'Brain Rangers' Fight Iraq Stress

New Program To Treat Mental Stress Experienced By Soldiers In Iraq

It wasn't until the second war started in Iraq, the urban guerilla war, with close combat against invisible enemies - the kind of fighting that is high stress - that the Army started to notice serious psychological problems among its soldiers.

The military used to ignore these problems, but what's different about this war is that the Army is now taking them seriously, sending a special team, dubbed the "Brain Rangers" right to the front lines, Correspondent Christiane Amanpour reports.

"Never before in the history of warfare has there been such a coordinated, detailed effort at mitigating the effects of warfare on service members," says Maj. Geoffrey Grammer, who is part of the Army's new mental health offensive. He's a psychiatrist with the combat-stress control team.

"A lot of people, they think, 'There's something wrong with me,' and you say, 'Hey, this is part of combat, and it gets better.' And they say, 'Phew, I thought I was going crazy.'"

What Grammer likes to tell soldiers is that they aren't going crazy -- they're just having a normal reaction to a very crazy situation. Iraq's guerilla war, where the enemy is invisible, but can strike at any time. Where ordinary objects, like cars and roadside debris explode with no warning. And where insurgents are dressed like civilians but are lethal combatants.

But what's really new about the Army's combat-stress program is that therapists don't wait for the patients to walk in; they go out to the battlefield to look for them.

"We will take a team of folks, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and we will go to these remote areas where soldiers are and try to get to the front-line troops," says Grammer.

"There's no credibility to sit back in a walled-off compound with concertina wire saying, 'You know, let me tell you about combat stress.' I have to bring the care to them, right, and I have to show willingness to go where they are, to walk a foot, not a mile, but just a foot in their shoes -- because what they go through is absolutely tremendously difficult."

Few front-line bases have been as dangerous and stressful as the First Cavalry Division in Sadr City, Baghdad. Shortly before the 60 Minutes crew's visit, a Humvee leaving the camp was ripped apart by a roadside bomb and three soldiers were killed

"Personally, I felt a lot of guilt for happened," says Lt. Derek Drouin, who was leading the convoy. "The guilt was that I had just cleared that route, that section of the route, no more than five minutes before."

Capt. Dennis L. Pintor, the company commander, Spc. Michael S. Weger and Spc. Jaime Moreno all lost their lives.

"Those guys were some of the best soldiers I've ever worked with," says Drouin. "I'm deeply sorry what has happened, and if there was anything I could have done different to change the outcome, I'd do it."

"When you're 20 years old, your friends aren't supposed to die," says Grammer. "You have folks trying to say, 'Well, hey I lived. These other folks didn't. Why was that?'"

Survivor's guilt?

"That would be survivor's guilt, and it doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense who lives or dies," says Grammer. "And part of our job is to help people negotiate that in a way that allows it to sit with them."

All those who survived the attack on the Army convoy were called together for a no holds barred discussion of what happened. That's now offered by the combat-stress team every time soldiers are killed in action.

"Rather than me standing up and saying, 'Here's what you should feel,' I'm letting group members talk about how they're feeling, and just reaffirming that, 'Hey, you're all feeling this way,'" says Grammer. "'This is what happens when you have something traumatic like this happen in your life.'"

"It was good for me, because it allowed me to finally get out my guilt and my anger to what happened," says Drouin. "Without it, I probably wouldn't be sleeping as well at night."

The combat-stress team's approach also helped Sgt. Jerry Burge.

"They weren't afraid to hear what we had to say," says Burge. "You know, they pulled us all together that night and just let it out. Whether it was good or bad, they didn't care. They just wanted to let it out."

But weeks later, he still has a hard time accepting the death of his friend.

"Some people say, 'How did you deal with it?' And I tell them that I didn't deal with it. I'm still dealing with it. I mean, it's something that I haven't gotten over yet," says Burge.

"I mean, yeah, he was a friend of mine and it's not something you expect when you get out of a vehicle to go help out your friend, and you see that. You see what's left. That's an image there you'll never get rid of."

