Soldiers get help adjusting to life at home

FORT LEWIS — Home for at least two months, soldiers with a combat brigade still are in the fight.

They’ve stopped fighting in Iraq and begun grappling with the memories and trauma of their 14-month deployment.

In turn, the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), is arming soldiers and families with information so combat-related stress doesn’t destroy relationships or lead to alcoholism or suicide.

Post-traumatic stress disorder has taken a heavy toll on soldiers, many of whom have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq three or four times. The Army now requires soldiers to undergo psychological screening before and after a deployment to identify problems, and has hired more counselors to treat them.

The leadership of an infantry battalion took another step. The officers invited a PTSD expert to speak to the soldiers and the families of the entire brigade after its return. Dr. Bridget Cantrell, of Bellingham, has co-written two books on PTSD and other challenges military families face in reuniting after a deployment.

Her presentations to the brigade end Tuesday and offer more than useful information. They convey a strong message that soldiers no longer need to struggle alone. Soldiers often hide their problems so as not to look weak before their unit, according to one study cited by Cantrell.

“We are not in individual foxholes fighting our own fight,” Lt. Col. Mark Landes, commander of 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, said after one of Cantrell’s presentations. His senior enlisted soldier read Cantrell’s book in Iraq and passed it on to Landes. They were so impressed with her work, they scheduled her visit while they still were deployed.

Landes said now is a critical time for the soldiers. The euphoria and celebration of the reunion has worn off. They might have trouble adjusting to the routine of life at home. Nightmares and flashbacks could surface.

The battalion has encountered some problems within its ranks, he said afterward.

There have been increases in the number of speeding tickets, marital fights and incidents of misbehavior in the barracks.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur when people experience a traumatic event.

Service members can relive the horrors, isolate themselves from family and friends, or be in a state of hyper-arousal where they can’t sleep and are quick to anger.

“Their anxiety level gets so high they think they’re going to explode,” Cantrell said.

Dealing with those issues isn’t the only challenge for reunited families. Deployment can push soldiers and spouses beyond their limits. Their assumptions about lives and their relationships might change and can create friction, Cantrell said.

These “intimate strangers,” as she described them, must reinvent their relationship with open communication and empathy for their partner, she added.

Sara Alvarado, 26, of University Place, knows the feeling. She compared re-establishing the household after the return of her husband, a staff sergeant who has deployed three times, to “full-fledged trains going full speed playing chicken.”

She recalled waking her husband from a nap on his first day back home on leave from Iraq while he was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky. He sprang from the bed and put her in a headlock.

“They didn’t talk about it (PTSD) as much back then as they do now,” said Alvarado, an Army veteran, “and that was back in ‘03.”

Landes said the Army didn’t have a solid understanding of the problems at the onset of the war, but that is changing.

“I think we’re adding to our knowledge base,” he said. “Every time, we’re doing it better.”

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