Meeting the Patients Where They Are at
Despite having satellite phones and Internet—however spotty it may have been— word of mouth proved to be the best method of finding small outposts with soldiers who needed care. The 785th would obtain grid coordinates to the outpost then walk into the supply hub in Baghdad and ask if the guys had ever heard of the place they were trying to get to. If the guys were making a supply run, the 785th soldiers would ride along and show up unannounced. They’d get out of the vehicle, show their identification, and tell the outpost soldiers they were from Combat Stress
Company and came to check in on them. Then they would talk to the chaplain (because everyone who’s stressed out goes to the chaplain), then whoever was running the battalion aid station (since they treat the soldiers), then the First Sergeant (who knows his troops best), and finally the commander (to fill him in on the plan). After setting up their operations, they’d see the soldiers who needed to be seen then go off to the next base.
One day they visited a unit that had experienced more than their share of combat. Over half of one of the platoons were reportedly Purple Heart recipients. My husband tried to talk to the soldiers and they told him, “Sir, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You haven’t been out there. You don’t know what it’s like.” Blame it on his fatalism, but he found himself saying, “Show me.” The company commander was a Captain, and when my husband asked him if he could go out on a mission with them, the Captain replied, “Well, sir, you’re the Major. If you want to do that, fine.” My husband should have been scared, but he knew they weren’t going to let him go out on a high-risk mission, and just riding along on a routine patrol gave the 785th firsthand experience of what their patients were dealing with.
One of the first missions they went on was in Sadr City. A psychologist and my husband joined a patrol for about six hours during which they got shot at, chased down a guy carrying an AK-47, took badges away from the local militia, and held back an agitated crowd with their weapons. The soldiers they were with were hard core—1st Cav, well trained combat arms guys. The trick for my husband was to not be an idiot (a trait that makes him a superb husband as well). He didn’t want to accidentally shoot himself, and he didn’t want to shoot one of the soldiers, so he meticulously followed directions from the Lieutenant and tried not to look scared. That’s all that was needed. No one was killed, they got through the day, and they got home safe. Rule No. 2: Not standing out in incompetence is far more important than standing out in excellence.
After that, many of the staff in the 785th went out on missions to develop a rapport with soldiers. My husband wanted patients to know they were reasonable people and weren’t looking to ruin soldiers’ careers by saying they were crazy. Most soldiers were having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, and the 785th could probably make them feel better. Once they saw the Combat Stress soldiers were willing to put themselves beyond the wire to help them, they opened themselves and started talking. Meeting the patients where they were at—that’s what it took.
60 Minutes got wind of what Combat Stress Company was doing and embedded with the unit. The crew accompanied them to a base near Sadr City and watched the team in action. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed my husband, who was bald at the time, and the 60 Minutes crew kept powdering his head until a cameraman told him, “I don’t think there’s enough powder in Iraq to make that head not shine.” (If you watch the episode, you’ll notice his forehead is cut off.) Having the media tell their story was exciting, but this was anecdotal at best to the overall experience. The greatest part of the deployment, my husband will tell you, was breaking through all the barriers to care inherent to a combat environment and returning 95 percent of soldiers to their units after treatment.