July 26, 2008 – Confronted with rising rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, hundreds of Marine and Navy officers meet in San Diego next month to address ways to limit war-born physical and psychological damage.
The officers, along with military and civilian medical specialists, are meeting Aug. 12-14 at the Manchester Grand Hyatt to discuss the latest treatments for troops suffering as result of their combat experience.
The conference also will focus on the children and spouses of troops who have been disabled by post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.
In its first-ever such conference last year, Marine Corps leaders vowed to eliminate an institutional mind–set that prevented some troops from seeking help for stress-related problems.
This year’s “Combat Operational Stress Control Conference” includes updates on what service leaders have done in the months since last year’s inaugural symposium in Washington.
The effort comes as rates of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder among Marines continue to rise, nearly seven years after the invasion of Afghanistan and more than five years after the invasion of Iraq. Through June of this year, 25 Marines have committed suicide, a pace that would surpass the rate of 16.5 suicides per 100,000 troops reported by the service in 2007.
From 1996 through 2006, the suicide rate per 100,000 troops was 14.3 percent.
Between March 2003 and April 2007, the Marine Corps diagnosed 5,714 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to figures provided by the service. And in April, the Rand Corporation released a study contending that nearly 20 percent of all service members —- approximately 300,000 troops —- have reported suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
Marine Corps Commandant James Conway will not be at the conference, but several civilian and uniformed members from the service’s headquarters are scheduled to attend.
Among the brass making presentations are Camp Pendleton’s Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, commanding general of Marine Corps installations throughout the West, and the top enlisted man in the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent.
War zone treatment
Panel sessions include presentations on early treatment in war zones and ways to prevent and recognize combat stress at the small unit level.
In May, Navy doctors in Iraq told a visiting North County Times reporter that they are increasingly treating troops diagnosed with mild or moderate cases of post-traumatic stress by keeping them with their units in the war zone. Having a support group of their peers around them was proving key to helping those whose cases did not require evacuation back to the U.S., the doctors said.
Angela Drake, a neuropsychologist who manages the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center programs at Camp Pendleton and in San Diego, said that approach is working.
“It’s a really positive move that goes along with early identification and treatment,” she said. “Those soldiers, sailors and Marines have such a bond with each other, and that kind of support is critical. I think we’ll see more of it in the future.”
Drake will present a report at the conference on what small-unit-level commanders need to know about post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, the latter a result of the head violently striking an object, the brain being pierced or exposure to the detonation of a grenade or roadside bomb.
“My presentation is intended to help line officers be aware of what they should watch for and what to do when they notice these issues,” she said. “The message is that early screening and identification is vitally important, because early treatment results in the best outcomes.”
Conference sessions aimed at family members include presentations on helping children deal with parents’ deployments and one billed as “psychological first aid for military families.” Another addresses the effect of combat stress on couples and marriages.
The trigger pullers
Bill Rider of the American Combat Veterans of War, a local nonprofit group that works with active-duty and former Marines on stress issues, said Marine Corps leader have made huge strides when it comes to setting aside the warrior mentality to treat troops with mental health issues.
“The direction the Marine Corps is going is very promising,” Rider said last week. “It says a lot about the leadership at the higher levels.”
At the same time, Rider said all the services need to pay more attention to the problems that arise for those involved in heavy fighting.
“All troops are affected somewhat,” he said. “But the trigger pullers, the ones killing people or getting shot at and participating in collateral damage (civilian deaths), are impacted 100 percent across the board.”
One improvement, he said, would be to increase the recognition of those troops.
“I feel very emphatically that one important way to help these young warriors get better is to recognize them for their heroism,” he said. “A lot of officers are recognized and given decorations and commendations, while a lot of the enlisted men do not. There’s something wrong with that.”
Many of the current and former Marines who seek out his group’s services tell him that one way to validate their service and the mental health issues arising from combat is to speed delivery of disability compensation, Rider said.