Fort Benning hosts visit for mental health providers who treat troops, veterans, for trauma

May 13, 2019

FORT BENNING, Ga. – A team of mental health specialists who treat veterans and service members for trauma and stress stemming from military service visited Fort Benning May 9 for a partial glimpse of the rigors that confront troops in combat.

Fort Benning’s Maneuver Center of Excellence hosted the visit of a dozen staffers from Emory University’s Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, or EHVP. The program, in Atlanta, Georgia is free to eligible post-9/11 active duty service members and veterans and treats them for such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, anxiety, and depression.

“Most of the doctors and clinicians that we have here today from Emory have never served in our armed forces,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. William B. “Burke” Garrett III, EVHP’s Executive Advisor. “They have no experience, they have no frame of reference for this.

“Actual combat is very challenging, and very chaotic, and can be very confusing. So we want them to understand that. Because then they can relate that experience to the Soldiers that they’re trying to treat and heal from the invisible wounds of war.” Garrett served as Deputy Commander of U.S. European Command, among other key assignments during his Army career.

To help the visiting group get a least some feel of military life and its rigors, Fort Benning laid on a variety of events through the day.

The visitors got to fly in UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, and watched – and heard the roar of – an M2A2 Abrams firing live ammunition at distant targets.

They also visited the 75th Ranger Regiment headquarters, where they got to eat a field ration known as an MRE, for Meal, Ready-to-Eat. And they were told about the stringent standards for becoming a Ranger, and the impact on Soldiers of multiple overseas deployments.

At one of Fort Benning’s many firing ranges, they were invited to fire a pistol, shotgun and rifles, using live ammunition, under the close supervision of experts from the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit.

The final event was a meeting at Fort Benning’s Martin Army Hospital with its team of mental health experts who treat the same maladies that EVHP treats. Each group outlined for the other the methods and approaches they take to treating those conditions.

The day was important for the visitors because it gave them a first-hand look at some of the things, including the “context,” in which their patients have experienced military service, said Barbara O. Rothbaum, EVHP’s Executive Director.

“I think it’s all part of understanding, and understanding the context,” said Rothbaum. “We can experience first-hand what this triggers in us.”

EVHP members interviewed said the visit afforded them useful insights.

“I can never fully understand what it’s like to be deployed.” said Loren Post, a clinical psychologist and assistant research director at EVHP, “but I think that this will help me to just gain more perspective about what it is like, with the tank and the guns and the chaos that could – although not here – ensue in those combat environments.

For Laura Loucks, an EVHP clinical psychologist and assistant professor, part of what the visit gave her was insight into the degree of responsibility and pressures placed on combat troops.

“I think one thing that really stood out,” said Loucks, “starting with the tank exercise, was just the sense of responsibility that these Soldiers and Rangers have in their roles. And that the pressure and precision and the decision-making that they have to make on the fly, requires not only a lot of maturity for that age, but also the ability to think and be in that moment, and to really stay focused on what they have to do.

“Sitting inside the tank provided an entire new perspective,” said Loucks, “on what it would be for someone to be in the tank, to be out in a combat zone and to rely so much on the technology at hand, and the communication.”

Danielle Wray, a social worker with EVHP, said the day’s events will help in her work with veterans and service members.

“I think the biggest thing for me today,” said Wray, “being able to be out here and just even get a small glimpse into what these people are coming in, training for, and getting ready to do, is helping me to have a better understanding of where they’ve been and what they’re about to go through.

That, she said, will help her “better empathize with them when I’m meeting with them face-to-face, and they can know that I somewhat get it, even if it’s just a small bit.”

EVHP offers two ways of being treated, all at no cost to the patient. For those living too far from Atlanta to make weekly appointments, the Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers two weeks of treatment at Emory, with lodging at a nearby hotel, transportation, meals and care, at no cost to the outpatient. The traditional Outpatient Program (OP) is geared to those who live near enough to Emory to make appointments that could be as frequent as once a week.

Since it began four years ago, EHVP has served more than 1,500 veterans and service members, Rothbaum said.