The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

June 7, 2008

Vance officials learn to deal with stress in a time of war

By Jeff Mullin

Senior Writer

In 2007 the number of U.S. service men and women diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder climbed 47 percent.

Nearly 14,000 cases were diagnosed in 2007 in all the services combined, up from around 9,500 in 2006.

The rising numbers have focused increased attention on the military’s mental health system and the way it deals with PTSD, defined by National Institute of Mental Health as “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.”

Vance Air Force Base’s primary mission is pilot training, but that doesn’t mean Vance personnel aren’t being deployed. In fact, in 2007 approximately 115 Vance airmen were deployed to various parts of the world, including Iraq and Afghani-stan. At present, 25 troops are deployed from Vance.

Some of these deployments involve what are called “in lieu of” taskings, meaning airmen are sent to do jobs usually done by the Army, such as base security.

The men and women of Vance’s mental health clinic don’t see many cases of PTSD, but it is an issue they deal with.

“Sometimes they are not sleeping well, sometimes they are having difficulty re-integrating with their family,” said Maj. Ronald Johnson, Vance’s chief of mental health services.

“It’s been happening,” said Capt. Christy Cruz, a social worker with the Vance mental health clinic. “I can’t say there’s no PTSD here.”

Cruz recently returned from a two-week Depart-ment of Defense PTSD conference in Washington, D.C.

“The DoD is pushing that,” Cruz said. “They want to get us all in the same boat and kind of expose us to what’s going on mental health-wise with the war.”

The meeting, which also dealt with traumatic brain injury, involved mental health professionals from all branches of service.

Topics covered included what to expect when the mental health professionals themselves are deployed.

“Practicing out there is different than practicing in an office,” Cruz said. “Out there you’re practicing in a ‘tin can’ (trailer) or in a tent or out there after people just came back from a mission where they just saw their friend get killed or injured.”

Johnson got a first-hand look at front-line mental health care during his seven-month deployment to Iraq last year. He worked with an Army unit in a forward operating base as part of a combat stress team.

“We had folks go outside the wire pretty much on a daily basis,” Johnson said, “and folks who would get in hot spots again. And most of them did pretty well. They felt very free coming over to talk.”

Counseling front-line troops, Johnson said, is a matter of preparing them for their reaction to traumatic experiences.

“What we try to help them understand is if they have experiences that are of a traumatic nature, they are probably going to respond some way,” Johnson said. “Part of it is to accept you will respond in a certain way and that it’s not unusual for people to respond in a certain way. Just that can help out a lot.”

During her time in Washington, Cruz was able to tour Walter Reed Army Medical Center and meet troops just back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We talked about their experience dealing with mental health and our medical services, what we could do better, what is better for their family,” Cruz said. “It was great training. It was good to work with other branches of the military because we’re all working for the same thing, we’re trying to catch everybody.”

“We’re trying to make sure nobody falls through the cracks,” Johnson said.