The Army has been taking a close look at the effect of combat stress on its soldiers. It conducted a survey for the first time in its history in an active war zone. Half of the soldiers complained of low morale; 17 percent were found to suffer from traumatic stress, anxiety or depression; and only a third who wanted help could actually get it.

The soldiers said they didn't know about, or couldn't get to help from the battlefield. They also said that they were afraid of the stigma attached to seeking help. And that's what the combat-stress team is trying to correct.

"Traditionally, the Army is not a touchy-feely organization. It has put a pretty significant amount of resources into this," says Lt. Col. Bob Gerhardt, a front-line battalion surgeon who has sent many soldiers to the combat-stress teams.

"It's an entree for somebody," says Gerhardt. "'Did you know these guys are pretty nice. They're human; they're real. You know, they're not wanting to get in my head with a screwdriver. Maybe I'll go talk to them.'"

And in Iraq, there's plenty to talk about because there is no escape from stress, not even back at base.

"You go out to a forward aid station, and you expect to get shot at," says Gerhardt. "You know, somebody shoots at you and you shoot back, and you defend yourself and that's OK, you deal with it. But you get back and now you're back in camp, you take a shower, you'll sleep, go get a meal, and all of a sudden, 'Boom!' This comes out of nowhere and that's one of the things, I think, that has been perhaps the most stressful."

In a situation where soldiers are constantly facing the unpredictable, they are taught simple techniques to maintain some kind of control.

The Army says it learned from bitter experience to treat combat stress before it becomes a permanent disability.

After Vietnam, a very high percentage of soldiers and Marines came back with a lot of stress, later known as post traumatic stress syndrome.

How is the military dealing with that?

"We've had since Vietnam to basically study the phenomenon of post traumatic stress disorder," says Grammer.

"And people with post traumatic stress disorder tend to have a hard time in life. There's a higher rate of divorce, a higher rate of unemployment, substance dependence like alcohol, or what have you, depression. So it really is a disabling thing that once it develops, it's hard to recover from."

Soldiers can go to the combat stress team's restoration clinic in Baghdad if they want more help recovering. It's where they can get confidential therapy, and the latest anti-depressant medications. After a few days of rest, more than 95 percent have been sent back to combat.

"Clearly, the idea is to get as many of the fighting men back to the front," says Amanpour. "Some would say that to send a psychologically damaged person back to the area that wounded him in the first place is not good for him."

Grammer responds: "Data would show that when you don't send folks back to face their demons, to overcome this or master this, they tend to do worse in the long run.

"It's the folks who go back that actually do better. We'll tell soldiers, 'You need to go back to duty, 'cause if you go home, this is something that you'll be struggling with for a long time.'"

Sgt. Christopher Turnbull is an ex-sniper who's been fighting America's wars for the last 15 years. He's as tough as they come, but now he's a convert to the combat-stress program.

"I think it's a great program," says Turnbull. "To be honest with you, I think soldiers are afraid to use it because they think they're gonna be called a wimp."

Does the stigma still exist?

"Back in the older days, when I was in the Army, you didn't want to be one of those to go up and say, 'I've got a problem,'" says Turnbull. "It was better to beat up a soldier than to fix a soldier, you know what I mean?"

Turnbull is the seasoned leader of a platoon of young soldiers who had a very dangerous mission, choking off the insurgent's escape routes from Fallujah, at the height of the American offensive.

What stresses him out the most? "My biggest fear, I know that it's their biggest fear, just getting on the roads, because you just don't know what's gonna happen," says Turnbull. "Every time they get behind the wheel of a vehicle, up in the gunner seat, they have butterflies."

What these young men and women saw in one day's drive may haunt them forever. THeir convoy was hit by a suicide car bomber and three friends were medivacked with severe burns.

That's when Turnbull's platoon got combat stress counseling.

"I've learned throughout the years that compassion is the best way to talk to your soldiers," says Turnbull.

"When the incident occurred, I was angry. I was mad because those are my soldiers. Those guys, they mean a lot to me. Good friends. So it can be hard," adds Turnbull. "So I pulled them all together, and we talked, let it out, let them know that it wasn't their fault. And that's kind of the way I dealt with it."

  • Rebecca Leung

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