STRESSED OUT - With frequent and longer combat deployments, along with more work and fewer people, the military workforce faces increasing anxieties at home and abroad

  • Published
  • By Timothy Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Twenty-three-year-old Shelly Barton headed to her nightstand, situated directly under the window in her apartment, just like she had every night since moving into the Khobar Towers housing complex at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

As an F-16 avionics technician, she'd deployed there with her unit -- the 34th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base, Utah -- on June 10, 1996. It was now June 25, and the weary-eyed senior airman just wanted to get her nightclothes, take a shower and go to bed.

A step away from her nightstand, the light in her room flickered, stopping her in her tracks. She couldn't explain it, but she could feel the pressure in her room change, as if someone had taken a giant vacuum and was sucking all the air out.

Then the building swayed.

An earthquake? she wondered.

The light turned to almost a greenish haze, and suddenly, the pressure changed again, like a balloon popping. Less than a foot from her face, the window blew in with violent force. Shattered glass, metal, dust and other debris flew within inches of her face as she stood like a statue frozen in place.

"A fraction of a second later and I would have been standing directly in front of that window and had my face blown off," she said, admitting the thought still sends chills up her spine.

She later returned to her room, and the only spot that wasn't covered with dust and debris from the explosion was where her feet had stood during the blast.

"It was eerie seeing my footprints surrounded by all the chaos," she said

Eleven years after it happened, Master Sgt. Shelly Barton, now assigned to the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Inspector General at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, vividly remembers the terrorist bomb attack on Khobar Towers, which killed 19 Airmen just two buildings down from hers. From the time her bedroom light flickered, until glass and metal shards flew past her blue eyes, less than two seconds expired. She, nevertheless, recalls dozens of details ... save for one.

She still has no memory of the sound from the enormous blast.

"I can tell you what I saw, how I felt and even how things smelled, but how it sounded? ... I have no idea," she said. "Everyone else who was there describes the blast as the loudest noise they'd ever heard. They can't believe I don't remember hearing anything."

While she doesn't remember hearing the blast, since that day Barton has had an aversion to loud noises.

"Stuff like noisy clubs, someone coming up behind me and making a loud noise, the television turned too loud -- things that never bothered me before -- now really annoy or even anger me," she said. "Loud noises can turn me into a real b----. I'm aware of it, but it's something I can't control."

According to Col. (Dr.) Bob Ireland, program director for mental health policy with the office of the assistant secretary of defense, health affairs, at the Pentagon and a former psychiatric consultant to the Air Force Surgeon General, Barton's mind blocking out the sounds of the bombing and leaving her with an aversion to loud noises is not abnormal.

"It's a perfectly normal defense mechanism for your body," he said. "Everyone's brain is wired for survival. If you're in Alaska and a grizzly bear comes out of the woods and mauls and eats your buddy, chances are you won't want to go back to that spot. You might get the shakes and sweats or another form of anxiety if put in a similar situation or if you receive some familiar stimuli, such as a certain sound, smell or visual cue."

That doesn't mean you're nuts, the doctor said.

"That's your body working perfectly," he explained. "It's warning you to be careful. It's doing exactly what it was programmed to do. These are defense mechanisms that have served us well as a species. They are key to our survival."

These reactions become a problem, according to the doctor, when they make people non-functional, or even suicidal. Thankfully, Barton is able to deal with the residual emotions from her ordeal and still thrive personally and professionally. She has proven to have a resilient personality.

However, that isn't the case for everyone.

Thirty-three Air Force members comitted suicide in 2007 (through November), with six of the Airmen from Air Education and Training Command, according to the command surgeon office.

It's getting harder and harder to find troops who haven't served in some recent conflict, whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan or Bosnia, just to name a few. And the whole nation was exposed to the horrors of terrorism with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Ireland says today's Airmen are faced with an increasing number of stressors that can lead to everything from anxiety to more severe post traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

According to the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur after experiencing or witnessing life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape. People who suffer this disorder often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged. These symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life.

"Basically, post-traumatic stress can result from anything that scares the daylights out of you," Ireland said.

But a person doesn't have to have the disorder to experience anxiety and stress that can negatively affect them in the workplace and at home. That's why the Air Force developed the Leader's Guide for Managing Personnel in Distress, This online distress roadmap provides guidance on everything from anxiety and depression to combat stress and suicidal behaviors. It helps leaders recognize the symptoms associated with a variety of stressors and assists in outlining what they can do to help.

"This leader's guide covers a lot of tough subjects -- from combat stress to rape -- and it's all available with the click of a mouse," Ireland said. "It's an excellent online guide, and I'd recommend it to anybody concerned about another member. It's like an emotional first-aid kit."