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
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
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?”
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
“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,”
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