Smoking Cessation in a Combat Zone

By Spc. Lee Elder, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

BAQUABAH, Iraq – A combat zone is not the ideal place for Soldiers to quit a bad habit, but a dozen took the plunge anyway during a recent Smoking Cessation Class.

Maj. Gabrielle Bryen, mental health officer
BAQUABAH, Iraq Maj. Gabrielle Bryen, mental health officer for 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, consults with a Soldier who seeks to quit smoking. She gives smoking cessation classes twice each month here.

Led by Maj. Gabrielle Bryen, a mental health officer assigned to 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Task Force Band of Brothers, the classes offer smokers hope, good advice and support, along with medical treatment to ease their addiction and help them “kick the habit.”

“There are no bars and no girlfriends or spouses here like back in the world,” Bryen said. “In Iraq, there’re a lot less distractions.”

The classes are offered twice each month at Forward Operating Base Warhorse. Those expecting a lot of clinical language filled with medical terms should think again. Bryen gives the class in a very informal manner, using terms familiar to Soldiers.

“Guys tend to be responsive to that,” Bryen said. “It holds their attention better.”

A Bethlehem, Pa., native, Bryen is a trained social worker. She was with the Fort Carson, Colorado-based unit during its first rotation to Iraq when there was no effort made to help Soldiers stop smoking.

“I didn’t teach the class during OIF I,” Bryen said. “Life was so Spartan; smoking was one of the few comforts Soldiers had then.”

Bryen estimated the success rate with smoking cessation between 50-60 percent. Despite the pressures of being deployed in a combat zone, many Soldiers are determined to quit.

One who did quit was Ben Burney, a laundry foreman who works for Kellogg, Brown & Root. He returned to the classes to give his testimony as a reformed smoker and to offer encouragement to those who want to quit.

Quitting tobacco involves a total lifestyle change, Burney said. He urged those who wanted to give up cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to find a person who has never smoked to be their partner.

“They will show you no mercy,” Burney said. “They won’t let you get by with excuses.”

Bryen normally gives Soldiers wanting to quit a patch. They are normally worn on the shoulders or the hips. Sometimes, she prescribes medication to accompany patches for those who are heavy tobacco users.

Among those seeking to quit this day are Spc. Adin Colon, a cannon crewman with A Company. 329th Field Artillery.

Colon said he has been addicted to cigarettes since he was 11 years old. Now 25, he said considerations for his future have prompted him to try to give up smoking.

“I want to be around for a couple of years longer,” Colon said. “Maybe one day, I would like to have a family as well.”

Colon said he knows quitting will not be easy. He said cigarettes have always helped him in his struggles – mainly dealing with people – but he is taking the plunge now.

The latest smoking cessation class had its biggest turnout to date, said Sgt. Ami Dunbar, a mental health specialist who serves as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the brigade’s mental health section.

“It has to be very difficult to stop smoking in a stressful environment like this,” Dunbar said. “There are a lot of people who would like to stop smoking before they go home.”

With Bryen’s help, will and determination, anyone willing quit smoking in Iraq has a very good chance of returning home a nonsmoker after participating in the Smoking Cessation Class.

Specialist Lee Elder is a photographer and writer with the 133d Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, based in Iraq.