ARLINGTON, Va. — Army officials are taking swift steps to improve mental
health services for troops in Iraq and Kuwait in the wake of a study on
suicides there, officials said Thursday.
Officials said the Army will send in behavioral health experts and improve
logistics to get antidepressants and sleeping pills to combat troops
immediately. Long-term, they said they will work to improve documentation and
tracking systems so troops get better help in or out of theater.
A survey done by a 12-member team of mental health experts last summer and
fall revealed the deficiencies, which also included the absence of
suicide-prevention teams and a lack of radios and vehicles available to mental
To increase availability, the Army is assigning one mental health care
provider per company, a change from the previous plan of one per brigade, said
Army Col. Virgil Patterson, who led the team in the first-ever behavioral
health study done in a combat zone.
The Army has recorded 24 suicides in Iraq and Kuwait between April and March,
with three more under investigation. The Marine Corps recorded two. There were
no reported Air Force or Navy suicides, though one sailor's death is under
Seventy-two percent of the 756 troops surveyed this fall in Iraq and Kuwait
reported low or very low unit morale, and 52 percent reported low personal
morale, findings in line with an unscientific poll conducted last summer by
Stars and Stripes.
The findings were "somewhat" surprising to Patterson. Of the "biased
sampling" of surveyed troops, 82 percent had seen combat, Patterson said.
"It was a pretty miserable set of circumstances at the time," Patterson said
Thursday at a media briefing. "We speculate that all of those contributed to
the factor of low morale." The team conducted the survey between Aug. 27 and
Factors included austere living conditions, brutal heat, a lack of
communications with families back home, combat and traumatic stress and notably
barriers in troops' ability to get help in dealing with the stress, Patterson
The team was dispatched to Iraq in July following a surge in suicides that
month. Between April and June, the Army tallied two suicides a month. The
figure climbed to five in July, a number that Lt. Gen. James Peake, surgeon
general for the Army, described as a "little bump."
Last summer, 1,935 troops responded to a questionnaire circulated by Stars
and Stripes reporters visiting camps throughout Iraq.
The Marine Corps
The Marine Corps already stepped up efforts in that arena with its OSCAR
program, in place for the first time with the roughly 25,000 Marines now in
Iraq and Kuwait.
OSCAR, or Operational Stress Control And Readiness, embeds mental health
providers and specially-trained noncommissioned officers with frontline
warriors, where they're needed most, said Cmdr. Morgan Sammons, deputy director
for clinical operations at the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
OSCAR teaches Marines to recognize signs of current and post traumatic stress
disorders, depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders, and how to seek
help, program developer Cmdr. Jack Pierce said. Most notably, it puts trained
noncommissioned officers with the units.
"The NCOs, the gunnery sergeants, they are someone who speaks their
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