Seeking Mental Health Help Can Be Hard In Military Culture


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.
The rate of suicide in the military has spiked in the last decade. The reasons are complicated, and that makes treatment complicated too. For the past few days, we've been reporting on the problem. At Fort Bliss, the Army base in Texas, a program to help prevent suicide is showing good results.
Yesterday, we heard about soldiers learning what to do if they think someone else might be suicidal. Today, the story of one soldier's decision to seek help for himself. A big obstacle to asking for help has been the military's macho warrior culture. As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Fort Bliss, that may be starting to change.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Here's the old-school military attitude toward mental health in a nutshell.
SERGEANT GUS: You don't want to say anything because you're afraid that you will be called a wuss.
LAWRENCE: This soldier asked us to use only his first name because of the stigma around mental health issues. Sergeant Gus is not a wuss. He did a 15-month combat tour in Iraq.
GUS: Let me go straight to the point. Well, I've been having a lot of issues since Iraq, and I just didn't take care of them, didn't get any help, anything.
LAWRENCE: He'd go out with his guys, get drunk, start fights. That was their idea of therapy. And then in 2010, he deployed again.
GUS: Just went to Afghanistan. We thought it was going to be like Iraq, but it was actually worse.
LAWRENCE: Sergeant Gus is a native of El Paso. He's stationed here at Fort Bliss. The desert and mountains look a bit like Afghanistan, especially in the spring.
GUS: May is like a really bad month for me, you know? It was an anniversary of one of my friends. He died May of 2010, and it was just - it's been three years now, but I still can't get over it, you know? And what happened is we land, right?
LAWRENCE: We land. His unit got dropped off by helicopter near a village in the mountains. They met with locals for hours, but the Taliban had seen where the chopper landing zone was.
GUS: The Taliban, they're smart guys. They go over there and set up a machine gun.
LAWRENCE: It was an ambush. When the helicopter came back, all the soldiers crowded in to get on board. That's when the Taliban machine gun opened up. Sergeant Gus was stuck, already inside the chopper.
GUS: I couldn't do anything. I couldn't fight. I couldn't do anything. I'm just in the bird there taking lead, you know, like - and I'm just looking out through the door, and I'm just - one of my friends was getting pulled like a duffel bag. We just threw him in the front, you know, like throw him in there. I'm not even paying attention until I see him, like, at my legs and everything. So that kind of - they did the best they could, but there's nothing you can do, really, when - like fish in a bucket or whatever people say.
LAWRENCE: Sergeant Gus had survivor's guilt. He didn't know that's what it was. He came home safe, but not well. He got married pretty soon after and went on his honeymoon to Las Vegas.
GUS: I got pretty hammered, you know? So we get to a hotel room, and my wife was passed out. And I started watching the movies, and the first movie I see is "Saving Private Ryan." Then I just felt, like, this weird sensation inside my chest, like before you get in a fight, you know, when you're a kid and - or when you know you're in trouble and you get that anxiety. I felt that, and I couldn't get it out of my chest. And I had - I just kept thinking about over there, you know, I just locked myself in the bathroom.
And this is the part that I regret the most because I couldn't think of anything could, like, make me feel better, you know? Booze wasn't helping. I need to stop this feeling because I feel, like, bad. I just grab a bottle of booze, and I just break it. So I just start cutting my chest, trying to get that feeling out of my stomach. And then my wife woke up, and I was on the floor, bleeding all over the place.
LAWRENCE: He recovered. His wife pushed him to get counseling, but he's still worried his men would think he was weak. So he asked one of them what he should do.
GUS: I talked to the guy that I thought was going to make the most fun of me if I ever talked to anybody, and he was one of my good friends. So I talked to him, and he's the one who asked me, go get help, man, like you don't lose anything. What's the worst that can happen?
LAWRENCE: The advice he got, it's exactly what Major General Dana Pittard wants to hear.
MAJOR GENERAL DANA PITTARD: It takes time for a cultural change to take hold, but we don't have time.
LAWRENCE: General Pittard just completed nearly three years as commander of Fort Bliss. He oversaw a reduction in the suicide rate there, even as suicides were up across the rest of the military. But Pittard knows not everyone has gotten the message.
PITTARD: If you've got a toxic squad leader of the 10-person squad you're in, who thinks like that, says that you're a coward or whatever, then that's the Army to you.
LAWRENCE: Sergeant Gus went to the Warrior Resiliency Program at Fort Bliss. They taught him techniques to control his anxiety attacks. The month-long program included R & R, but that's in between some pretty intense group therapy.
GUS: The program was hard because it actually made things a little bit more realistic again, you know, just talking about it, talking to therapists, talking to other soldiers. And it kind of like - it's like reopening the scars, you know? It's in their agenda. They know they're going to poke where they're not supposed to, but they have ways to deal with that.
LAWRENCE: Sergeant Gus says he's happier now, but he still gets depressed sometimes, especially when the springtime light in El Paso makes the mountains look just like Afghanistan.
Read the full story at NPR