10 November 2009

Those you least suspect...

When I first arrived in Iraq, I took the opportunity to compare notes with my counterparts in the unit that we were replacing. I asked whether or not this particular aviation brigade had suffered any casualties during the deployment.

"Well, we had one death", said one of the officers, "a suicide".

I knew full well that suicide was on the rise, and I was curious as to how to recognize the signs. A Soldier lost in battle was one thing--losing Soldiers to suicide was something even worse.

"Did anyone notice anything? Was he seeing the chaplain?" I asked.

"Dude", said my fellow officer, "he was the chaplain's assistant".

This came as a shock to me at first. However, after thinking about the circumstances, it made sense. The chaplain aides typically worked long hours, participating in the counseling sessions with the chaplain. Many work long hours in order to accomodate Soldiers who work both day and night shifts, and take part in all sorts of counseling--suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress, work-related stress, maritial stress, you name it. An aide--typically a single Soldier in their teens or early 20s--would be paired with a chaplain who might be twice his age, and married with children. Work would leave him or her with little time to interact with people in their usual demographic, outside of a counseling environment.

Certainly, I could see how that might lead to a sense of loneliness, even under the watchful eye of the unit's primary suicide prevention counselor.

With the recent shootings carried out by an Army psychiatrist, I wanted to take an opportunity to link to a story from the New York Times which discusses the unique stress placed upon the chaplains, and pose the question to everyone: who counsels those who are charged with counseling others?

As a casualty of war himself, he knows what soldiers can experience. Injured in Iraq in January 2005, Chaplain Brunk suffers from moderate brain trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. “I’ve been really pushed to my limits and beyond,” he said. “At times, I’ve really wondered if I could get through.”

Just as it has claimed so many other members of the military, the war in Iraq has taken a toll on chaplains. Although they do not engage in combat, chaplains face the perils of war as they move around Iraq to visit troops. None have been killed, but some, like Chaplain Brunk, have been wounded. Many report post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress problems.

In the past year, the Army has begun to recognize those problems among chaplains and is ensuring that those suffering from stress disorders receive medical treatment at military hospitals.

The Army’s chief of chaplains, Maj. Gen. Douglas L. Carver, has mandated that every military installation offer programs to ensure the mental well being of its chaplains. A spiritual center will open this summer at the chaplain training headquarters at Fort Jackson, S.C., and chaplains will be invited to retreats.

“We are doing more for the chaplains because the chaplains are doing more,” said Lt. Col. Ran Dolinger, a spokesman for the chief of chaplains. Because of multiple deployments to combat zones, Colonel Dolinger said, “they just needed more help.”

Sometimes it might be those you never suspect...

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