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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Can the Army's mental-health corps heal itself? Not soon. Schoomaker has shifted some 100 physical-health jobs to mental-health billets, and combat tours for some medical specialists, including psychiatrists, have been cut from 12 months to six. But the Army has been forced to hire regular civilians to help, many of whom know little about the military and its culture. One soldier walked out on a civilian therapist who thought an RPG--a rocket-propelled grenade, one of which killed his buddy--was a small car.

Army mental-health providers have been receiving "provider resiliency training" since late 2008 to ward off compassion fatigue. "The Army recognized they need to take care of their staff," says Major Chris Warner, chief of behavioral medicine at Georgia's Fort Stewart. Psychologist Charles Figley, a former Marine sergeant in Vietnam and pioneer in the study of burnout among military counselors, credits the Army for taking some long overdue steps to help its healers. But there is no magic formula to fix the damage to soldiers' minds--itself the product of wars that have lasted far longer than expected and are being fought by volunteer troops. A bigger Army would mean fewer combat tours for each soldier, but that's not going to happen.

One bright spot: as the demand for troops eases, soldiers will spend more time at home between deployments, and such "dwell time" reduces mental ailments. There is also a growing network of private counselors across the country listening to soldiers, often for free. Barbara Van Dahlen, a Washington psychologist, launched the nonprofit Give an Hour organization in 2005 to offer free counseling to U.S. troops and their families. "We decided to step up and help," she says, "because these are our folks too."

McCord got out of the mental hospital after four days and left the Army last June. His psychological turmoil, he says, played a role in his 2008 divorce. He is no longer taking antidepressants. "The Army's attitude was, 'Let's give this guy drugs and hope they work because we're overbooked and don't have time to deal with it,'" he says. "If they had understood what I was going through, I think all of this could have been avoided."

Treating Soldier Stress

To see more photos of the behavioral-health facilities at Fort Campbell, go to

This article originally appeared in the August 16, 2010 issue of TIME.

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