San Diego Union Tribune

LETTER FROM WASHINGTON    DANA WILKIE
Lessons at lunch

August 27, 2007

When Rep. Susan Davis visits Iraq, her preferred strategy for getting into the hearts and minds of U.S. military troops stationed there is to visit a mess hall.

It's often over lunch or dinner with a couple of troops when Davis, a San Diego Democrat, stumbles on a tidbit about military life that opens her eyes to the needs of servicemen and women who are fighting the war there.

It was at the mess hall at Baghdad's Camp Victory, for instance, where Davis last month met an Air Force lieutenant colonel named Cheryl, a social worker who counsels Army troops suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

As chairwoman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel, Davis has made dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome in the military something of a crusade. But her visits to mental health wards overseas had yielded only brief and not terribly helpful discussions with soldiers suffering from the disorder.

The U.S. Defense Department's Task Force on Mental Health recently concluded that stigma remains a barrier to troops who need mental heath care, that there aren't enough mental health professionals to care for troops exposed to multiple combat tours, and that the military lacks the money and personnel to fully support service members and families who suffer from post-traumatic or combat stress.

BAD TIMING

Cheryl, who had been in the country eight months and was just about to return home to Florida, learned some of these mental health issues firsthand. She discovered that many soldiers were wary of admitting the need for therapy on questionnaires given to them just before returning from a tour of duty.

“If they answered that they were struggling and having difficulty, then they weren't going to go home right away,” said Davis, who has held hearings on how post-traumatic stress syndrome afflicts those who've been in battle. “So why would you tell anybody that?”


 

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The fear of the “mental health disorder” stigma is especially prevalent among Marines, Davis said. Moreover, soldiers from small towns sometimes find it is far easier getting help while on an overseas tour of duty than it is when they return to rural America.

“It's one thing for people to be helped in the field and to be advised about things to look for – sleep patterns, hypersensitivity,” Davis said. “But they're probably going to feel it even more when they get home. The concern is there may not be services for them that are as easy to get” as in the field.

 

BACK WITH BUDDIES

On the brighter said, Davis said, Cheryl estimated that the vast majority of those visiting her clinic – perhaps as much as 85 percent – were able to get well and return to their units.

“One of the things they want more than anything when they come to get help is to be OK so they can go back and be with their buddies,” Davis said.

Davis' most recent visit to Iraq was with five congressional colleagues, half of them Republicans, the other half Democrats. Davis led the delegation.

The congresswoman's mess-hall interviews also have heightened her awareness about the peculiar challenges that women face in the field. Davis has made a special effort to seek out female troops during each of her four visits to Iraq.

“Many women say, 'Well, we don't want to be treated any differently,' yet there are some unique issues they face,” Davis said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, sexual harassment is one. Finding female comrades is another.

“In some cases, there aren't as many women, and so it's a little harder for them,” Davis said. “If you're a man in a unit, you have a number of people you can identify with. For women, that's harder.”

Loneliness is a third.

“In some cases you have someone who's the only woman among 40-odd people in a forward operating base,” Davis said. “I spoke with one woman who has a curtain between her and everybody else” in her sleeping quarters.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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