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Thrilling therapy

Army uses extreme sports to help war veterans

Aug. 12, 2009 - 12:37PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 12, 2009 - 12:37PM  |  
Sgt. Sylvia Portillo bungee jumps as she takes part in Warrior Adventure Quest, near Amboy, Wash. The program seeks to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan adjust to life outside the war zone through exposure to adventure sports.
Sgt. Sylvia Portillo bungee jumps as she takes part in Warrior Adventure Quest, near Amboy, Wash. The program seeks to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan adjust to life outside the war zone through exposure to adventure sports. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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FORT LEWIS, Wash. — Army Sgt. Sylvia Portillo went first. Secured with elastic cords to a railroad bridge more than 200 feet over a gorge south of Mount St. Helens, Portillo's mission was to dive over the edge. She pretended to throw up, getting a nervous laugh out of the troops behind her. Then, keeping her own anxiety in check, she bungee jumped into the lush green below.

Dozens of soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 12th Field Artillery Regiment, and the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team took the plunge that day last fall. Most had recently returned from deployment to Iraq. Few had bungee jumped before.

As he stood at the edge, Sgt. Steve Damron felt a mix of trepidation and adrenaline that he likened to what he felt on patrols through Baghdad. "It's a chance to calm our brothers down," he said, "to push that adrenaline out."

That's the idea.

As of June, more than 323,000 soldiers have served more than one deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to Defense Department statistics, and the Army had the highest rate of suicides on record last year.

The situation has the military searching for ways to supplement its counseling and programs, and now, for ways to bring the thrilling terror of war home through safe outlets.

The battle-weary 4th Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Lewis, was picked for the third and final trial of a new Army program called Warrior Adventure Quest. It sends soldiers just back from war on outings of paintball, mountain biking, scuba diving, sky diving, whitewater rafting, alpine skiing, snowboarding and rock climbing.

Army officials say they've learned that soldiers who are used to life in a war zone suddenly find life at home to be moving at a glacial pace. The theory is that extreme experiences such as thrill sports can help troops overcome what one soldier in the 4th Stryker BCT called "the Rambo syndrome" — the emotional need for some of the tension and fear-tinged excitement of combat.

"If they want adrenaline, let's give them adrenaline. Let's give it to them in a manner in which they are going to survive," said John O'Sullivan, the Army's outdoor recreation program manager. That's where bungee jumping comes in.

"It's like your first time going in a house" in Iraq, he said. "You have no clue what's on the other side. You hit one room, awesome sweep. Now, OK, you've got to hit another room. You're walking in the middle of the night. You have no clue what's out there — like bungee jumping."

Warrior Adventure Quest is really a post-deployment extension of an emotion-based battlefield assessment. It goes beyond the traditional review of tactics to include immediate assessments of soldiers' reactions and the acknowledgment of the need for "self and buddy aid."

The team that developed Warrior Adventure Quest recommended debriefings after each activity.

"It's a final reset" before returning to society, said Lt. Col. Ed Busher, the deputy director of the behavioral health department in the Army's Office of the Surgeon General, who traveled to Fort Lewis for the program's final test.

"It's been unanimously well-received," he said. "Every iteration, there's been this experience of, ‘Oh, this reminded me of Iraq.'"

The Army began implementing it among platoon-sized units of 30 to 40 soldiers in January at Grafenwoehr and Ansbach in Germany, and then at Fort Drum, N.Y.; Fort Stewart, Ga.; Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; and Fort Bragg, N.C.

By this fall, the Army will have started Warrior Adventure Quest at 26 posts worldwide.

Dr. Dan Blazer, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center who works with World War II veterans still struggling with their experiences, says the approach may help, but can't replicate feelings associated with combat.

"The stress of war is unlike anything else that we can imagine or imitate," he says. "I suspect that as long as we have war, especially war such as in the two theaters currently, we are going to see" post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Army is still exploring how to pay for the $7 million project beyond this fiscal year. It is also collecting data to see if it works.

The half-dozen Fort Lewis soldiers who joined Damron think it does. For them, the aggression of war remains fresh. Sounds of the urban night they used to sleep through — sirens, squealing tires — keep them on full alert. Garbage-strewn alleys in Tacoma and Seattle bring flashbacks to Baghdad. Most at the bungee-jumping site had been home for less than four months. Some had done multiple tours in Iraq, completing nightly missions in Black Hawk helicopters and sleeping through days back at their bases. Others' missions were more sporadic, causing as little as two hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Some go on runs at midnight because they can't wind down to sleep.

"I just had to keep telling myself to slow down," Damron said. "I wanted to be active at all times of the day."

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