not a part of PTSD," said psychiatrist Matthew J. Friedman.

In Iraq, the combat stress teams often went right to the scene of attacks to talk to troops coping with the loss of comrades. "The highest compliment a soldier ever paid me was when I got back to Georgia and one of them said, 'Ma'am, last time I saw you, you were face down in the dirt,' " said Army Lt. Col. Kathy Platoni, a clinical psychologist. "We were out there living with them, going through what they were going through and trying to help them get through it."

Upon returning to Fort Benning, Ga., the 3rd Brigade set up its "CARE" program, a team of social workers, family counselors, psychologists and doctors to help at-risk soldiers readjust to life at home. 

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