RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
In some cases, the military is learning the hard way how to help troops who develop mental health problems. The Pentagon's got little choice but to figure it out because the military's own researchers say 17 percent of troops back from Iraq show signs of problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder. As part of our Span of War series, looking at the war's impact in this country, NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
(Soundbite of a phone dialing)
Computerized voice: Enter password and pound sign.
(Soundbite of a phone dialing)
Computerized voice: Pam Sloss, you have...
JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:
Pam Sloss picks up her phone at her desk crammed inside the narrow librarian's office. Her soft face seems frozen in sadness.
Sergeant JEFFREY SLOSS: (From recording) Hey, baby. It's me. It's 2:30 your time.
SHAPIRO: Here at the back of the high school library in Union, South Carolina, she keeps her most valued possession of her late husband. It's his voice.
Mr. J. SLOSS: (From recording) Calling to say that I love you and I miss you. I can't wait to get home. I need a hug. I need to hear from you.
SHAPIRO: Pam married Jeffrey Sloss just weeks before he left for Iraq. They dated for four months. It was his daily phone calls and e-mails from Iraq that grew their relationship.
Mrs. PAM SLOSS (Widow): It kind of gives me comfort to hear his voice. You know, I think one of the worst days I had was I had some messages on my cell phone answering machine, and, you know, they only hold for, like, 21 days and day 22 was bad. And then I remembered I had these.
SHAPIRO: Sergeant Jeffrey Jerome Sloss does not get counted in the more than 1,600 American troops who've died in Iraq. He died five weeks after he came home by suicide.
Sgt. SHAPIRO: (From recording) I hope I get a chance to hear your voice this evening. I love you. I really do love you.
SHAPIRO: At the back of his house, Daniel Seaford turns on his computer and pulls up pictures from Iraq.
Mr. DANIEL SEAFORD (Friend of Jeffrey Sloss): That's Jeff right there.
SHAPIRO: Seaford and Sloss were best friends, two cops from South Carolina and buddies for 12 years in the South Carolina National Guard.
Mr. SEAFORD: Every time you saw one of us, you saw the other one. They called us Salt and Pepper. You know, of course, he's black and I'm white so every time they see one of us, if the other guy wasn't there, they'd ridicule him, `Hey, where's Pepper at?' `Where's Salt at?'
SHAPIRO: Seaford says only once did Sloss show any sign of stress, and that was before the unit got sent to Iraq. They were training at a base in Indiana and waiting for orders. Sloss started obsessing about little things like packing his backpack. He even timed himself with a stopwatch. He was hospitalized for high stress and poor sleep. Sloss stayed behind while the rest of the unit fly to the Gulf.
Mr. SEAFORD: There I was without J.J. I felt lost, but a few weeks later, they ended up clearing him and he came over.
SHAPIRO: Seaford says once Sloss got to Iraq, there was never a problem again. And they got through plenty of scary moments, like mortar attacks and the many times the two men drove the dangerous highway to the airport. For 11 months they sat side by side running phones and other communications equipment.
Mr. SEAFORD: This picture here, this is with him. I printed a picture of it, I put it in his casket. I left it with him and they buried him with it.
SHAPIRO: In the photo, the two men puff on cigars in the desert. They're celebrating because they're about to fly home. Sloss was five-foot-six. His smile puffs up his big round cheeks. Seeford says he'd never seen Sloss happier.
Mr. SEAFORD: J.J. was--he was sharp. Everything he done, he liked to be the best at it. He always had a complex about failing at something. You know, he wanted to be doing it as good or better than anybody could do it, and he was--normally, that's the way he was, too. He was--whatever he done, he was good at it, stuff in the gym or stuff, you know, in the military job or highway patrol stuff. He liked to be what he called `ricky-tick,' which means, you know, on top of it.
Mrs. SLOSS: Yeah, `ricky-tick.' He said that, just sharp, on point. That was one of his words.
