Paratroopers from 3rd Platoon, Company B, 3rd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, prepare to load a CH-47 Chinook Helicopter in the Bermel District of the Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan, Oct. 13. While being deployed to a combat environment can be stressful, help is available. Photo by Pfc. Andrya Hill.
PAKTYA PROVINCE, Afghanistan (April 4, 2011) — Combat stress is one of the most lethal enemies that members of the armed forces must face. Members of the Combat Stress Clinic are working throughout Afghanistan to defeat this enemy.
Lt. Col Thomas Stokes, a social worker from Glenshaw, Pa., leads a team dedicated to helping servicemembers cope with the stress of combat and increase their efficacy on the battlefield.
“My objective is to maintain the fighting strength,” said Stokes.
Stokes said he recognizes each person he treats is faced with a different set of stressors depending upon where they are in the deployment cycle.
“I treat every person who walks through my door as a unique individual,” said Stokes. “Our treatment is not, ‘one size fits all.’”
Servicemembers deployed for their first time must adjust to life in a foreign environment and help their loved ones to adjust to their absence. Those returning to the U.S. often feel both joy and anxiety as they prepare to reintegrate into home and Western society.
“Often, re-establishing the roles of father or mother are difficult,” said Stokes.
Professionals serving at the combat stress clinic are not waiting for servicemembers to walk through their doors.
“The key to what we do in combat stress is to be proactive,” said Stokes. “We take our services to the Soldiers.”
Stokes said he sees partnership with the chaplaincy as a key to success. He and his team work closely with chaplains to help individuals to be spiritually and mentally fit.
One strategy used by the combat stress team is to bring servicemembers with similar challenges together. Small groups allow servicemembers to share their experiences and learn from each other. According to Stokes, facing traumatic events and discussing them is critical in the fight against combat stress.
“Soldiers need to understand that combat stress is a normal reaction to a very abnormal set of circumstances,” Stokes said.
Combat stress professionals help servicemembers to see that that they are not alone in their experience. An important aspect of overcoming combat stress is an understanding that one’s experiences are not unique and that others are fighting similar battles.
Air Force Staff Sgt. David VanHoose, a mental health specialist from Eustis, Fla., has seen the effects of treatment firsthand.
“You can see the change in Soldiers,” said VanHoose. “Day by day you can see the relief in their faces and their posture.”
Stokes and VanHoose are passionate about the work they are doing and the positive effects upon the lives and careers of those that seek help. They are working hard to break down the stigma associated with mental health counseling.
Rumors that suggest that seeking mental health services can damage one’s career are false. On the contrary, neglecting mental health needs can often have career damaging consequences.
“If you are feeling overwhelmed and you don’t seek assistance, your actions may have an adverse affect on your career,” Stokes said.
Serving in a combat zone poses many challenges, but even the most horrific events can be a learning experience. Leaders who have faced stressful situations in combat are well-equipped to help their subordinates pass through difficult times and to assist family members who suffer in their loved one’s absence.
Those experiencing combat stress need not suffer in silence. Stress is a normal reaction to traumatic events. Seeking help for combat stress is no more a sign of weakness than is receiving treatment for a gunshot wound or a broken arm.