CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq – The likelihood of deployed servicemembers experiencing some kind of mental or physical change during the 12-15 months they are away from home is a distinct possibility. One way or another, most will undergo some change during such a long departure.
Transitioning back into “normal” life is often easier said than done, but that does not mean that the homecoming has to be difficult or without help. Army medical and mental health professionals serving with 4th Infantry Division and Multi-National Division – Baghdad have taken steps to ensure that help is at every Soldier’s disposal.
“We try to educate leaders as much as we can about the risks to Soldiers facing the big transition from theater to home,” said Maj. Chris Ivany, a native of Harker Heights, Texas, who serves as the division psychiatrist with the 4th Inf. Div., MND-B. “(Leaders) are really the key in helping Soldiers work through any number of issues that they may be facing, whether it’s financial, Family related or the mental transition from being in combat to being back home.”
While the mental health professionals and chaplains are there to help with those things, it is really the first-line leaders and battle buddies who are the most effective in helping individual Soldiers work through most issues, he said.
Ivany oversees a mental health team that helps the Ironhorse Division’s Soldiers prepare for the transition back to normality. He and several other leaders, including Maj. Dawn Orta, a native of Waukesha, Wis., who serves as the senior physician’s assistant with Headquarters Support Company, Division Special Troops Battalion, 4th Inf. Div., have a process and system in place, which they feel is the best current way to help the troops.
“I, along with the chains of command, meet once a month along with Maj. Ivany in reference to the Soldiers within the battalion for medical issues,” Orta said. “For the other brigades, they do it at the brigade level and we talk about Soldiers that we’re concerned about – what exactly the issues that they’re having are – and then what can be done on the whole to address some of the common issues.”
Ivany elaborated on those “common” issues and expressed that more often than not, those things will happen due to the uniqueness of every Soldier and their Families.
“The most common issue now is that young Soldiers will try to refigure out their marital relationships or other significant relationships,” Ivany said. “During the 12 to 15 months that most Soldiers have been here, they’ve changed and their spouses have changed in one way or another. It’s unavoidable that as we spend time apart, that’s what happens, and so to now reconnect with their spouses requires a little bit of work, patience and time.”
Not waiting to be reactionary to the stresses the “steadfast and loyal” Soldiers may live through, the MHT has taken action in advance of the division’s return home.
“The marriage classes were started a while ago because we knew that at the end (of the deployment), marriage issues and conflicts are the concerns for a lot of the Soldiers as they are returning,” Orta said. “So, we started months ago to try to address that issue.”
Additionally, the two officers said that while some Soldiers left their troubles behind them, when they return, they will hang with them like a shadow.
“Overall, for most Soldiers, morale does go up getting close to home; it’s a positive thing and a good thing. But for some Soldiers, sometimes going home isn’t a thing to look forward to,” Ivany said. “There have been negative things that have happened with their Families since they’ve been over here, and it hasn’t been a part of their daily life over here to have to deal with that.”
Orta explained how they try to address the issues by drawing on past experience.
“We’re doing what we can by looking at past incidents to try and make an educated guess about what the triggers might be, and of course, you don’t know them exactly,” Orta said, about the approach the team takes. “Then we try to put in some mitigations to try and prevent them from happening to somebody else.”
Ivany, who is the sole psychiatrist in the division, oversees all of those mitigations and preventative measures. He has helped shape the process for the division as it transitions home. The process itself can is filtered down and facilitated at the company level.
“Each company has an individual that has been trained in suicide help and helping the Soldier go in the right directions for getting help,” Orta said. “It’s generally a noncommissioned officer. Staff Sgt. Jeffry Reed is the (DSTB) overseer.”
Because these individuals are at the unit level, Soldiers are more familiar with them and will be more likely to seek help or to be guided to where they can get help. Keeping that resource in mind, Ivany was clear about who is responsible for the troops’ most basic level of help.
“The most important thing is for the first-line leaders to know their Soldiers so that their Soldiers feel that they are a resource or a person that they can come to if they have an issue,” Ivany said.
Ivany and Orta also noted there are several indicators, such as reckless behavior, being withdrawn, marital and relationship issues, financial or legal problems that their leaders can easily identify if they know their troops.
