BAGHDAD — In Maj. Thomas Jarrett’s stress management class surrounded by concrete blast walls, American troops are urged not to accept post-traumatic stress disorder as an inevitable consequence of war.
Instead, Jarrett tells them to strive for “post-traumatic growth.”
During a 90-minute presentation entitled “Warrior Resilience and Thriving,” Jarrett, a former corporate coach, offers this and other unconventional tips on how troops can stay mentally healthy once they return home. He quotes Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Paradise Lost author John Milton and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, among others.
Walking through the crowd of young GIs in the makeshift classroom, Jarrett urges them to fight their “internal insurgents.”
The overriding theme of the course: Troops have the power to determine how they react to the horrors they may experience in Iraq. They can either accept them as traumatizing events, or transform them into learning — even empowering — experiences.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional,” says Staff Sgt. Michael Venutto, a member of Jarrett’s team of instructors.
The class is part of an urgent initiative aimed at halting an epidemic of suicides, which has killed almost as many American troops this year as combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The trend has left top military psychologists puzzled and resulted in a new emphasis on programs that alleviate stress and prevent possible suicides while troops are still on the battlefield, where doctors say many mental health problems begin.
To that end, every soldier arriving in Iraq is now handed a card detailing the warning signs for depression and suicide. Two-star generals appear on the Armed Forces Network talking about their experiences with mental health specialists and how it helped. And mental health experts are spending more time on the front lines to make the counseling process informal and accessible to troops who may be reluctant about seeking out a psychiatrist.
The challenge is to get soldiers to open up about their troubles and to break what Lt. Col. Peyton Hurt, the senior psychiatrist in Iraq, calls the old Army way: “You suck it up and drive on.”
“We’re rolling out program after program and making a very concerted effort at lots of levels,” Hurt said. “The government is just pouring money into this stuff right now.”
In January, suspected suicides in the Army reached an all-time monthly high of 24, doubling the number of combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, according to military data. (Military investigators often take months to confirm suicide as the cause of death.) The number of suspected suicides was 18 in February.
The majority of the suicides have occurred once troops return home to the USA, but Hurt and other doctors say the problems tend to take root while troops are still at war, meaning it’s crucial to address their mental health as early as possible.
The strains that the armed forces have endured as they fight two long wars are well-documented: extended deployments, a rash of brain injuries and sometimes insufficient military health care, among others.
But military psychologists and troops in Iraq interviewed by USA TODAY also mentioned less conventional explanations. They ranged from boredom as combat operations cease in Iraq to, paradoxically, the improvement in communications that allows troops to keep in better touch with their loved ones — but also immerses them in family problems while they’re still at war.