U.S. Army battling stress

Sgt. Sylvia Portillo went first. Secured with elastic cords to a railroad bridge more than 60 metres over a gorge south of Mount St. Helens, Portillo’s mission was to dive over the edge.

U.S. Army Sgt. Sylvia Portillo

FORT LEWIS, Wash. — Sgt. Sylvia Portillo went first.

Secured with elastic cords to a railroad bridge more than 60 metres over a gorge south of Mount St. Helens, Portillo’s mission was to dive over the edge. She pretended to throw up, getting a nervous laugh out of the troops behind her. Then, keeping her own anxiety in check, she bungee-jumped into the lush green below.

Dozens of soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 12th Field Artillery Regiment and the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team took the plunge that day last fall. Most had been recently deployed in Iraq. Few had bungee-jumped before.

As he stood at the edge, Sgt. Steve Damron felt a mix of trepidation and adrenaline that he likened to patrols through Baghdad. “It’s a chance to calm our brothers down,” he said, “to push that adrenaline out.”

That’s the idea.

More than 323,000 Army soldiers have served more than one deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to U.S. Defence Department statistics entering June, and the Army had the highest rate of suicides on record last year. Researchers reported this month that 37 per cent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking care at Veterans Affairs clinics for the first time are being diagnosed with mental health disorders.

The situation has the military searching for ways to supplement and redefine its counselling and self-awareness evaluation programs, and now, for ways to bring the thrilling terror of war home through safe outlets.

The battle-weary 4th Stryker Brigade based at Fort Lewis, outside Tacoma, was picked for the third and final trial of a new Army program called Warrior Adventure Quest. It sends soldiers just back from war on outings of paintball, mountain biking, scuba diving, sky diving, whitewater rafting, alpine skiing, snowboarding and rock climbing.

Army officials say they’ve learned that soldiers who are used to life in a war zone suddenly find life at home to be moving at a glacial pace. The theory is that extreme experiences such as thrill sports can help troops overcome what one soldier in the 4th Stryker Brigade called “the Rambo syndrome” — the emotional need for some of the tension and fear-tinged excitement of combat.

“If they want adrenaline, let’s give them adrenaline. Let’s give it to them in a manner in which they are going to survive,” said John O’Sullivan, the Army’s program manager for outdoor recreation and the Warrior Adventure Quest.

Damron said bungee jumping worked on an emotional level.

“It’s like your first time going in a house” in Iraq, he said. “You have no clue what’s on the other side. You hit one room, awesome sweep. Now, OK, you’ve got to hit another room. You’re walking in the middle of the night. You have no clue what’s out there — like bungee jumping.”

Warrior Adventure Quest is really a post-deployment extension of an emotion-based battlefield assessment the military has developed for small-unit leaders. It goes beyond the traditional review of tactics to include immediate assessments of soldiers’ reactions and the acknowledgment of the need for “self and buddy aid.”

The team that began developing Warrior Adventure Quest recommended debriefings after each activity. The sessions are aimed at helping soldiers realize the connection between the extreme sport experience and challenges of reconnecting to their daily lives back home.

“It’s a final reset” before returning to society, said Lt. Col. Ed Busher, the deputy director of the behavioural health department in the Army’s Office of the Surgeon General, who travelled to Fort Lewis for the program’s final test.

“It’s been unanimously well received,” he said. “Every iteration, there’s been this experience of, ’Oh, this reminded me of Iraq.”’

The Army began implementing Warrior Adventure Quest into platoon-sized units of 30 to 40 soldiers in January, at Grafenwoehr and Ansbach in Germany, and then at Fort Drum, N.Y., Fort Stewart, Ga., Fort Campbell, Ky., Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. and Fort Bragg, N.C.

By this fall, the Army will have started Warrior Adventure Quest at 26 posts worldwide.

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