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Combat stress gets a Marine treatment

Corporals are taught to recognize the signs in their troops and break down the stigma.

September 10, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON -- The names -- while comic -- were meant to reflect an unfunny reality: the sometimes overbearing stress felt by Marines and sailors serving in Iraq.

Such as Cpl. Angermode, who after a roadside bomb exploded in Ramadi began telling his fellow Marines that he couldn't wait to begin killing Iraqis. Chief Screamer, who dealt with his stress by screaming at everyone. And Lance Cpl. Stoneface, who just shut down emotionally and kept silently to himself.

In his lecture last week to newly promoted corporals, Navy Cmdr. Paul Hammer, the top psychiatrist with the 1st Marine Division, gave the ranks and labels to certain people he'd served with in Iraq.

"This is reality -- stuff you're going to have to deal with over there," Hammer told the 75 corporals, most of whom will deploy to Iraq within a few months.

The corporals, Hammer said, will have to deal with a Gunnery Sgt. Hyperswear, who lost control of his emotions after seeing innocents killed, or Capt. Hideout, so frozen with fear that he no longer accompanies his Marines "outside the wire" and thus has lost everyone's respect.

Or maybe Lance Cpl. Home's-a-wreck, who was obsessed with e-mails from home about a depleted bank account and a cheating spouse.

The goal of the lecture, and other similar training, is to help the corporals learn to spot signs of stress ("Doing stupid things, having weird thoughts") in both themselves and others and then to gently but firmly intervene.

Maybe a Marine or sailor just needs to talk, Hammer said. Maybe they need a few days to recuperate. Maybe they need to be referred up the chain of command, to a medical corpsman or doctor. Maybe a sergeant has to be alerted.

"Everybody has a point at which they break, everybody," Hammer said. "Sometimes you just need to 'turn off the computer and reboot.' "

In the Marine Corps, corporal is the first rank that includes responsibility for others. A corporal, possibly the leader of a four-man rifle team, will have responsibility for lance corporals and privates. A corporal will bear responsibility for the emotional well-being and combat readiness of his troops.

There is not much a corporal can do to help Chaplain Morbid or Sgt. Burnout or Lt. Cmdr. Nervous-nurse, Hammer said. In those cases, it's up to personnel of similar or higher rank to step in.

But the corporal can learn from the problems of Marines and corpsmen of superior rank. A lesson from Chief Screamer is simple: A stressed-out leader can only make things worse for everyone.

"Be aware of your own stress," Hammer said. "That's the main thing in combat: Overcome your own fear to accomplish your mission."

At first, the corporals were reluctant to ask or answer questions. Hammer, who saw duty during the battle for Fallouja in late 2004, had to prod.

"Talk to me, guys," he said. "I know this is bad stuff. But let's learn from it."

Slowly, the corporals opened up.

"I lost a lot of buddies -- it was hard," said one Marine, reflecting on a tour to Iraq.

"I've seen Marines break down," said another.

"When you see a guy sitting in his tent, staring at his K-bar [combat knife], what can you do?" one asked. Hammer responded that it's crucial to watch for signs before they reach a crisis point.

A third of the Marines raised their hands when asked if they'd experienced "crummy" leadership. A third indicated they'd experienced "excellent" leadership.

Stress and post-traumatic stress disorder are an increasing concern to the U.S. military as the Iraq war stretches into its fifth year. Various studies have found a link between PTSD and the number and length of deployments.

The corporals' lecture was part of an overall plan to increase awareness of stress and PTSD. More pre-deployment and post-deployment screening is underway. Navy corpsmen are being trained to spot problems. Desert training at Twentynine Palms, Calif., intended to get Marines ready for Iraq, has been updated to be more realistic.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced in June that dozens of recommendations made by a mental health advisory board were being studied.

The Marines are also trying to break down the stigma linked to seeking help for stress. A Pentagon survey found nearly half of Marines thought their leadership would treat them differently if they sought counseling.

"This finding suggests a failure of leadership on multiple levels," said Col. James Seaton III, Camp Pendleton commanding officer.

The Marine Corps approach is based on a finding by Dr. Albert Glass, an Army psychiatrist during World War II. Glass concluded that individual behavior, including vulnerability to what was then called battle fatigue, can be greatly affected by group behavior.

"The History of Neuropsychiatry in World War 2," written by Glass and several other military psychiatrists, concluded that "morale, leadership and group cohesiveness" can be vital in helping a soldier withstand the psychological impacts of combat.

"Leadership sets the tone," Hammer said as the corporals, most in their early 20s, nodded at the challenges that lie ahead.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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