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Stress-control training is in Corps' plans

Oct. 30, 2011 - 03:49PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 30, 2011 - 03:49PM  |  
Marines in an Operational Stress Control and Readiness course role-play a scenario June 6 at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The course teaches Marines how to identify signs of distress.
Marines in an Operational Stress Control and Readiness course role-play a scenario June 6 at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The course teaches Marines how to identify signs of distress. (Cpl. Michele Watson / Marine Corps)
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New OSCAR teams

The size and makeup of a unit’s Operational Stress Control and Readiness team can vary.
At the battalion level, OSCAR teams number about 10, including the battalion commander, executive officer, sergeant major, medical officer, chaplain, senior hospital corpsman, religious program specialist and other senior Marines.
A company-level team can have 15-20 members, including the company commander, company gunny, platoon commanders, platoon sergeants, squad leaders and platoon corpsmen.
Within each team, there are:
Mentors. Unit leaders with combat experience who provide peer support, identify initial stress injuries, make referrals and conduct small-unit level training.
Extenders. Navy medical personnel and the unit’s chaplain and religious program specialists who bridge the gap between mentors and the professionals.
Providers. Navy mental health providers and mental health technicians assigned to a division or regiment who provide clinical and nonclinical support.

The Marine Corps wants deploying units and some stateside commands to train and certify Marines in operational stress control.

Soon, officers and enlisted Marines who complete requisite training and certification classes will form the core of Operational Stress Control and Readiness teams, which also will include embedded Navy psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses and psychiatric technicians. The new policy, outlined in a Corpswide message, requires OSCAR teams to be up and running by Jan. 31 at every battalion and squadron, and every other unit commanded by a lieutenant colonel.

The policy "mandates OSCAR training across the total force — all Marines, active and reserve," said Lt. Col. Curt Strader, Combat Operational Stress Control deputy section head and OSCAR lead at Manpower and Reserve Affairs in Quantico, Va. Key personnel will include battalion-level, company-level and small-unit leaders — from the commanding officer down to squad leader.

The OSCAR program began several years ago, with Navy mental health professionals supporting Marine units. The new policy was motivated, officials said, by positive feedback from units that deployed with OSCAR teams to Afghanistan during the past year.

Having a mental health expert or an OSCAR-trained Marine on hand encourages Marines and sailors to talk about problems they may experience, seek help or counsel others.

"We are hoping to prevent things from becoming a problem," said Patricia Powell, Combat Operational Stress Control section head at Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

Embeds won't be everywhere

Navy mental health professionals won't be embedded in every OSCAR team because there aren't enough of them to go around. Only divisions have billets for Navy psychologists or psychiatrists, with about two dozen assigned to the three active-duty Marine expeditionary forces.

No such billets exist for Marine aircraft wings and Marine logistics groups, and the Marine Corps hasn't asked for those billets. Marine officials want noninfantry units to have OSCAR teams, even without the embedded experts; they can tap mental health professionals at their installation or local area, Strader said.

Cmdr. Charles Benson, 1st Marine Division psychiatrist at Camp Pendleton, Calif., saw the value of OSCAR teams firsthand in Afghanistan last year, when he trained and deployed with Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, which suffered heavy casualties during its deployment.

He walked patrols as the Marines got to know him better, and his presence enabled them to open up about their feelings and problems, most of which were tied to significant events or combat losses, he said.

"We learned something from 3/5, that this was an important process," Benson said. With a new focus on prevention, he said, "I'm trying to stop fires from happening."

The peer-to-peer support Marines provided each other helped tighten bonds and ease fears they'd be stigmatized for seeking help or admitting their problems, Benson said.

"That Marine has somebody in his unit who can help them with whatever is going on," he said.

"There is a tremendous opening to realizing we've got to take care of our Marines. We have to address the mental health issues that come up. This is a fantastic tool for them."

Capt. Scott Johnston, a clinical psychologist, deployed to Iraq with Marine units that fought in Ramadi and Fallujah. He said he saw a 95 percent "return to duty" rate, which he attributes to having psychological help on the spot, known and trusted by the men in the unit.

"The same way a [Fleet Marine Force] corpsman is part of the Marine Corps, we want that same kind of unit identification and cohesion with other mental health providers," he said. "We want people that are openly focused and are interested in working with the tip of the spear."

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