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Education Reduces Stigma Facing Redeployed Soldiers

Mark Heeter, Special to American Forces Press Service

SCHWEINFURT, Germany, March 13, 2009 –

Stigma is a six-letter word with enormous consequences, a senior health official said.

"Stigma kills," said Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Loree K. Sutton, special assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs for psychological health and traumatic brain injury, borrowing a catchphrase she learned from colleagues in the Canadian armed forces.

"They consider stigma a deadly, toxic workplace hazard. I like that term. Because as a leader, if any of us become aware of a deadly, toxic workplace hazard, we're not content with just minimizing it. No, we have to eliminate," Sutton said during a recent visit to the Schweinfurt Health Clinic here.

And one key to de-stigmatizing the mental and psychological challenges facing soldiers upon redeployment is education, said Army 1st Sgt. Creed McCaslin of the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Lewis, Wash.

McCaslin joined Sutton on the Schweinfurt visit with Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Rhonda Cornum, director of the Army’s comprehensive soldier fitness program, and Army Brig. Gen. Keith Gallagher, commander of U.S. Army Europe Regional Medical Command.

"We have to educate society. You have to understand, when a soldier comes back, he's going to be different," said McCaslin, a Purple Heart recipient who has logged four deployments in his Army career.

"It's just not like turning off the light switch" for soldiers, and sometimes they have drastically different reactions to their environment, McCaslin said.

Cornum pointed out that "the majority of them will come back more appreciative of their family, more responsible. They will come back better able to determine what is important.”

Most redeploying troops return as better citizens after what can be a defining or changing moment in their lives, she said, especially reservists.

"I know for me, I appreciate life a lot more," McCaslin said. "Family's become a lot more important; society's become more important; my ethos, in general, my values on life have changed and become a lot stronger."

Most redeploying troops are “going to come back, and they're going to reintegrate into their communities," Cornum said. However, she said, “they may have some of that hyper-alertness; they won't be the same … the ways they will come back better will not be obvious [initially]."

Americans need to be engaged with the military to learn about mental health, mild traumatic brain injuries, and psychological impacts of combat, Sutton stressed.

"We want to educate the country and ignite the level of dialogue and hope," she said.

(Mark Heeter serves with the U.S. Army Garrison Schweinfurt public affairs office.)

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