Invisible Wounds: Mental Health and the Military

An understaffed mental-health corps is struggling to fight the stigma of therapy and bring relief to thousands of damaged soldiers

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Gareth McConnell for TIME

The base's medical team monitors the progress of recovery by seeing how soldiers would handle combat scenarios

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The root cause is no mystery: repeat deployments drive up cases of posttraumatic stress, which makes soldiers six times more likely to kill themselves. So, quietly, all over the world, the Army has opened 48 medical sites dedicated to treating soldiers' injured brains. Ground zero for this is Fort Campbell, Ky., home to the 101st Airborne Division. After 11 suicides at the base during the first five months of 2009, a top general ordered a three-day halt to all activities to discuss the problem and issued an astonishing order to the entire division: "Suicides at Fort Campbell have to stop now."

The Army has spent $7 million building at Fort Campbell what it calls its first behavioral-health campus (soldiers call it "the mental-health mall") with a half-dozen new clinics filled with the latest technology for diagnosing and treating posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. The fort's mental-health staff has grown from 31 in January 2008 to 95 today. Yet suicides continued to rise. "The way Fort Campbell deals with the soldiers are why there's so many suicides there," Sergeant James Kendall, now studying to be an Army nurse at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, says. "Pretty much everyone who went to mental health said the same thing I did--they're just shoving them out the door." Kendall, a medic in the 101st, returned from Afghanistan in March 2009 and says he was brushed off when he initially sought help. It was only after he downed a full bottle of Army-prescribed Vicodin, he says, that the Army took his worries seriously. (His wife resuscitated him by injecting him with an antioverdose medication he had stashed in his medic's bag.)

Dr. Bret Logan, a psychiatrist in charge of medical hiring at Fort Campbell, says few medical professionals want to settle near the rural base--an hour north of Nashville--for far less money than they could make in a big city. The post has hired several foreign-born doctors, which has created cultural as well as language barriers. With only four suicides so far this year, the epidemic at Fort Campbell seems to have abated. But the trend at the base remains clear; the workload per mental-health worker has nearly doubled from 2008 to 2010, jumping from 19 to 32 visits per week.

A Patchwork Solution

McCord returned to Kansas five months after rescuing the children, but the nightmares continued. He sought help, and after a two-week wait for his first appointment, he was told by his civilian Army psychologist to calm his nighttime shakes with a blanket and a scented candle. Several weeks later, he saw a civilian Army psychiatrist, who prescribed three antidepressants that McCord says turned him into a zombie. Soon he began downing pills with whiskey and walking around his house brandishing his military knife with its 7-in. (18-cm) blade. His wife tricked him into driving to the hospital, where an Army counselor committed him to a private mental center.

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