Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Army Reserves Unit Turns to Stress Management

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Army Reserves Unit Turns to Stress Management

Article excerpt

Soldiers rarely admit to suffering from stress, even though it can affect health, performance, attitude and even one's ability to survive in places that are thick with it.

In 2012, the 349 military suicides were a record number that exceeded the 310 combat deaths. Up to 24 percent of veterans of wars in the past half century suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, once known as combat fatigue, shell shock or war neurosis.

The Journal of Traumatic Stress in 2007 found that 44 percent of soldiers who volunteered to participate in the study reported clinically significant levels of depressive symptoms, post- traumatic stress symptoms or both.

Such overpowering results "suggest a potentially high rate of mental health concerns in soldiers immediately after returning from a combat zone," the study said.

That's where Thomas Stokes has been fighting the war within the war. His military role is to reduce the impact of stress on soldiers' bodies but especially their minds.

Col. Stokes, 54, of Shaler, commands the U.S. Army Reserves 328th Medical Detachment's Combat and Operational Stress Control Unit in Coraopolis. He spent about a year in Afghanistan, beginning in April 2011, on a mission to help soldiers cope with battlefield stress.

He uses methods that Bruce S. Rabin, the University of Pittsburgh immunologist and stress expert, recommends in his stress-management program, "Coping With Stress for Health and Wellness." For the Afghanistan mission, Dr. Rabin supplied the colonel with a case of compact discs featuring deep breathing and guided imagery presented through a soothing voice and music to encourage a person to close eyes, think happy thoughts and focus on being in a happy place.

For soldiers, isolation and persistent anxieties of living in remote, rustic camps in strange locations, all against a backdrop of war, and with little contact with friends or family, represents the perfect recipe for damaging stress.

"The mission is to keep military members in the fight," Col. Stokes said.

The U.S. Army Reserves has 13 COST units, with the Army, Air Force and Navy also deploying such units, said Lt. Col. Matthew W. Lawrence, the Army Reserves media relations officer at Fort Bragg, N.C. They've been helping soldiers since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan.

COST units meet with individual soldiers and groups, with some units using stress dogs to calm soldiers and convince them to discuss their problems. Suicides and homicides represent the most extreme manifestations of stress. But it also can cause a soldier to shut down, withdraw, misbehave or get into serious and even criminal trouble.

"These are things we want to avoid," Lt. Col. Lawrence said. "Everybody has a little bit of stress. But there's an acceptable level that everyone works with. You don't want stress to overcome normal operations for a person."

In Afghanistan, Col. Stokes assisted 800 soldiers in their battle against stress in the Paktya Province, which borders Pakistan in southeastern Afghanistan. …

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