BAGHDAD // Suicide attacks, gun battles and roadside bombs have long been among the dangers facing US soldiers in Iraq. But as the violence abates and the threat from insurgents fades, troops are finding new enemies - depression, suicide and the breakdown of marriages. In January, 24 soldiers took their lives, up from just four in the same month last year. In 2008, suicide in the military increased for the fourth straight year.
In an attempt to stem the rising tide the military has started investing heavily in the soldiers' well-being and mental health. At Camp Victory, a sprawling coalition base in one of Saddam Hussein's former palace complexes near Baghdad airport, US troops have set up a Combat Stress Control Centre. Among the lakes, ornate palaces and tree-lined walkways, where the Baathist leader would relax and entertain guests, sits a pine-walled compound where soldiers can go for advice, flick through magazines and pick up a complimentary copy of the book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Here they can attend classes, take part in anger management and marriage counselling. There is also a dog for stressed soldiers to play with. This being the military though, the health care has a regimented feel. Those with issues are called warriors, not patients. The stress dog is given a rank. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is referred to as post-traumatic growth - trauma, they tell the "warriors", is something you can learn from and help you grow. There are also classes with such names as "warrior resiliency and thriving" and "relaxation/sleep hygiene". One of the behavioural health officers is a former special forces operative. This is mental health military-style and there is only one aim.
"Our goal is to get back to the fight and get on with business we deploy, we fight our nation's wars," said Major Thomas Jarrett, who runs the warrior resiliency and thriving programme. Major Kevin Gormley, the commander of the stress control centre, echoed this point. "Our job is to keep soldiers on the battlefield, not send them home." Major Jarrett, whose talk is being taken to all the officers and non-commissioned officers in Iraq, aims to take his 90-minute class to every soldier in the country.
He teaches with a preacher's swagger and a soldier's discipline. Important points are emphasised with "hoo-ah", the infantry battle cry, and the talk is punctuated with jokes and movie references. Hollywood blockbusters Rocky Balboa, 300 and Defiance all get a mention. At one recent class, Major Jarrett - who had a spell out of the military during which he grew his hair, bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle and studied under Albert Ellis, an influential New York psychotherapist - tells soldiers he is "fed up of hearing about" post-traumatic stress. He said he wants to talk of people growing from trauma and becoming stronger because of it.
He highlights the need for positive thinking and how it can help them become better warriors. His message is carefully tailored for a military stretched by two wars and multiple combat tours, often as long as 15 months at a time. Many of today's soldiers are on their second or third combat tour since 2001 and the stress on their family lives back home is immense. Major Jarrett addresses this by stressing that the military is a "warrior family", a select few who can be counted on to help each other through tough times.
He said the soldiers had "hard lives", but were also of "noble spirit" and had a "character strength" that could see them through their deployments and arrive home better people. The slogan "Thriving through, not only surviving, your combat deployment" is a mantra. It is hard to gauge exactly how much success Major Jarrett and the CSCC unit is having. The military is notoriously guarded about the mental health of its soldiers and many of the facts and figures are confidential.
They will not say how long the CSCC has been operating for or how many similar units they have across Iraq. Major Gormley, however, said suicide among his troops was "below average", but that he strived for "zero suicides". The message among soldiers who had attended a warrior resiliency and thriving course was positive. "When I hear this, it is exactly down my alley," said Sgt First Class William Maysfield, 34, who is on his third combat tour since 2001.
"The biggest thing soldiers can take from this course, it seems simple, but they have a choice" in how they deal with stress. Captain Demond Merrick, 35, echoed the point. He said: "It was not just talking at you but talking to us with real world experience to back it up." With his message of strength over adversity, his knowledge of combat, talk of the moral warrior and the importance of self-improvement, the major talks the language of the soldiers, but it is impossible to judge the long-term effect of such an approach to mental health.
Despite having combat stress units in place for more than a decade the number of suicides continues to rise. The warrior resiliency and thriving course was designed by Major Jarrett and is based on principles of Mr Ellis. There is no doubt he learnt from a respected expert. In 1982, a survey among clinical psychologists ranked Mr Ellis the second most influential psychotherapist in history, behind Carl Rogers and ahead of Sigmund Freud. It was Mr Ellis who personally taught Major Jarrett.
There are, however, concerns that classes such as this, although bringing up the issue of combat stress and giving soldiers an initial boost, do very little to treat the symptoms of PTSD: sleep deprivation, nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks. "Just calling it post-traumatic growth may help sufferers feel better about having it, but if they still can't sleep they are unlikely to function very well," said Piers Bishop, who runs Resolution, a PTSD charity treating service members in England.
"What traumatised people need is a programme that acknowledges what they've been going through but also changes them, normalising their sleep pattern and stopping their nightmares," Mr Bishop said. Some experts are also concerned that soldiers, because of stigma and the fast pace of military operations, are missing out on treatment. This is something Major Gormley tries to address by regularly sending his men and women to other bases and outposts, he said.
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