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Life skills team helps warriors cope

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- If you're going to live your life well, particularly in a war zone, it might be wise to have some life skills.
Life Skills, known to old timers as mental health, is exactly what a three-member team of Reservists provided to Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in Balad, Iraq earlier this year.
Maj. David Ubelhor, Capt. James Sardo, and Tech. Sgt. Edrid Tirado, all of the 446th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, spent 120 days in Iraq between January and May delivering a wide variety of mental health resources to joint forces.
"This was the first and only Reserve unit to deploy as a complete MHRRT," said Major Ubelhor. "Although we're housed with the ASTS, we don't operate solely in the aeromedical world. Our UTC (unit task code) is part of the contingency medical ground support."
Known as the Mental Health Rapid Response Team, these three professionals bring with them the skills of a clinical psychologist (Sardo), a clinical social worker (Ubelhor), and a mental health technician (Tirado).
"As a MHRRT, we provide what we now call life skills," explained Major Ubelhor. "The term 'life skills' reflects the more preventive focus of the Air Force, rather than simply waiting for problems to occur and then trying to remedy them."
Although assigned as part of the ASTS, the MHRRT is often activated and deployed with an expeditionary medical support squadron, as they were in Balad.
The team delivered mental health services on an outpatient basis out of an expeditionary medical squadron or EMEDS.
"We also went to the Air Force theatre hospital and helped with the wounded Soldiers there. Some of them were going back to their units, so we would give them mental health services there in the hospital. Some of them would also need to enter the air evacuation system, so we would bridge the gap between their stay at the contingency staging facility and their follow-up care in Germany or at a stateside facility."
Not all the team's efforts are directed to totally resolving a person's current issue. Often times, they simply bridge the gap until future appointments can be arranged.
"I don't try to fix all these people if they're going back to their unit for duty. In those cases, I set up referrals to other mental health professionals working closer to that person's unit. I would do emotional first aid in those cases."
Not only did the team provide services at the theater hospital, the CASF, and the EMEDS, they went wherever they needed to - such as in a pick-up truck.
"I jumped in the pick-up truck with one Soldier as he was going to pick up his gear on his way to catch the chopper back to his unit," said the major. "I did my therapy session in the truck and then referred the troop for a follow-up visit with a field psychologist assigned nearer to his unit. That's how it worked sometimes, we would get an hour or less with Soldiers and the only thing you can think of is how to help them reduce their emotional stress."
Combat stress, anxiety, inability to sleep, personal issues, relationship problems, and anger, are among the issues to which the team responded.
"Things can be a little different for medical personnel at Balad. I recall, for instance, that my first patient was an Army troop who presented with 'an anger issue' and his loaded M-16 rifle," said Major Ubelhor.
"Lots of relationship problems; that's the number one issue and has been for a number of years," said Major Ubelhor. "So if you have problems before you go over, guess what, they don't get any better in a war zone. Bad situations actually get exacerbated."
Of the patients seen in Balad, about 98 percent were returned to duty by this Life Skills team.
A key player for working out personnel problems and getting Airmen back to work is the first sergeant.
"Commander support is key, but since most of our business comes from the enlisted ranks (because of the greater percentage of enlisted personnel), we work hard to maintain a tight relationship with the first sergeants," said Major Ubelhor.
"I met with the Shirts almost immediately after we arrived in Balad and told them to let us know early and often what's going on with their people so we could prevent or reduce as many problems as possible."
The Life Skills team encouraged supervisors and first sergeants not to wait until a problem came up that would result in administrative action or, in a worsening situation that required them to send the Airman home. As the major told first sergeants, the Life Skills team is designed to be a force multiplier.
"Fortunately, they heard what we had to say and we had some really good successes," say Major Ubelhor.
For the Life Skills team, the experience at Balad was sometimes maddening, it was frustrating, it was challenging, it was exhilarating, and it was, overall, wonderful.
"There's a whole range of emotions and the challenges always came, 24 hours a day. But that's the exciting part - to have had the confidence that we'd trained well, to then execute that training, and to know, through consistent feedback from the troops and commanders, that we did a good job," said the major.