Combat Commander: Stigma of Seeking Help Diminishing

WASHINGTON, April 11, 2011 — Efforts to take the stig­ma out of seek­ing help when it’s need­ed and build resilien­cy with­in the force appear to be pay­ing off, the com­man­der of a brigade that’s seen heavy action in Afghanistan told Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice.
Army Col. Sean M. Jenk­ins, com­man­der of the 101st Air­borne Division’s 4th Brigade Com­bat Team, report­ed promis­ing signs that sol­diers are heed­ing the mes­sage being sent from Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates on down that seek­ing men­tal, phys­i­cal or spir­i­tu­al care is a sign of strength, not weak­ness.

Forward Operating Base Sharana in Afghanistan
Army Chap­lain (Maj.) Ran­dall H. Robi­son, Task Force Cur­ra­hee brigade chap­lain, 101st Air­borne Division’s 4th Brigade Com­bat Team, , speaks with Cur­ra­hee sol­diers dur­ing a three-day, semi-month­ly Toc­coa Tough resilien­cy course at For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Sha­rana in Afghanistan.
U.S. Army pho­to by Sgt. Christi­na Sin­ders
Click to enlarge

“We are mak­ing progress in mov­ing to a point where there is not a stig­ma, and there should­n’t be,” Jenk­ins said. “Every unit is dif­fer­ent, and every squad and team is dif­fer­ent. But I think we’ve come to a point where the stig­ma is dimin­ish­ing and where sol­diers rec­og­nize that it’s some­times okay to raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I can’t go on this [mis­sion].’ ”

Jenk­ins’ brigade, the last to deploy to Afghanistan as part of the 30,000-troop surge there, has tak­en heavy casu­al­ties since arriv­ing last sum­mer in the remote Pak­ti­ka province that bor­ders Pak­istan. Fif­teen “Cur­ra­hee Brigade” sol­diers have been killed, with scores more wound­ed and more than 40 sol­diers flown out of the the­ater for advanced med­ical care. In addi­tion, two sol­diers attempt­ed sui­cide, and Jenk­ins said he’s been sur­prised at how many have met with the brigade chap­lain, psy­chol­o­gist or phys­i­cal ther­a­pist for emo­tion­al, spir­i­tu­al, men­tal health or phys­i­cal help.

“I am glad the help is there, and I cer­tain­ly want every Cur­ra­hee to say it is acces­si­ble, and to say, ‘I don’t think I will be looked at dif­fer­ent­ly if I seek it,’ ” Jenk­ins said. “That is the hur­dle, but I think we have got­ten bet­ter at that.”

The brigade began build­ing resilien­cy skills long before arriv­ing in Afghanistan, he said. The unit’s pre-deploy­ment train­ing includ­ed a “Toc­coa Tough” pro­gram — named for the Geor­gia town where the sto­ried unit that came to be known dur­ing World War II as the “Band of Broth­ers” was found­ed in 1942. The pro­gram empha­sizes men­tal as well as phys­i­cal resilience for sol­diers and their fam­i­lies.

That train­ing con­tin­ues in the com­bat the­ater, where the brigade holds a three-day, semi-month­ly course that rein­forces the prin­ci­ples of men­tal, phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al health, and ses­sions cov­er­ing every­thing from phys­i­cal health and nutri­tion to prop­er sleep meth­ods and how to deal with stress. Atten­dees are encour­aged to take what they learn and apply it, not only to them­selves, but also to their peers and sub­or­di­nates.

“It’s a con­stant process,” Jensen said of resilien­cy-build­ing efforts that will con­tin­ue through­out the deploy­ment and after rede­ploy­ment to Fort Camp­bell, Ky. Resilien­cy focus­es heav­i­ly on junior lead­ers tak­ing care of their sol­diers and sol­diers look­ing out for each oth­er, he said. “It’s a team effort,” he said. “But it is real­ly inter­ac­tion with lead­ers — junior lead­ers, team lead­ers, squad lead­ers. There is so much on their shoul­ders.”

Jenk­ins called junior lead­ers and non­com­mis­sioned offi­cers his front line of defense in rec­og­niz­ing sol­diers in need of help. That, he said, requires know­ing each sol­dier — his or her fam­i­ly sit­u­a­tion, likes, dis­likes and chal­lenges. “That is what you have to know, because then you can pick up when they are not act­ing right or some­thing is both­er­ing them. The chal­lenge is to know your peo­ple,” he said. “And that is all part of lead­er­ship: How do you help them through that sit­u­a­tion?”

Jenk­ins and his com­man­ders have seen the neg­a­tive effects of news cov­er­age — a sui­cide bomber who kills inno­cent civil­ians, a Quran burn­ing in Flori­da, inflam­ma­to­ry pho­tographs of sol­diers doing the wrong thing — on their troops. “Those [news sto­ries] impact every sol­dier,” he said. The death of a unit mem­ber, or even ene­my con­tact when every­one sur­vives intact, also can trig­ger issues. So after every “event,” Jenk­ins requires his sol­diers to pause and eval­u­ate what hap­pened and how they feel about it.

“This is about sit­ting down and talk­ing with them,” he said. “It’s talk­ing with them as a unit, then as a small­er unit, then as indi­vid­u­als.” When a unit los­es a sol­dier, Jenk­ins sends in his men­tal- and spir­i­tu­al-health team to pro­vide imme­di­ate sup­port and, as part of the memo­r­i­al process, tem­porar­i­ly pulls that unit from com­bat oper­a­tions.

“We pull the unit off the line and let them know, ‘You don’t have to go out until you are ready to go out,’ ” he said. “Every­body deals with it dif­fer­ent­ly, but we are empow­er­ing those junior lead­ers to help their sol­diers deal with these stress­es.”

Sol­diers rarely raise their hand and ask not to go out on a mis­sion. So Jenk­ins encour­ages his junior lead­ers to take the first step, approach­ing an indi­vid­ual sol­dier when they think it appro­pri­ate and sug­gest­ing, “Why don’t you sit this one out?”

“It’s not deroga­to­ry,” he said. “It is empow­er­ing your lead­ers and iden­ti­fy­ing, “How can we do this bet­ter?” And I think the Army has done a phe­nom­e­nal job in mak­ing this hap­pen.” Jenk­ins sees the flow of Red Cross mes­sages that arrive in the the­ater, and knows the span of issues that impact his 4,200 sol­diers. As a result, he also empow­ers his com­man­ders to iden­ti­fy when a sol­dier needs to go home to deal with a prob­lem there.

“A lot of things hap­pen back home that will dis­tract peo­ple for­ward. And you don’t want your peo­ple dis­tract­ed,” he said. “You want them focused. So if a com­man­der comes for­ward and says, ‘Sir, I need to send so-and-so home,’ I say, ‘Roger that.’ ”

The approach appears to be work­ing as the brigade approach­es the final months of what Jenk­ins called an “incred­i­bly suc­cess­ful deploy­ment.”

“This is a unit that had just five months notice to deploy, that was not on any patch chart, and where rough­ly 60 per­cent deployed to Afghanistan the last time just 17 months pri­or,” Jenk­ins said.

“But they are doing a phe­nom­e­nal job, and it all falls back on the lead­ers,” he said. “They make some incred­i­ble deci­sions in try­ing to do and accom­plish the right thing. They just do it, day-in and day-out, and they do it well. It’s just remark­able.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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