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Stress from family problems can overwhelm soldiers in Iraq

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq—Classic combat stress probably affects fewer Marines and Seabees than the stress of trying to handle family problems from halfway around the world.

Marines and Seabees can grieve together when a comrade dies in battle, but when a relationship dies because of the deployment, the victim often grieves alone.

Cpl. Jose Esparzaguzman's battalion lost 31 members in combat, but the most distraught Marine he knew was the friend who lost his wife to another man.

"He didn't want to talk or eat chow," said the 22-year-old, whose unit saw fierce fighting in Ramadi in April. "It really hurt him."

The suffering Marine, who left Iraq before his unit did because his enlistment ended, worried his close friends, who feared he might endanger them.

"The whole time he was out here, he wasn't focusing," said Esparzaguzman, of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Division. "We all tried to talk to him to make sure he didn't try to do anything to himself."

Relationship problems are common when Marines leave home. Last year, Esparzaguzman's unit was deployed a year in Okinawa, longer than usual. He estimates that more than half the married Marines got divorced.

"The wives said, `I can't take it no more,'" he said.

While Marines sometimes have few defenses against family problems, they have great methods for coping with combat stress.

"We've been hit hard," Esparzaguzman said. "In combat, we're all there for each other. You become brothers. It's usually the problems back home that tend to get to people."

In battle, a Marine or Seabee can shoot back. But when the problem is halfway around the world, the sense of powerless sometimes causes anxiety, which affects behavior and job performance.

"There's only so much they can do about it, and they've got to keep their head in the game out here," said Navy Lt. Dave Hensley, 32, a psychiatrist with the combat stress team at Bravo Surgical Company in Camp Fallujah. "Our challenge there is to help them refocus their attention."

The combat stress team uses therapy methods similar to a mental health facility in a noncombat zone.

"For the most part, we are seeing people and they are going to back to their units that day," said Hensley. "Usually with some commonsense information, some help with relaxation, square meals and some good sleep, most people bounce back and are able to do their jobs."

Very few don't return to duty, he said.

Combat stress is considered "a normal response to a really abnormal situation, with the associated symptoms of stress or anxiety," Hensley said. "That's basically what a lot of people are going through out here."

One Marine, wounded in an attack that killed three of his friends, was sent to the combat stress team after being involved in another attack soon after he returned to duty. He didn't show any symptoms of combat stress.

"The only thing he wanted to do was return to his command," said Medical Corpsman Frank Thompson, 26, a technician with the team.

To counteract combat stress, the Marine Corps also has a program at Camp Fallujah to provide rest and recuperation for field-weary units, who spend a few relaxing nights in air-conditioned rooms and have the use of a swimming pool.

A respite from the 120-degree heat can be a key to mental health.

"Anything that stresses the body stresses the mind, and that does play a role," Hensley said.

While e-mail and telephones allow Marines and Seabees to communicate with home better now, that communication sometimes embroils them in family problems they can't help with.

"They have too much connection with home. You'll have one person calling home every day," said Lance Cpl. Martin Beltran, 21, of Pasadena, Calif., who said virtually every Marine in Fallujah had a friend who'd become overly worried about a situation at home.

"Some people don't know how to handle the stress," said Beltran, who dealt with it when his wife wrecked his beloved car. "I would say, `Talk it out.'"

Some family crises involve illness.

"My wife's mother had a bypass operation with six bypasses," said Utilitiesman 2nd Class Michael DeAngelo, 22. His wife had to fly from Gulfport, Miss., to the Midwest to be with her mother, an unexpected expense. Unable to assist or comfort his wife, all DeAngelo could do was worry.

"You get through it," he said. "But it's one other thing added to the (incoming) rounds and the heat."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-STRESS


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