Keesler mental health team counsels soldiers in Iraq

By Steve Phillips - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX)-Mental health professionals from Keesler Air Force base spent six months counseling soldiers in Iraq. They were assigned to a U.S. Army combat stress team.

The Keesler team not only treated hundreds of soldiers, they also experienced the extreme stress that front line forces must endure.

"Our mission was to provide mental health support for the combat troops who are working in southern Iraq," said Bob Greiman, who headed the trio from Keesler.

Members of the mental health team were assigned to the front lines, so they could empathize with the troops.

"Because we could identify with them a little better. What kind of stress they were being put under. We wouldn't go out nearly as frequently as they would, but still just having an idea what they were going through helped us help them," said mental technician Tom Sandoz.

They encouraged soldiers to talk about what they'd experienced. Left unchecked, combat stress compounds.

"It's like a steamer pot. If you don't have that safety valve on a pressure cooker, the lid will blow. You have to release that over a period of time or else the lid will blow off. It does compound," says Greiman.

"If you're that one that weeks later, the same incident is still affecting you, that's when it's like, okay, you need to come. We need to talk. We need to see what's going on. And where is this coming from," said Shaquanda Sullivan, another mental health professional who deployed to Iraq.

Tom Sandoz recalls one soldier who was pushed over the edge.

"He had revealed to me that he had carved the word "hate" into his arm. He had been doing this daily kind of thing. It wasn't just superficial cuts. It was pretty deep," he said.

Worries back home add to the stress level; spouses and families left behind.

"The people back home have stress too. And though they're not in Iraq, they still have the same kind of stress like, 'Oh, you haven't called me, or you haven't talked to me'. I'm getting bombed and mortared and all these things. It's like they don't understand," said Sullivan.

The mental health team had extraordinary success in Iraq. They counseled a thousand soldiers and had a 99 percent "return to duty rate".

The mental health team used the "holistic approach" to treatment. Along with encouraging the troops to talk... the team promoted exercise to help reduce stress levels and encouraged soldiers to write down their experiences in a journal.