Combat's Inner Cost

The Army has no other facility like it anywhere on earth. The Restoration and Resilience Center, opened in July at Fort Bliss, Texas, is the laboratory for WARP—the Army's experimental Warrior Resilience Program. "This is not your grandma's loony bin," says Col. John Powell, the project's overseer as commander of Fort Bliss's Beaumont Army Medical Center. The 27 participants, all volunteers, were diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The aim is to help them get fit to return to combat. "I call this a PTSD boot camp," says Dr. John Fortunato, the Vietnam vet (now a civilian) in charge. "They have to be willing to tolerate a lot of pain before they can get better."

Don't mistake this place for a standard-issue R&R facility. Stressed-out GIs in Iraq unwind at one of four in-country centers, and about 95 percent return to their units after two or three days of movies, videogames and talk, says reservist psychiatrist Col. Emile Risby. Many of those soldiers believe that the best place to recover is at the front with their buddies, who know what they've been through. But others, hard hit emotionally but driven by false shame and guilt at their supposed "weakness," go back on patrol despite not being ready for duty. Fortunato says about one soldier in six shows signs of PTSD on leaving Iraq or Afghanistan. A recent Army study found that roughly 25 percent of troops on their second deployment had signs of mental illness. Another Army report says 99 active-duty soldiers committed suicide in 2006, the worst toll in 26 years.

All the same, mental-health experts say most members of the volunteer Army don't want out. Soldiering is a vital part of who they are. WARP is designed to help combat-stress sufferers who would otherwise have no alternative to a medical discharge. Treatment at the center may continue as long as nine months, combining meditation, yoga and other stress-control techniques with therapy sessions, both group and one-on-one. "We're trying to crack them open," says Fortunato. "They've got pictures in their heads they don't want to see again. If they had to see a buddy's head blown off and then take a deep breath and go on, that helped them survive." Until the shooting stopped, that is. But when such memories stay buried, they fester.

Three months into the project, WARP's soldiers still have a lot of digging to do. But if the trial program proves itself, the effort and expense will be more than worthwhile. "If this costs $100,000 per soldier, then I'm saving taxpayers a whole lot of money," says Fortunato, who calculates that if a soldier is discharged with a medical disability resulting in monthly support payments for life, the price tag could be $700,000 or more. And that's leaving aside America's moral debt to its troops.

Combat's Inner Cost | News
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