Sgt. Thomas Riordan didn’t want to return to Afghanistan after home leave. He had just fought through a battle that killed eight soldiers, and when he arrived home his wife said she was leaving. He almost killed himself that night. When his psychologist asked what he thought he should do, Riordan said: Stay in Colorado at Fort Carson. Instead, the military brought Riordan back to this base in the eastern Afghan mountains, where mortar rounds sound regularly and soldiers have to wear flack jackets if they step outside their barracks before 8 a.m., even to go to the bathroom.
Increasingly, the army is trying to treat traumatized soldiers “in theater” — where they’re stationed. The idea is that soldiers will heal best if kept with those who understand what they’ve been through, rather than being dumped into a treatment center back in the States where they’ll be surrounded by unfamiliar people and untethered from their work and routine. However, the policy may serve the military at least as much as the soldiers. Treating soldiers on site makes it easier to send them back into battle — key for a stretched military fighting two wars. It also brings up a host of challenges: Ensuring soldiers get the treatment they need in the middle of war, monitoring those on antidepressants and sleeping pills, and deciding who can be kept in a war zone and who might snap.
“There’s not been a lot of studies on those types of interventions,” said Terri Tanielian, a military health policy researcher with the RAND Corp. think tank. “There isn’t necessarily a magic formula that says who’s going to go back and be okay and who isn’t.” Riordan acknowledges that in-theater treatment has helped a lot of his fellow soldiers, but says it’s never been enough at the right time or place for him. Through all the psychologists, psychiatrists, medications and brain scans, he just feels more alone. In Afghanistan, Riordan cannot go outside the wire because he’s considered too unstable. He has no friends in his unit. He goes to a larger base every month or so to meet with his psychologist, who also checks in on him when she’s doing helicopter rounds to various outposts.
“All my real support is back in the States,” he says. “Just to call someone up and say ‘Hey, I’m bummed out,’ you’ve got to put on the proper uniform and walk two football fields down to the phones and wait in a line, and then hope that someone answers on the other side.” The 5,000 troops that make up Task Force Mountain Warrior — which includes the Fort Carson soldiers — are served by a psychologist, a psychiatrist and two social workers. Collectively known to soldiers as “Combat Stress” — as in, “I had to go see Combat Stress” — this four-person team makes the rounds to about 30 bases. They arrive after any potential trauma: the death of a soldier, an arduous battle or a large roadside bombing.