These are not your typical psychiatrists, social workers, and mental health nurses. They carry M-16s, wear 50 pounds of body armor and gear, and routinely travel on some of the most dangerous roads in the world. They are members of the 883d Medical Company, Combat Stress Control, a US Army Reserve unit based in Boston but drawing soldiers from around the country. Their job is to provide mental health care, including prevention – for example, giving classes in anger management – and intervention – counseling, psychiatric therapy, medication. As reservists, they drill at the Boston headquarters one weekend a month and train for two weeks during the summer. Forty-seven members of the unit are on yearlong deployments in Afghanistan, where, from their main base at Kandahar Airfield and outposts at nine other bases around the country, they are responsible for the care of thousands of soldiers.
Photographer Barry Goldstein, who trained originally as a physician, spent a month with the unit over December and January. Here are some of the photographs and stories he brought back.
Captain Jeffrey Edelman, 45, psychiatric nurse practitioner
Hometown: Surprise, Arizona
In 2008 and 2009, Edelman served in Iraq. He volunteered to deploy with the 883d after being home less than five months. Two to three times a week, he travels by convoy with a team to visit soldiers at the smaller combat outposts.
“I don’t want to sit in a clinic and do mental health. I’m out on the road talking to people, teaching classes, helping people in place. I think that’s where the rubber meets the road. My team here works really hard at trying to get their people back home intact. I don’t know. Heart, mind, body, and soul – that sounds kind of hokey, too, but I don’t know how else to say it, really.”
Specialist Diamond Rose Taylor, 19, behavioral health specialist
Hometown: Keansburg, New Jersey
Taylor joined the Army reserves right out of high school. Her sister Alexis, age 20, is deployed with the Army in Iraq.
“I hate to say it, but, yes, there’s still a stigma [to seeking help]. The soldiers are like, ‘Oh, if you go to Combat Stress, you’re weak.’ We’re trying to get away from that. That’s part of what we do – breaking down the stereotypes of combat stress. I’m not here to determine if you’re crazy, I’m here to help you. I had a guy come in here, ‘You’re Specialist Taylor? You saw my friend. He said there’s some chick that you can talk to and she’ll help you.’ And I thought, ‘Then I’m doing my job.’ ”
Specialist Jenna Gordon, 23, combat medic and occupational therapy assistant
Hometown: East Falmouth
Gordon was working two part-time jobs while studying to be a nurse at Cape Cod Community College, then ran out of money for school. She joined the reserves three years ago.
“Before I’d ever gone out [in a convoy to see patients at another base], I didn’t want to go, because I was scared. But after talking to so many people that go out there and see these horrible things, it’s like, how can I do my job if I don’t really know what they’re going through? And so I went. I made it through that, no problem. But the biggest thing for me was the look on the gunner’s face, because the gunner was actually one of our patients. And when he saw me getting into his vehicle, he kind of just said, ‘Oh, my God.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he’s like, ‘Why are you going with us? Are you crazy?’ And I said, ‘I guess that makes me pretty crazy.’ ”
Corporal Lawrence Little III, 49, combat medic and occupational therapy assistant
Hometown: Fall River
Little, a welder in civilian life, moved his family to Fall River in 1999 and worked on the Big Dig.
“[I see] soldiers who were blown up by IEDs and soldiers who were with them and having to witness just the horrible trauma that was inflicted on these soldiers. I mean, I’ve heard from soldiers where guys have gotten blown 60 feet into the air, in pieces. So, to see something like that – we’re talking about an extremely abnormal event that they have to witness. And cognitively, I just don’t believe that the human mind is cut out to process these types of events. Sometimes you think you are past it, and then you’re sitting there having a beer and the next thing you know, the memory of that event is just too much to bear. It ambushes you. Literally ambushes you. Ambushes you and takes you out of commission to the point of a total breakdown. A normal reaction to an abnormal event.”
Colonel Agustin Gomez, 68, psychiatrist
Hometown: Norwood, New Jersey
Gomez, a psychiatrist at New York’s Harlem Hospital in civilian life, had been in the reserves for 20 years when he was sent retirement papers in 2001. He never sent them back. He was forcibly retired due to age in 2009 but requested and was granted an exemption.
“The hardest part is the conflict between the thinking of the command and our judgment in regards to treating a patient. All the commanders are trying to promote the good welfare of their soldiers, but some aspects are maybe neglected, like emotional problems. They should understand that human beings have limitations. That, even if they feel that [the soldier] is very resilient, there comes a time when stress overcomes them, and so you have all these emotional reactions – depression, anxiety, irritability, sleeplessness, anger.”
First Sergeant Keith Fletcher, 43, combat medic and behavioral health specialist
The first sergeant is the senior noncommissioned officer in a unit. His many responsibilities include preparing the unit for deployment. Fletcher, who works as a nurse in Brockton, has served on active duty and in the reserves a total of 26 years.
“[It’s hard] taking some reservists and getting them to go from civilian to full-time soldiers. Many of them aren’t ready. Many of them haven’t been deployed before. Many of them haven’t been on active duty. Some are young. The majority of our enlisted mental health folks are people that don’t do this on the outside. We have everybody from welders to painters, people who sell knives; we have computer programmers, we have people who work in retail – just a huge variety of jobs. And to ask them to come here, and to be responsible for taking care of people’s mental health needs, is a big thing to ask of them.”
Barry Goldstein lives in North Adams. His most recent book, Gray Land: Soldiers on War (2009), presented the experiences of soldiers in Iraq through portraits, images, and oral histories. More of his work can be seen at bgoldstein.net.