November 26, 2008, Fort Campbell, KY – Some 15,000 U.S. soldiers are heading home to this sprawling base after spending more than a year at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and military health officials are bracing for a surge in brain injuries and psychological problems among those troops.
Facing prospects that one in five of the 101st Airborne Division soldiers will suffer from stress-related disorders, the base has nearly doubled its psychological health staff. Army leaders are hoping to use the base’s experiences to assess the long-term impact of repeated deployments.
The three 101st Airborne combat brigades, which have begun arriving home, have gone through at least three tours in Iraq. The 3rd Brigade also served seven months in Afghanistan, early in the war. Next spring, the 4th Brigade will return from a 15-month tour in Afghanistan. So far, roughly 10,000 soldiers have come back; the remainder are expected by the end of January.
Army leaders say they will closely watch Fort Campbell to determine the proper medical staffing levels needed to aid soldiers who have endured repeated rotations in the two war zones.
“I don’t know what to expect. I don’t think anybody knows,” said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, as he flew back to Washington from a recent tour of the base’s medical facilities. “That’s why I want to see numbers from the 101st’s third deployment.”
What happens with the 101st Airborne, he said, will let the Army help other bases ready for similar homecomings in the next year or two, when multiple brigades from the 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division return.
Noting that some soldiers in the 101st Airborne units have been to war four or five times, Chiarelli said he is most worried the military will not be able to find enough health care providers to deal effectively with the troops needing assistance.
Many of the military bases are near small or remote communities that do not have access to the number of health professionals who might be needed as a great many soldiers return home.
More than 63,600 active duty Army soldiers have done three or more tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. That is nearly 12 per cent of the total number of soldiers who have deployed at least once. Roughly four in 10 soldiers who have gone to war have served more than one deployment – and that number is growing steadily.
One solution under discussion is the formation of mobile medical and psychological teams that can go to Army bases when they are expecting a surge in activity from returning units.
At Fort Campbell, the director of health services, Col. Richard Thomas, has roughly doubled his authorized staff of psychologists and behavioural specialists to 55 and is trying to hire a few more.
“I think we have enough staff to meet the demands of the soldiers here, but I could use more, and I’ll hire more if I can,” said Thomas. “I’ll hire them until they tell me to stop.”
He said he expects the increased staffing levels to last at least through next year.
For the first time, Thomas said, every soldier returning home will have an individual meeting with a behavioural health specialist and then go through a second such session 90 days to 120 days later.
The second one is generally the time when indications of stress surface, after the initial euphoria of the homecoming wears off and sleeplessness, nightmares, and other symptoms show up.
“We’re seeing a lot of soldiers with stress-related issues,” he said. “They’re not bipolar or schizophrenic. But they’re deploying three and four times and the stress is tremendous. They’re having relationship issues, financial issues, marital problems – all stress-related.”
According to Dr. Bret Logan, deputy commander for managed care at the base, extended war zone stints that have lasted as long as 38 months over the course of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a severe toll.
More than 3,000 of the 15,000 troops returning home, Logan estimated, probably will experience headaches, sleep disorders, irritability, memory loss, relationship strains or other symptoms linked to stress disorders.
Medical staff at Fort Campbell say they also worry that there will be a new surge of suicides – an escalating problem in recent years, largely related to the stresses of war.
Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chair of VoteVets.org, said more soldiers will have stress-related problems, and the military must be vigilant in diagnosing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder to head off more serious issues.
“The longer you are there (at war), the more PTSD you’re going to see. You wonder when it’s going to be your time,” he said.
Each returning soldier is evaluated through a seven-day reintegration program. It includes medical checkups, tests, lectures on suicide prevention and relationships, and other sessions to help them transition back into life at the base and with their families.
During his visit to Campbell, Chiarelli took a spin on one of the base’s simulators, which are used for soldiers having neurological or stress problems. The simulator can be used to test soldiers’ reflexes or as a way to work someone back into everyday situations.
With occupational therapist Eileen Hayes watching over his shoulder, Chiarelli adeptly negotiated the city streets, sudden turns and other obstacles moving at him on the small screen.
The simulators, said Logan, put patients in high stress scenarios to test their decision-making ability while under duress.
While soldiers have been routinely deploying for 15-month tours, most Marines serve about seven months and pilots deploy for about four months, although some may serve for tours of six months or longer.
Late this past summer, Pentagon leaders ordered a change, saying any soldier who deployed in August or after would serve 12-month tours. Army leaders say they want to reduce that to nine months, but doing so will be difficult considering the strains of fighting two wars at once.
Logan said that some 85 per cent of those soldiers with stress disorder symptoms will recover with the help of some treatment or medication. But the other 15 per cent will require more intensive help.