1st Marine Division on the offensive against battle stress

2 Jul 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

With the same ferociousness that the Marines battled Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, the 1st Marine Division is making a three-prong attack against battle-related stress.

A team of Navy mental health professionals from C Surgical Company, a unit of Combat Service Support Group 11, is working with chaplains and visiting units to debrief them and to give troops a chance to share their experiences.

"We are about preventing long-term mental illness," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ronald B. Burbank, a psychiatrist from Camp Pendleton, Calif. who is assigned to C Surgical Company.  " Our visits are a chance to bring them some normalcy."

Helping Marines deal with the sights and smells of war, the counselors are getting together with platoons of warriors so they can have a chance to talk about their experiences. 

The idea, Burbank explains, is that the more they can talk about their wartime experiences now, the less likely they will face debilitating problems down the road.

"We are here to treat the trigger pullers as well as the support teams," said Navy Cmdr. Dennis L. Reeves, a psychologist on the team and director of medical services for C Surgical Company.  "Deployment itself is a stressor.  You do not need to be shot at to be stressed."

The two mental health practitioners were at the same hospital at Camp Pendleton before Operation Iraqi Freedom; they experienced first hand how many Marines and soldiers torment themselves by refusing to talk to others about their experiences early.

"At our practice we see a lot of Army people as well as Marines," said Burbank, who is married with two sons.  "One of our patients was a sergeant major who fought in the Vietnam War and was having some problems.  When he came to us it was the first time he had talked to anybody about it."

Looking into faces of confident group of young Marines from 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, who after fighting their way into Baghdad are now securing the city of Al Hillah, Reeves worries that a new generation of warriors fall into the trap thinking that it is not it is not manly to vent personal feelings.

To help prepare the Marines to better cope with their feelings, Reeves and Burbank joined with Lt. Cmdr. Thomas B. Webber, the battalion chaplain, to encourage the troops to talk about their experiences. 

"The chaplain sets the stage," Reeves said.  "He knows the people."

According to Burbank, the benefits of these discussion groups is that many of the Marines do not realize that the guy next to him may be experiencing the same feelings or problems.

"They are afraid to appear that they are letting the unit down," said Reeves, whose daughter pursuing a master's degree in clinical psychology.  "Talking about it now helps them cope with their losses."

The grunts and docs finally settle-in and sit in a circle facing each other.  Chaplain Webber begins by explaining what to expect.  Marines look back and forth at each other, muttering under their breath when they realize that everyone is going to be expected to talk about their feelings.

A few of the men try to envision that they are hardcore like a John Wayne or a Chesty Puller, and give answers that they think the platoon commander would approve, but Webber sees through the rouse and clamps down on his boys and gets them to open up.

"I want you to talk about the most intense memory that you experience since you have been here," said Webber with a flare that only a Baptist preacher can muster. He locked his eyes on to each of the Marines in the group coming slowly to a stop as he faces one devil dog,  "Now its your turn."

Looking down at his feet, he clears he voice and begins to talk.  "I knew he would do well," Webber said.  "These were the guys were always first into the fight."  

Some talk about the smells of human excrement that seemed to overpower them when they were in Baghdad.  Others nodded when a Marine talked about seeing the dead and dying on the side of the road, while others nervously talk about the exhilaration and the adrenalin high they received when under fire.

"These are the people they need to be telling their stories to," Burbank said.  "The guys who they fought with.  They experienced the same experiences and nobody else will understand what they went through better than the guys in this group."

Reeves points out that most Marines and soldiers do not suffer from any serious or long-term problems due to combat.  However, by talking together, the Marines in this group, as well as others like it, form a support core that can continue for years to come.

"With the advent of e-mail, there is no reason why they cannot keep in touch years from now," said Burbank. "There are some stories that they cannot talk about to just anybody and the only ones who will be able to understand are here right now."

As the each Marine talks, Reeves, Burbank, and Webber listen intently to each story.  This is the team's chance to identify those who might need some immediate intervention or assistance down the line.

To the surprise of some of the Marines, each Navy doctor tells his own story.  Reeves talked about the shock of helping to identify the bodies of fallen servicemembers who were in a refrigerated trailer converted into a morgue.  The Marines in the group could identify with the sensations that the psychologist was describing and leaned in closer to listen to his words.

When it was Burbank's turn, he talked of the time an Iraqi drew a weapon on him while he was traveling in a convoy.  For a few moments, he was back in that convoy with his hands held out as if he was holding his pistol. Not only had they heard all the stories before but lived some themselves.

"It is hard for them to come to terms with some of the feelings they are experiencing," Burbank said.  "Some are shocked at how easy or automatic it was to use their weapons, others comment that it was like being in a video game."

For others there is a moral dilemma.

"They are saying to themselves, 'I killed someone's father or brother,'" he said. 

Because of all of these conflicting feelings, the two doctors and the chaplain know that this will not be the only visit to the troops.

"This is part of the stabilization process," Reeves said.  "No one knows when they are going to go home yet and it's these guys job to keep the creepy crawlers from coming back."

Aside from some Army units with the 1st Armored Division, the doctors will team up with chaplains from all the battalions of the 1st Marine Division.  The earlier they help troops deal with their war-time experiences, the less likely they will need to see them back at Camp Pendleton, the trio said.

Thinking back to the sergeant major that fought in the Vietnam War and spent the rest of his career replaying the battles over and over again, Reeves explained why it was important to him to delay his retirement to take care of those who fought here.

"You should not have to wait 30 years to feel better," said Reeves.  "There is just no reason for it."