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Troops with manageable mental problems low on pills

NEAR NASIRIYAH, Iraq—There was one American soldier who wrote a manifesto speaking of his troubled mind, of his resolve to stay put if a tank were to bear down on him.

"There wasn't much we could do for him," Capt. Gabrielle Bryen said. "He had a personality disorder that can't be managed with drugs."

But scores more have shown up at medic tents on the Iraqi battlefield, or on staging grounds in Kuwait, with mental disorders that usually can be tended easily with a few pills. However, Bryen said the antidepressants and other drugs that stem serious mood swings were far from the front lines.

By roughly the same proportion as America's civilian population, U.S. troops are diagnosed with manageable mental health problems, most often depression and bipolar—or manic-depressive—disorders.

With drugs such as Paxil they can continue their military careers if a physician decides they won't interfere with discipline and order.

But, deployed on short notice, many soldiers have been reporting to duty in the Persian Gulf with their prescriptions running short.

"They either forgot in the hurry or were told they could get them here," said Bryen, a licensed clinical social worker for the Army's 546th Area Support Medical Company.

In some of the larger camps in Kuwait, supplies of antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs have begun to arrive. But they generally haven't in the fast-shifting battle stations in Iraq.

A few soldiers have broken down under the stress of combat, or anticipating it, or simply because they've run out of their pills.

The stress is natural in the brutal environment. But it also can be a ploy. "We kick their ass back out there if we think nothing is wrong with them," said Bryen, 34, of Bethlehem, Pa.

Troops diagnosed with mental health problems typically are moved away from the fighting until they recover.

In the week since the war started, however, Bryen said she'd seen fewer acute mental problems among soldiers.

"It seems so far in this war that the anticipation does more than the real event," she said. "Once things begin, they're kept busy and they feel useful."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.