Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

At Fort Hood today, among the 13 people who were honored in a memorial ceremony were several mental health professionals. Commentator Heidi Kraft is a former Navy psychologist who served in Iraq, and so she's very familiar with the struggles and stresses of that work. She says this is a moment when caring for service members is as important as ever.

Dr. HEIDI KRAFT (Psychologist): We sometimes don't sleep very well. Our vigilant ears scan the night for those distant booms. We lie awake amid the roar of helicopters overhead, wondering if they'll be landing at our pad. Because when that happens, we are roused loudly by pounding fists and voices shouting about mass casualties.

They demand that we sprint out of our cots and across pitch black clearings. And then we move through a chaotic mix of scrubs, desert utility uniforms, IV bags, stretchers and wide, fearful eyes. The next morning, sometimes we scrub blood off our boots. And then we trudge through the sand to those small, hot spaces where we provide care all day, where we listen with empathy to our patients' stories of trauma, fear, friendship, loss and loyalty.

One day, the deployment is over and we come home. We struggle to reintegrate into a stateside life from which we often feel disconnected and distant. And once we've taken leave, we return to our jobs at the hospital. On that first day back in the clinic, we have eight new patient charts waiting in our inboxes. And we listen with empathy to our patients' stories of trauma, fear, friendship, loss and loyalty.

We are the mental health providers of our uniformed services. We chose our lives and our professions. And we are dedicated to our work and well-trained to perform it. We put our patients first in the desert and at home and sometimes our patients' trauma is similar to our own.

Coupled with the exhaustion that comes from feeling empathy for people who are suffering, shared trauma takes its toll. But we try to stay the course alongside our stateside counterparts who also endure the compassion fatigue of treating combat trauma. And together we turn our feelings inward, sometimes neglecting our own needs and continuing to care for our patients regardless of the cost.

The tragic events at Fort Hood last week, in which 13 innocent lives were brutally taken, allegedly by an Army psychiatrist, had nothing to do with us. Mental health personnel struggle every day to break down the walls that have historically created a frightening and intimidating prospect in our armed forces - that is the seeking treatment for invisible combat stress injuries.

I hope that the impact of one suspect's heinous act will not lead those who need help the most to find one more excuse to avoid it. But today I am sure of one thing: the Fort Hood community, the mental health community, the Army, the military and our country will grieve and pay tribute to the lost and begin our collective healing. We who have been entrusted to the mental health care of our warriors and their families will be there to help. We always have been.

BLOCK: Dr. Heidi Kraft is a former Navy psychologist. She's the author of "Rule Number Two: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: