CORTLANDT, N.Y. — Unit leaders of the New York Army National Guard are undertaking a rare three days of classroom instruction this week at Camp Smith in Cortlandt Manor. The reservists will be trained as resilience training assistants as part the Army's push to address soldiers' mental health.
"You've got to change a culture," 1st Lt. Karen Marotz said about addressing the perception that seeking mental health treatment could hurt a service member's career. About 140 sergeants and lieutenants will be trained by fall.
Sgt. Maj. Andrew Depalo, director of family programs, said he once believed his career would suffer if he sought mental health treatment.
"I wouldn't go seek the help I needed, then I did," he said. "I still got my top secret clearance, I still got my promotion."
Mental health awareness and accessibility is reaching the highest levels of government because the Army's second highest ranked officer is a proponent for change.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for U.S. service members, behind only war-related injuries, a June study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center reported.
"There are not well-established and clearly effective interventions to prevent suicides – in general or specifically in a military population during wartime," said the study, called "Deaths by Suicide While on Active Duty, Active and Reserve Components, U.S. Armed Forces, 1998-2011."
The current state of "high operational tempos" make the dynamic between civilian life and military readiness a tough balancing act, Marotz and Depalo agreed.
Aggressive interactions between civilians, such as being cutoff in traffic, require a measured response contrary to what Sgt. Jarod Barber calls the "battle drill approach," which instills immediate and consistent courses of action.
"Being in the military, you're taught to follow standards without question," said Sgt. 1st Class Lamont Pugh. "We still have brains, we must be confident in using our brains." Pugh said he tries to teach soldiers not to "react to the heat of the moment" in civilian life, even though "in Iraq, that might have saved your life."
A reservist's state of constant readiness can be challenging for families. Reservists join with a commitment to 15 days per year, one weekend per month. Despite the troop drawdown in Afghanistan, they could be deployed abroad at any time.
"Readiness means dealing with the things the day's going to throw at you, whether it's getting shot at, being in war," said Depalo. The 10,000-plus member New York Army National Guard has not documented any suicides in the last year, Depalo said. The Army is "trying to develop some sort of metrics" to determine how effective the Resilience Training is at improving mental well being of soldiers, he said.