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Senior enlisted Marines vital to combat stress treatment, says a top military psychiatrist

20 Sep 2004 | Sgt. Luis R. Agostini

Senior enlisted Marines, vital links between troops and their commanders, are becoming a major force in dealing with combat and operational stress, said Navy Capt. William P. Nash, 1st Marine Division's psychiatrist.

Nash addressed a panel of mental health experts for U.S. servicemembers in Iraq during a Mental Health Surgeon's Conference, Sept. 15, 2004, less than a quarter-mile from the Baghdad palace of former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.

''Marine staff noncommissioned officers know the culture of their troops,'' said Nash, a 52-year-old native of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif. ''They are almost like translators for us.''

Representatives from I Marine Expeditionary Force, which is in command of all Marine units in Iraq, as well as several Army units, attended the conference, sponsored by Multi-National Forces-Iraq.

Servicemembers who serve in support units, like the 1st Force Service Support Group, put their lives on the line daily to ensure critical supplies, such as food and water, as well medical and engineering services, make it to troops throughout Iraq. 

The constant awareness of and contact with dangers they face, like improvised explosive devices and ambushes, can take an enormous toll not only on a Marine's body, but on his mind as well, said Navy Capt. William J. Hocter, 42, a clinical psychiatrist with 1st FSSG.

Incorporating staff NCOs into the combat stress treatment process is one proposed solution of Operational Stress Control, Awareness and Readiness - a Headquarters Marine Corps-approved program that also recommends increasing the ratio of mental health providers to regiments.

A problem viewed by many of the military's mental health specialists during the conference is the stigma associated with seeking out treatment for combat stress. 

Some potential candidates for combat stress avoid treatment in fear of mockery or resentment from their peers and commanders, said Hocter.

Another concern is the barrier between doctors and servicemembers, he said.

While servicemembers may feel that doctors cannot understand the emotional toll of the dangers they face almost daily, doctors say a challenge is to break down the stigma servicemembers may face when seeking help from mental health providers, said Hocter, a Great Lakes, Ill., native.

That's where the staff NCO comes into play.

''A first sergeant can talk and connect to his Marines in ways that we cannot,'' said Nash. ''Being a staff NCO, and not an outsider like me, he can tell Marines that it's okay to seek treatment.''

The intermediary also enhances the relationship between the medical staff and the leadership at a company or battalion-level.

''Leadership learns to trust the Marine mental health liaison, and would be more trusting to send Marines who may show signs of combat stress for treatment,'' he said.

Marines are selected by their commands to serve as mental health liaisons. One Marine, Staff Sgt. Dennis E. Meyer, uses his 13 years of experience as a military policeman preventing suicides, resolving domestic disputes and other intense situations when dealing with combat-stressed Marines.

Serving as Nash's liaison, Meyer's sole responsibility is to encourage Marines to seek treatment if they need it.

''I don't fall under anyone else's chain of command,'' said Meyer, a 32-year-old Fairfield, Ohio, native. ''This is not a collateral duty for me.  It's my only job.''

For units that don't have the personnel to designate a liaison, psychiatrists reach out and train the unit's commanders on how to deal with troops who may suffer from combat stress.

''We go out and provide training for the company first sergeants, and company commanders, battalion sergeant majors and battalion commanding officers in dealing with combat stress,''said Nash. "We even have spoken with regimental commanders about it.''

Conferences such as this are part of an ongoing effort by the Marine Corps and Department of Defense to help solve the problems of combat stress for troops participating in the war on terror.
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