FORT LEWIS, Wash. (AP) — Home for at least two months, soldiers with a combat brigade still are in the fight.
They've stopped fighting in Iraq and begun grappling with the memories and trauma of their 14-month deployment.
In turn, the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division Stryker Brigade Combat Team, is arming soldiers and families with information like never before so combat-related stress doesn't destroy relationships or lead to alcoholism, suicide or murder.
Post-traumatic stress disorder has taken a heavy toll on soldiers, many of whom have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq three or four times. The Army now requires soldiers to undergo psychological screening before and after a deployment to identify problems, and has hired more counselors to treat them.
The leadership of an infantry battalion took another step. The officers invited a PTSD expert to speak to the soldiers and the families of the entire brigade after its return. Dr. Bridget Cantrell, of Bellingham, has co-written two books on PTSD and other challenges military families face in reuniting after a deployment.
Her presentations to the brigade end Tuesday and offer more than useful information. They convey a strong message that soldiers no longer need to struggle alone. Soldiers often hide their problems so as not to look weak before their unit, according to one study cited by Cantrell.
"We are not in individual foxholes fighting our own fight," Lt. Col. Mark Landes, commander of 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, said after one of Cantrell's presentations. His senior enlisted soldier read Cantrell's book in Iraq and passed it on to Landes. They were so impressed with her work, they scheduled her visit while they still were deployed.
Landes said now is a critical time for the soldiers. The euphoria and celebration of the reunion has worn off. They might have trouble adjusting to the routine of life at home. Nightmares and flashbacks could surface.
The Stryker brigade is unique to the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts. The squads are named after the armored tanks they ride straight into hostile territory, often as a first line of attack. Heavily reliant on computer technology, Stryker tanks are protected yet vulnerable.
Several Stryker soldiers have suffered non combat-related deaths as their vehicles tumbled into canals. Others have been destroyed by improvised explosive devices strong enough to tear through the reinforced metal of their hulks and kill whoever is inside.
The battalion has encountered some problems within its ranks, Landes said.
There has been an increase in the number of speeding tickets, marital fights and incidents of misbehavior in the barracks.
Some half-dozen murder charges have been handed out to Fort Lewis veterans returning home over the past five years, and most recently a female soldier was charged with a double-homicide after killing a military husband and wife, then kidnapping their infant.
PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur when people experience a traumatic event. Risking your life or watching someone die in combat can cause the disorder in service members.
They can relive the horrors, isolate themselves from family and friends, or be in a state of hyper-arousal where they can't sleep and are quick to anger.
"Their anxiety level gets so high they think they're going to explode," Cantrell said.
Dealing with those issues isn't the only challenge for reunited families. The deployment has pushed the soldier and his or her spouse beyond their limits. Their assumptions about life and their relationship might change and can create friction, Cantrell said.
These "intimate strangers," as she described them, must reinvent their relationship with open communication and empathy for their partner, she added.
Sara Alvarado, 26, of University Place, knows the feeling. She compared re-establishing the household after the return of her husband, a staff sergeant who has deployed three times, to "full-fledged trains going full speed playing chicken."
Landes said the Army didn't have a solid understanding of the problems at the onset of the war, but that is changing.
"I think we're adding to our knowledge base," he said. "Every time, we're doing it better."