SHAPIRO: Pam Sloss says her husband wanted to be the first black colonel in the history of the South Carolina State Highway Patrol. That's the top job. Before he went to Iraq, it looked like he might be on his way. He'd drive back roads in an unmarked Camaro, tallying up drug busts, stopping speeders and drug drivers. He got named a trooper of the year. When he came home, he hurried back to work.
Mrs. SLOSS: And I guess from that point, it just kind of went downhill really fast.
SHAPIRO: On his second day back in his patrol car, he responded to a fender bender, and he couldn't remember the basic procedures for writing up a routine accident report. The next day Pam found her husband crying in the bedroom.
Mrs. SLOSS: And he told me he just couldn't concentrate, he couldn't--he said things that had been--like tying his left shoe were difficult for him now. I think he had always been so quick at picking up things and, you know, it was just bothering him. That was just so hard. He said Iraq affected him and he said, you know, people who haven't been there wouldn't understand.
SHAPIRO: But Jeffrey Sloss understood that mental health problems could pop up after war. He saw it with his own brother.
Mr. MICHAEL SLOSS (Brother): My name is Michael Sloss, the younger brother of J.J.
SHAPIRO: The two brothers were in the Army for the first Gulf War. Jeffrey came back home and started his rise as a highway patrolman. Michael's problems began.
Mr. M. SLOSS: I had a real bad temper. I probably lost 20 jobs since I got out of the military for different reasons, a lot of them being temper reasons. I go off and that's the way it is.
SHAPIRO: Michael can't understand why his brother didn't ask him for help. Pam Sloss says her husband was afraid to let anyone see him weak.
Mrs. SLOSS: He said, `What if I ask for help and they say, "J.J. has gone over there and now he's come back and he's crazy"?'
SHAPIRO: Researchers say members of the National Guard and Reserves are the troops most at risk for mental health problems because Guardsmen go straight home, unlike soldiers who come back to a military base where they're supported by others who shared the life-changing experience of war.
The military has better programs than ever before to handle stress, but there's still a lot of stigma. Sixty-five percent of troops with problems say they worry if they ask for help, they'll seem weak. Jeffrey Sloss feared the Army would tell his bosses in the State Patrol, but Pam insisted the next morning he called the Army's 1-800 help line and was given an appointment to see a counselor a week later.
Mrs. SLOSS: When he got off the phone, he told me--he said, `I wasn't completely honest with that woman.' And I said, `What weren't you honest with her about?' And he said, `She asked me if I had any thoughts of harming myself and I said no.' And that was my first indication that he had thoughts like that.
SHAPIRO: Later that same day, Jeffrey Sloss got his service revolver and shot himself through the chest.
Mrs. SLOSS: I lost so much that day. And I look back and I think, you know, maybe I lost him before then, maybe I lost him before he came back.
SHAPIRO: The rare cases of suicide have forced the military to change. When troops first return, they're asked if they have symptoms of mental health problems. Only 3 percent say yes. But after three to four months, up to 17 percent do. Starting this summer, the military will follow up and ask those questions again three to six months after a service member gets home. Major Steven Shugart is the chaplain for the South Carolina Army National Guard. Since Sloss died, he now gathers National Guard families together right before a soldier returns to tell them where to go for help. He's added a program to get cops to check on other cops who've come back from Iraq.
Major STEVEN SHUGART (Chaplain, South Carolina Army National Guard): I've never known anybody who went who was not changed by the experience, the experience of potentially being hurt, potentially being in danger. By the same token, once we get through that six months readjustment time of back into work, back into family, back into life, those become precious memories for a vast majority of people, a sense of, `I, too, am a soldier.'
SHAPIRO: It's been one year today since Jeffrey Sloss died. Pam Sloss says she'll be at work in the school library, and she'll listen to her husband's voice on her answering machine.
Mr. J. SLOSS: (From recording) Hey, baby, it me. I miss you, I love you. I wanted to see if I could talk to you for a few minutes while you was at work. Love you. Later.
SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: For photos of Sergeant Sloss and information about post-traumatic stress disorder, go to npr.org.
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