The Promise

Soldier's story strikes a chord

Common issues emerge after Iraq

Washington CorrespondentNovember 25, 2007 

The letter landed in Army Sgt. 1st Class Chad Stephens' mailbox in the Williamston armory last week. It ran three pages. It was from a Marine who had served in Beirut.

The Marine described his own nightmares and experiences and made reference to Stephens' 11-year-old son.

"He said I need to make sure that little guy grows up," Stephens said. "I thought it was a good letter. He gave me good advice."

The News & Observer ran a series called The Promise two weeks ago that detailed Stephens' struggles since an N.C. National Guard battle in Baqubah, Iraq, in June 2004. One of Stephens' gunners, Spc. Daniel A. Desens Jr., was killed in the fight. Stephens, a platoon sergeant, was awarded a Silver Star after trying to save Desens.

Several of Stephens' soldiers left messages on The N&O's Web site share.triangle.com last week discussing their own problems.

"I was there with Chad in Baqubah Iraq and I do suffer from PTSD," wrote one sergeant. "It is real and I too call on Chad from time to time for help."

Another soldier wrote, "I still find myself living around our patrol schedule, almost 3 years later, I cant work more than 20 hours a week, I have trouble with short term memory, I get angry very easily where before it was a rare [occurrence]. Things I used to enjoy are now hard to do."

Many of those responding to the series said war adversely affects many soldiers, and that, often, veterans only feel comfortable talking with other vets.

Soldiers often see a military bureaucracy wrestling with how to help troubled vets, especially Guard soldiers living civilian lives, scattered from other members of their units.

"It's a counseling thing," said Staff Sgt. Leo Schnack, who served with Stephens and lives in Durham. "Vets get along with other vets. They're able to bypass that wall, that first barrier of communication."

Currently, National Guard troops don't drill for 90 days after returning home from their combat tours. The theory is that soldiers need time with their families and home lives.

A proposal in Congress would shorten time away from the unit to 30 days because experts are beginning to realize that soldiers need to spend time with other soldiers.

"I just think that's one of the most important things there is, allowing the guys to get back with their battle buddies, to talk with their friends, the people they lived their life with," said Andrew Jackson, the N.C. National Guard's transition assistance adviser.

The bill, called the "Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program," authorizes $23 million and would require pre-deployment counseling for soldiers and families, post-deployment follow-up care and the hiring of more than 200 people to administer the program. It has been referred to the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

Mental health gets higher priority

Stephens has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He has wrestled with skittishness and nightmares since returning to his home in Ahoskie from Iraq.

"One thing: If you've got a problem, you ought to get help," Stephens said. "The other thing is, the military's not helping everybody that needs help, especially the Guard."

Pentagon surveys indicate that up to 20 percent of the men and women who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan could come home with signs of PTSD.

And about one-third of active-duty troops and up to half of National Guard soldiers could return with a broader array of mental health symptoms, according to surveys.

"Everybody's had it," said Sgt. Randal Caldwell, a member of Stephens' platoon who was one of Desens' closest friends. "It's just being in a completely new and different environment [in combat]."

Maj. Gen. William Ingram, adjutant general of the N.C. National Guard, said in an interview last month that getting mental health services for his troops has become one of his top priorities. About 12,000 soldiers and airmen are citizen-soldiers in the state's Guard, and Ingram stressed that he does not want them to be afraid to seek help.

Vet centers across the state are filled with veterans and mental health counselors, including special counselors who have themselves served in either Afghanistan or Iraq and are trying to reach out to soldiers and Marines in far-flung cities and towns.

Fears about getting treatment

A counselor from the Greenville Vet Center, which serves 28 counties, drove the 100 miles to Jacksonville to do an initial mental health assessment with Caldwell, an effort the 27-year-old sergeant appreciated.

But Caldwell has a full-time job at a furniture store, can't take time off to drive for free sessions at the Vet Center and doesn't have the money to pay for ongoing counseling in the private sector.

Caldwell said he, like others, worries that going to a VA medical center and disclosing too much would hurt his career. Caldwell is considering re-enlisting when his contract ends in January.

In the meantime, he calls Stephens and his other friends for help.

Jackson, the Guard's transition adviser, said he understands.

"Some of them are a little skittish about going to the VA hospital because they're afraid if they talk about PTSD, they're scared the next thing they're going to see is themselves being removed from the unit," Jackson said.

"I definitely recommend the vet center, or their local veterans group," Jackson said. "They've been there, done that. They can help just by listening."

bbarrett@mcclatchydc.com or (202) 383-0012

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