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Army Base Prepares For Surge In Stress Disorders

December 1, 2008

Military health officials are bracing for a surge of soldiers that have been deployed over a year that are expected to suffer from brain injuries and psychological problems.

Some 15,000 soldiers are heading home to Ft. Campbell and experts believe as many as one in five of the 101st Airborne Division soldiers will suffer from stress-related disorders.

In anticipation, the base has doubled its psychological health staff.

Many troops that are stationed with the three 101st Airborne combat brigades have gone through at least three tours in Iraq. So far, roughly 10,000 soldiers have come back; the remainder is expected by the end of January.

Army officials say they will monitor Fort Campbell to determine the proper medical staffing levels needed to aid soldiers who have endured repeated rotations in the two war zones.

“I don’t know what to expect. I don’t think anybody knows,” said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army. “That’s why I want to see numbers from the 101st’s third deployment.”

Chiarelli said what happens with the 101st Airborne will let the Army help other bases prepare for similar homecomings in the next year or two, when multiple brigades from the 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division return to Ft. Hood and Ft. Carson.

Chiarelli is most worried the military will not be able to find enough health care providers to deal effectively with the troops needing assistance.

Many U.S. military bases are located near small communities that do not have access to the number of health professionals.

More than 63,600 active duty Army soldiers have completed three or more tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. That compares to 12 percent of the total number of soldiers who have deployed at least once.

Roughly four in 10 soldiers who have gone to war have served more than one deployment, and that number is slowly increasing.

One possible solution is the formation of mobile medical and psychological teams that can go to Army bases when they are expecting a surge in activity from returning units.

At Fort Campbell, the director of health services, Col. Richard Thomas, has roughly doubled his authorized staff of psychologists and behavioral specialists to 55 and is trying to hire a few more.

“I think we have enough staff to meet the demands of the soldiers here, but I could use more, and I’ll hire more if I can,” said Thomas. “I’ll hire them until they tell me to stop.”

Thomas said for the first time, every soldier returning home will have an individual meeting with a behavioral health specialist and then attend a second such session 90 days to 120 days later.

He said indications of stress surface after the initial euphoria of the homecoming wears off and sleeplessness, nightmares, and other symptoms show up usually by the second meeting.

“We’re seeing a lot of soldiers with stress related issues,” he said. “They’re not bipolar or schizophrenic. But they’re deploying three and four times and the stress is tremendous. They’re having relationship issues, financial issues, and marriage problems – all stress related.”

Medical staff at Fort Campbell worry there will be a higher occurrence of suicides – an escalating problem in recent years, largely related to the stresses of war.

Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, said more soldiers will have stress-related problems, and the military must be vigilant in diagnosing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder to head off more serious issues.

“The longer you are there (at war), the more PTSD you’re going to see. You wonder when it’s going to be your time,” he said.

While soldiers deploy for 15 to 12vmonth tours, the majority of Marines serve about seven months and airmen deploy for about four months, although some may serve for tours of six months or longer.

Logan estimated 85 percent of soldiers with stress disorder symptoms will recover with the help of treatment or medication, but the other 15 percent will need more intense help.

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