Nearby Firing Ranges Complicate Soldiers' Recovery From Stress

For some soldiers housed at the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Benning, Ga., the nearby firing range brings back memories of their time in combat and aggravates their symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.Video by Ann Scott Tyson/The Washington Post & Francine Uenuma/
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

FORT BENNING, Ga. -- Army Sgt. Jonathan Strickland sits in his room at noon with the blinds drawn, seeking the sleep that has eluded him since he was knocked out by the blast of a Baghdad car bomb.

Like many of the wounded soldiers living in the newly built "warrior transition" barracks here, the soft-spoken 25-year-old suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. But even as Strickland and his comrades struggle with nightmares, anxiety and flashbacks from their wartime experiences, the sounds of gunfire have followed them here, just outside their windows.

Across the street from their assigned housing, about 200 yards away, are some of the Army infantry's main firing ranges, and day and night, several days each week, barrages from rifles and machine guns echo around Strickland's building. The noise makes the wounded cringe, startle in their formations, and stay awake and on edge, according to several soldiers interviewed at the barracks last month. The gunfire recently sent one soldier to the emergency room with an anxiety attack, they said.

"You hear a lot of shots, it puts you in a defensive mode," said Strickland, who spent a year with an infantry platoon in Baghdad and has since received a diagnosis of PTSD from the military. He now takes medicine for anxiety and insomnia. "My heart starts racing and I get all excited and irritable," he said, adding that the adrenaline surge "puts me back in that mind frame that I am actually there."

Soldiers interviewed said complaints to medical personnel at Fort Benning's Martin Army Community Hospital and officers in their chain of command have brought no relief, prompting one soldier's father to contact The Washington Post. Fort Benning officials said that they were unaware of specific complaints but that decisions about housing and treatment for soldiers with PTSD depend on the severity of each case. They said day and night training must continue as new soldiers arrive and the Army grows.

"Fort Benning is a training unit, so there is gunfire around us all the time," said Elaine Kelley, a behavioral health supervisor at the base hospital. If a soldier had a severe problem, it would have been identified, she said.

Lt. Col. Sean Mulcahey, who recently took command of the Warrior Transition Battalion, where wounded soldiers are assigned, said: "No soldier has talked with me about the ranges." If it is an issue, "we will address it," he said, stressing that the battalion's mission is "getting those soldiers to heal."

Under Army rules, commanders of warrior transition units are supposed to enforce "quiet hours." Officials said the location of the barracks for wounded soldiers, along with a $1.2 million Soldier and Family Assistance Center, was chosen for its proximity to central facilities such as the hospital. About 350 soldiers are assigned to the battalion -- including 176 who live in the barracks near the ranges -- where they stay an average of eight months, Mulcahey said. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the soldiers have PTSD, he said.

The soldiers are part of a growing group of an estimated 150,000 combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have PTSD symptoms. The mental disorder has been diagnosed in nearly 40,000 of them.

PTSD symptoms include flashbacks and anxiety, and noises such as fireworks or a car backfiring can make sufferers feel as though they are back in combat. Health experts say that housing soldiers near a firing range subjects them to a continual trigger for PTSD.

"It would definitely traumatize them," said Harold McRae, a psychotherapist in Columbus, Ga., who counsels dozens of soldiers with PTSD who are at Fort Benning. "It would be like you having a major car wreck on the interstate" and then living in a home overlooking the freeway, he said. "Every time you hear a wreck or the brakes lock up, you are traumatized."

Fort Benning, which covers more than 180,000 acres, is one of the Army's main training bases, with 67 live-fire ranges. The base has thousands of housing and barracks units. "There is no excuse" for the housing situation, said Paul Ragan, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, who treats veterans with PTSD. "Charitably put, it's very untherapeutic."

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