Soldiers with the 14th Combat Support Hospital have begun leaving Iraq, and their spouses want to help them avoid psychological turbulence at home.
The unit’s family readiness group heard a message Monday from CSM(R) Sam Rhodes, an Iraq veteran and former 192nd Infantry Brigade command sergeant major, about post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide prevention in the ranks.
“Sometimes, the spouse’s sacrifice is as great or greater than what the Soldier is doing in theater, because they’re back home alone with the families,” Rhodes said. “If the spouse can recognize he’s having issues, she’s the first line of defense to help him by saying, ‘I’m here for you. Let’s go get help together.’ It eases the anxiety process and helps overcome stigmas.”
Rhodes spent 29 years in the Army and deployed three times to Iraq. He was diagnosed with PTSD during his final tour in 2005. Rhodes now works as an Army civilian at Fort Benning but shares his experiences and struggles in speaking engagements around the country.
This year, he wrote a book titled Changing the Military Culture of Silence, which chronicles his own battle with PTSD and suicidal thoughts.
Rhodes has made almost 150 presentations in the past two years, but Monday marked the first time he spoke to an official FRG meeting.
“The training that we received in the past few meetings focused on the reintegration of the Soldiers and families,” said Tracy Kinney, the 14th Combat Support Hospital’s family readiness support assistant. “We will use this knowledge to look out for not only the Soldiers returning from Iraq, but also the spouses, family members and children who have sacrificed their lives in support of the deployment.”
Last July, about 350 Soldiers deployed to Iraq with the 14th Combat Support Hospital to provide detainee health care in three separate locations. More than 200 Soldiers are assigned to the unit at Fort Benning, while the remainder consisted of Reservists and professional medical specialists from other posts.
A few individuals began returning to Lawson Army Airfield in late fall on Freedom Flights through the CONUS Replacement Center. More than 60 Soldiers are expected back today, while the main body’s homecoming is set for this summer.
Rhodes said the FRG is taking an aggressive approach to dealing with the stress and anxiety that could surface once the excitement of coming home wears off.
“FRGs can make an instant impact if they’re educated and aware of what’s going on,” he said. “The spouses have to get out and talk about it, too.”
Rhodes said it’s crucial for Soldiers to get quality down time after a deployment. “They’ve got to ramp back up with life” before attacking the mission again, he said.
Single Soldiers are especially vulnerable to feelings of isolation and other PTSD symptoms because they don’t have a spouse to share their stories or excitement with, Rhodes told the group.
“Those are the ones who drift away quicker,” he said. “We all need to do a little extra for single Soldiers.”
A record 160 active-duty Soldiers committed suicide last year, up from 140 in 2008 and 77 in 2003, according to an Army report released in January.
Recent statistics released by the Rand think tank show that at least 300,000 troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or major depression, the Army Times reported earlier this month. The numbers are expected to climb as multiple deployments continue.
“Hearing how PTSD has affected someone’s life in their words and seeing their expressions and emotions makes it so much more real,” Kinney said. “I believe the spouses enjoyed the message and learned something new they can use and apply in their lives.”
Zephronnia Carver, an Army spouse for more than 26 years, said she’s seen her husband return from four deployments. The command sergeant major is about to come back from a fifth.
“After listening to Sam, it just reinforced the fact that these battle mind injuries are affecting people throughout the entire rank structure and all are susceptible to them — both young and old,” she said. “Listening to the different types of behaviors that may arise as a result of deployments and what I can do to assist my husband provided me with some great avenues to pursue for treatment or help should it be needed.”
Rhodes urges veterans and active-duty service members to acknowledge and seek help for behavioral health issues.
“I want to change the culture to understand that war is horrific … and it can have a negative impact on you. You’ve got to be resilient,” he said. “Units are doing a great job with awareness, but I don’t think we can ever do enough. It’s my ultimate goal that every Soldier can feel comfortable walking out the door and saying, ‘I need help.’”