Military, civilians partner to treat mental health

Associated Press, Kristin Hall

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (AP) — Fort Campbell is reaching out to the medical community in Kentucky to help address the challenges of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury among returning service members and veterans.

Experts from the military's top behavioral health and brain injury research agencies came to the Army installation on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line Tuesday to teach civilian behavioral health professionals about the military's current research and treatments into the invisible wounds that have become prevalent among troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Col. Paul R. Cordts, the commander of Blanchfield Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell, Ky., noted that President Barack Obama issued an executive order in August that directed ways to improve mental health care for troops within the military and veterans under the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We cannot do this alone on Fort Campbell," Cordts said. "We depend on the community and we need your help in addressing these issues, especially around our mental health services."

Faced with rising suicide rates, the Army and Fort Campbell held suicide prevention and awareness training for all its units last week. The Army recorded 131 potential suicides through the first eight months of 2012, and locally there have been 12 confirmed or suspected suicides among Fort Campbell soldiers so far this year.

More than 253,000 troops have been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury since 2000, but a majority of those injuries did not occur during a deployment, according to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center.

Eddie Reynolds, a family outreach coordinator with the Brain Injury Alliance of Kentucky in Louisville, said he's eager to learn about the military's efforts to treat traumatic brain injury because both sides can benefit.

"We are trying to bridge a gap, where there are a lot of similarities of issues, especially the cognitive, the emotional issues, especially in the mild brain injury when the person looks fine," he said.

Retired Maj. Gen. Mark Graham and his wife, Carol, spoke about losing both of their sons, one to suicide and one while in combat in Iraq. Mark Graham's son, Kevin, was an ROTC cadet at the University of Kentucky when he committed suicide. Their older son, Jeffrey, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.

Mark Graham said there is no quick way to eliminate the stigma often attached to seeking out mental health care, but the key is partnerships with the communities where the military families live.

"These soldiers are going to come back into those communities someday, whether they stay in until they retire or if they are National Guard or reservists. They are part of the community anyway," Graham said.

Dr. Jim Kelly, a neurologist who serves as the director of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Md., the military's top treatment and research center for TBI and psychological health, said enlisting the help of civilian partners and sharing research is a key initiative for the White House and the Defense Department.

Staff Sgt. Phillip Ruiz, 44, has been treated for traumatic brain injury after serving three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he secretly visited a behavioral health care provider after his second deployment without telling his unit because he was afraid of what his fellow soldiers would think.

He now works with wounded soldiers at Fort Campbell's Warrior Transition Battalion and says he's not afraid anymore to encourage others to get help for psychological injuries.

"It was one of those things that was swept under the rug and it was like the military's dirty secret, and now everybody is out and they want to help," he said.

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