Despite the help of all their leaders, subordinates or battle-buddies, Ivany and Orta also acknowledge that each Soldier is responsible to take preventative measures within themselves to protect them from succumbing to harder times.
“They go back home (thinking) everything will be just like it was when they left, and that’s not usually the case,” Ivany said, regarding a misconception most Soldiers have about going home. “It’s perfectly normal for you to have changed somewhat and your spouse and kids to have changed during the time that you’ve been away. We don’t want to fool ourselves into thinking that when we get off the plane, things will be just like they were when we got on the plane to come over.”
Orta warned that just because a Soldier has come and gone from theater multiple times doesn’t mean they are immune to problems.
“We have some (Soldiers) that this is their first deployment and for others, this is their fourth or even fifth, and that number doesn’t necessarily make the going home any easier,” Orta said, of the varying degrees of challenges each Soldier faces upon going home.
Taking both philosophical and logical approaches to helping the troops has served the MHT well and, in turn, those they serve during their time in Iraq.
“I think we’ve been fairly successful, and I think the evidence for that is probably that the number of contacts that mental health providers have had with Soldiers during our rotation in MND-B has been double of those of the previous divisions in Baghdad,” Ivany said. “That reflects an increased knowledge of the resources that are available by the first-line leaders and Soldiers, and it also indicates a willingness of first sergeants or platoon sergeants to send their Soldiers over to mental health.”
For Orta, this confidence in what they do, and why the MHT does what it does, is simple and clear cut.
“Every individual ,” Orta said. “They are part of the team, they are part of the link that connects one part of our mission to another and when that link is broken, we’re not as strong or as able to function.”
While Ivany and Orta feel that the stigma of seeking mental-health help is slowly going away, they realize that they must continue to press forward in their efforts to help the troops. They both recognize that there is no way for them to quantify the system’s successes, as far as who was actually prevented from completing suicide, but that they measure their success based off making sure the troops and their leaders are at least educated about the avenues of help.
“There are definite signs that we look for and we can see in Soldiers that are at risk for hurting themselves or completing a suicide, and while we never know what the future will bring, we are, as a profession, relatively good at identifying people that are at risk for a suicide,” Ivany said. “I think we do that pretty well as the rate of suicide within MND-B is less than half of what it was previously.”
No two Soldiers’ problems or issues are ever going to be exactly the same, she said.
If immediate supervisors recognize that there is a conflict between them and their troops, there is nothing wrong with getting their Soldiers in contact with a leader they will open up to, Orta said.
“One of the key points here is that 4th Inf. Div. and MND-B has been committed to doing everything that we can to make sure medical and mental health channels (are available),” Ivany said. “We’ve implemented a more extensive medical and mental health screening process here in theater than has ever been done to my knowledge, and Maj. Orta planned most of that out for the 4th Inf. Div. units.”
Ivany was also quick to stress that this commitment to mental and medical healthcare for the Soldiers started with Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the Ironhorse Division’s commanding general, and is shared by everyone in the 4th Inf. Div.’s surgeon section.
“If there is gratitude to be handed out, it’s definitely to the first-line leaders, to the junior officers, to the first sergeants and the company commanders who are out there everyday dealing with an unbelievable number of mission-related issues and tasks, but then also taking care of all these young Americans,” Ivany said.
Never forgetting what is at stake, both of these fine leaders remain grateful to be a part of the efforts in taking care of Soldiers.
“It’s extremely meaningful to me,” Ivany said of his duties and interactions during this deployment. “This has been a wonderful professional and personal experience to have come over here with this division where there has been such an emphasis on taking care of each other. That’s what I do for a living is to try to take care of Soldiers.”
Whether casting a tiny pebble or a mountainous boulder into that lake, both of these officers will continue their mission, helping the Soldiers transition back to their Families and promise to do their best to ensure, as the famous Beatles song says, that no member of the Team ever has to find a “place to hide away.”
If you are a Soldier struggling with the life-changing transition back home, even on a small scale, please do not hesitate to contact the MND-B Mental Health Team. They can be reached via email at [email protected] or [email protected], and via VOIP @ 242-4233.
By Spc. Douglas York