Healers head to war, bearing their own wounds
Saturday, December 5, 2009
They are the combat medics of the mind, who joined the Army Reserve not to fight but to heal those who fight and sustain the incapacitating, invisible wounds of war.
There were about 90 of them, from two units, fresh arrivals from intensive training in the California desert. They had learned to man the turrets and handle the grenade launchers, to hike up rock-strewn hills at 90-degree inclines. So that morning of Nov. 5 at Fort Hood, Tex., was a break, a chance to read a book while waiting in line to do paperwork.
By the time the shooting stopped, their ranks were decimated. Five of them were dead, 17 wounded. And the man charged with gunning them down was one of their own, an Army psychiatrist.
Now, a month later and right on schedule, the 43 mental-health specialists of Wisconsin's 467th Medical Detachment deployed to Afghanistan without him, and without their major, staff sergeant and sergeant. They had saluted goodbye to the empty helmets, rifles and boots of the three at a wrenching memorial service last month. They left behind their wounded.
The 40-some members of Kansas's 1908th Medical Detachment are right behind them, set to deploy to Iraq as early as Saturday.
All of them are wearing black bracelets engraved with the names of their five slain colleagues.
"We are more than devastated by these losses, but are going forward with our missions in honor of our fallen comrades," wrote Col. Kathy Platoni, 57, a veteran clinical psychologist with two combat tours under her belt, in an automated e-mail reply. "This promises to be the most challenging year of our lives, though we have already faced our first battleground."
Some of the deploying psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, social workers and occupational therapists are seasoned veterans, and some are young adults with recent undergraduate psychology degrees. The work of these combat-stress-control teams is dangerous and delicate, conducted on the front lines of war. In bands of two and three, the members make house calls, of a sort, helicoptering into forlorn outposts to assess and treat fighters traumatized by the grisly business of combat and exhausted by repeated tours of duty.
There are not nearly enough of these mental-health specialists.
The military has worked hard to erase the stigma of war's mental wounds and to urge soldiers to seek treatment. But the success of this effort and the surge of troops in Afghanistan have created a shortage of providers, Army officials have said. President Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 troops there will create an even greater need.
So there was an urgency to get the two units mobilized. But now the experts themselves had invisible wounds and needed mental-health assessments. Other specialists had to be brought in to bolster the depleted ranks; two reservists from elsewhere were volunteered to immediately join up. Each soldier had to qualify again in combat skills. That meant firing the regulation weapons.
In an interview last month, Platoni said that on that Nov. 5 afternoon, she had left one building of the sprawling Soldier Readiness Processing Center, "gotten a quick, bad lunch" and was standing in another line, in another building, trying to persuade a colleague to sign a power-of-attorney form. Suddenly, "somebody screamed, 'There is shooting in the other building!' "