By Army Spc. Kevin Holden
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 3, 2009 - Deployment is never easy, especially a 15-month deployment in which soldiers face the possibility of missing the same holiday twice away from their loved ones. This has been the reality for soldiers from the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, who have served in Multinational Division Baghdad since April in the brigade's third deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom since 2003.
Almost 11 months into their deployment, "Iron Brigade" soldiers continue their work in Iraq despite the hardships of being away from family, friends, loved ones and the comforts of home.
"Deployment to a combat zone, working seven days a week for 15 months, can be a [tiring] assignment [for] anyone, no matter what their job is," said Army Spc. Mathew Fischer, a soldier from the 47th Forward Support Battalion based on Camp Striker, near Baghdad. Fischer is a special electronics device repairer, a job that consists of repairing night-vision systems, computers and global positioning equipment. His job requires him to work long hours.
"I received my first assignment orders in the Army for Baumholder, Germany, at the end of advanced individual training, and have been keeping in touch with family and friends using the Internet and telephones since I arrived in Germany," he said. "Continuing to communicate with family using the Internet has been a great way for me to relieve stress while being deployed in Iraq."
However, unlike Fischer, many combat support soldiers are not able to perform their assigned jobs while deployed. Many Iron Brigade soldiers who were once fuelers, cooks or mechanics now find themselves serving as gunners on supply convoys or in other new jobs to meet mission requirements.
For many soldiers, this often leads them to positions that require them to quickly adapt to a new job and learn different skills.
"Going to ranges and learning to use an M-240B machine gun to qualify from the turret of [a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle] was challenging," said Army Spc. James Ott, a mechanic from the 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery. "The only weapons I fired prior to deployment were my M-4 rifle and an M-249 [squad assault weapon]. The most difficult thing is not getting complacent after multiple missions and staying focused."
Any deployment working in a stressful environment can affect an individual's work performance. To make it through, soldiers have come to terms on how to deal with deployment stress through different activities and programs, and finding what works for them.
"I release my soldiers to ... exercise in the gym and go running when job orders are completed," said Army Staff Sgt. Marcus Hooks, who serves with the maintenance support team of 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment. Hooks has served in the Army for 12 years as a track vehicle repairer, and has been on multiple deployments. He supervises his team and ensures the soldiers have enough time away from work without affecting unit needs.
"Giving my soldiers time away from the motor pool helps morale and keeps them physically fit," Hooks said. "As a mechanic, there are no regular duty hours, and our job depends on the workload."
Besides working out, another source available to soldiers dealing with stress is their unit chaplain. They can seek advice and receive assistance with personal issues outside their chain of command.
"Soldiers are grateful, and have a sense that someone is taking interest in their concerns and working to resolve their issues," said Army Chaplain (Capt.) Charles Lahmon, the chaplain for the brigade's 47th Forward Support Battalion. The chaplain also acts as a resource for leaders to seek advice on how to take care of soldiers who may not want to seek outside assistance.
"[Noncommissioned officers] have asked for guidance from me to help their soldiers with personal issues," Lahmon said.
The Army also provides medical officers and staff who specialize in mental health to help to diagnose soldiers with symptoms of depression and give medical treatment. Army Capt. Michelle Kline, a mental health officer with 47th FSB, provides initial counseling for soldiers seeking assistance.
"The medical staff provides an environment to deal with the stress of deployment for all soldiers," she said. "The medical care received is confidential and available for walk-in appointments."
The Iron Brigade leadership is taking a proactive approach to combat stress, using preventive measures and encouraging early intervention through a wide variety of available assistance.
"We make monthly visits to all command observation posts where our soldiers are located," Kline said. These regularly scheduled visits allow soldiers to receive mental health assistance regardless of the area of Iraq in which they serve.
"Part of our mission is to bring mental health to the soldiers in order to keep the mission going and also to provide the soldiers the support they need," Kline said. "In order to provide soldiers the best and most available care that we can, we go to them."
Leaders regularly remind soldiers that seeking medical assistance from a mental health care provider is not a career ender. Seeking help early is the best way to avoid long-term problems, Kline noted.
(Army Spc. Kevin Holden serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)