Breaking Point

As fighting in AfghanistanIn intensifies, Marines battle as ever-present enemy: combat stress

May 25, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

GARMSIR, AfghanistanIn -- In the dying sunlight, the day's heat radiates from a farm compound's baked adobe walls, which enclose Marines slumped wearily against their rucksacks.

Here in southern Afghanistan, where the men of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit are battling Taliban insurgents, life comes in a simple equation: There are men out there who will kill you, unless you kill them first.

Out here, you've got to figure out how to handle the stress of that exhilarating and awful equation.

Bust it or park it, use guesswork or patchwork or whatever works. Suck up the heat, the dust, the physical exhaustion, the fear, the loss. Help is a long way away.

For all the attention the U.S. military has recently given to mental health, it's clear that at the source of the tension borne by Americans in combat, they are pretty much on their own. That burden consumes strong men.

"I can't do this anymore," said a weary Gunnery Sgt. Rosendo DeLeon, 40. "After this deployment I am done."

In these hours before nightfall, when the hunt will begin anew, there is precious respite. Chins rest on flak vests, weapons across knees. Sodden, gritty uniforms bind and chafe - even where the Marines have stretched duct tape across their ribs for protection.

Momentarily safe from all but a chance mortar round, there is only the easing of aching muscles, cool water in parched throats, a blessed movement of air across bare scalps.

Or maybe it all comes back unbidden, in that terrible rushing dread. Tonight could be it - the sudden, searing injury, the torn limb, the awful bleeding out, the sickening smell of blood. You could die here. Worse, your closest buddy could.

Some close their eyes and project themselves back home. Some simply let the stress buzz alongside. Some pop a pill. Some joke about it, belittle it.

Basically, stuff it down out of sight, hope it won't come back in all its dark and evil power.

"Let's go, we're pushing out!" With DeLeon's cry, Marines heave themselves to their feet, throw on rucksacks, clamp on helmets and stride into the dusk.

Deal with it later. For now, focus on the mission.

"Stoicism is necessary for their survival," says Dr. William Nash, a psychiatrist who until this month directed the Marine Corps' combat stress programs. But shoving stress down out of the way lasts only so long.

"Everybody," said Nash, "has a breaking point."

Hey - remember Molly and the leg? In Ramadi last year, a suicide bomber in a car came at us, and our guys at the checkpoint got him stopped but he detonated the bomb anyway and blew himself all over the place. We had this Iraqi dog we called Molly?

Staff Sgt. Julian Lumm is telling the story between bursts of laughter. He is handsome in the classic Latin manner, tall and hefty with dark, liquid eyes. He is 30 years old and is on his fifth combat deployment in five years, and he's got Carlos Orjuela and DeLeon, the two company gunnery sergeants, remembering and sputtering and guffawing.

So here comes Molly trotting back to where we are and she's got a piece of this guy's leg in her mouth, and we're going, "MOLLY! BAD DOG! PUT THAT DOWN!"

Lumm collapses, helpless.

Orjuela: And Molly's going, like, What'd I do? She's lookin' so proud, ya know, like a cat bringing you a mouse, and she keeps comin' and we're going, "NO NO, GO AWAY, GIT THAT THING OUTTA HERE!!"

Oh, man. Lumm wipes a tear. That was hilarious, wasn't it?

When the 24th MEU went into Afghanistan in March, it took 2,500 Marines, a hundred armored Humvees, jet fighters, about 4,000 assorted weapons - and a psychiatrist.

Marine Maj. Ann Radford came to try to prevent Marines from being evacuated for combat stress. But when the Marines went into action, she stayed at her assigned place in camp.

"They are their own first line of defense," she said. In previous combat tours, "they have learned stress management and reaction to trauma by doing it."

Trouble often begins when they got home. At the Parris Island Marine base, where she works, Radford sees a lot of drinking and some spousal abuse. "That's when the work begins," she said. That work may require having a Marine relive emotional trauma, a delicate process that's best done away from combat.

But she is deployed to Afghanistan, she said, because the Department of Defense "likes to have a psychiatrist out here." Given the political pressures at home to care for deployed troops, "it's a box to check off."

Before a mission, DeLeon and other Marines are razzing one another about how they'll behave if they get wounded.

"You'll be lyin' out there going, `Hey, I can't feel my legs!"' jokes Cpl. Elvin Hendrix, "and we'll go, `Gunny, you ain't got no legs!"'

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