Feature

For military troops deployed to war zones, the stress of combat not only affects individuals, it influences the missions of entire units. That makes controlling the stress paramount.

Enter military psychologists, such as Lt. Colonel Kathy Platoni, PsyD, who is stationed at "Camp America" in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, working to keep U.S. service members emotionally fit.

As charged by the U.S. Joint Task Force, which includes all five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, Platoni and a team of mental health professionals provide combat stress interventions ranging from crisis intervention to substance abuse evaluations, to brief, solution-focused therapies for issues such as anxiety. Many of those they help are reservists deployed for the first time.

"The control of combat stress often makes the difference between victory and defeat in any form of human conflict," says Platoni. "When combat stress is well controlled by focused training, effective leadership, high morale and unit cohesion, soldiers are more apt to endure confrontation with extraordinary levels of stress in order to accomplish their missions."

In addition to group and individual psychotherapy, Platoni and her team also provide conflict resolution for soldiers of all rank, as well as training on such topics as suicide awareness, anger management, pre-deployment and homecoming issues, and coping with uncertainty. Their team also runs a weekly process group for military and civilian linguists who help with translation and interrogation of detainees held by the U.S. military in the camp, she says.

Troops abroad must deal with the hardship of separation from loved ones for uncertain periods of deployment--in addition to the stress of threats to their lives, according to Platoni, who adds that Camp America doesn't provide the most comfortable existence. "Soldiers used to live in leaky tents in ungodly heat with amenities like outdoor latrines," she explains. Conditions have improved--troops now live in apartment-like units or in air-conditioned aluminum barracks. "But they have barely any means of transportation, phones are nowhere to be found, and cell phone transmission is nonexistent because Castro has scrambled it."

Despite the conditions, Platoni's team has received its commanding general's checkmark. Military service members are often steered away from mental health services by other soldiers or by their own fear of stigmatization, she says. But her team has experienced "wide acceptance from the Joint Task Force commanders and their soldiers."

Platoni--who has served the U.S. military in both active and reservist capacities for 23 years, including a six-month stint during Operation Desert Storm--arrived in Guantanamo Bay last summer. Her deployment is scheduled to last one year.

--J. DAW HOLLOWAY