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Maj. Gen. James Terry, Fort Drum's commander
Maj. Gen. James Terry, Fort Drum's commander

Ft. Drum commander discusses strategy & mental health, in Afghanistan and on post

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Fort Drum's commander says the Army post near Watertown is the busiest he's ever seen it. Major General James Terry told reporters at a media briefing Friday that the 10th Mountain Division's headquarters is training to take control of the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, most Fort Drum soldiers are either in, returning from, or preparing to go to Afghanistan or Iraq. General Terry highlighted efforts to address mental health as the Army continues to struggle with combat trauma and the stress of repeat deployments. David Sommerstein reports.

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Fort Drum is smack in the middle of the Obama Administration's war strategy.  The 1st and 2nd Brigades are in Afghanistan and Iraq training local soldiers and police.  And the 10th Mountain headquarters is off to Kandahar in October, the main theater in the fight against the Taliban.  And that's how Major General James Terry likes it.

I can't think of a more exciting time and another place I'd rather be with the 10 Mountain Division than right now headed into that area of responsibility right there.

The U.S. military has changed its approach in Afghanistan, focusing more on cultural sensitivity and winning over local populations.  Terry says he's met with in-country experts, including former NPR reporter, Sarah Chayes, who's worked in Kandahar since 2002.  And he's hired Afghan nationals to teach his troops language and customs.

All that so that we get the right context and understand the environment that we're going into in Afghanistan.

Terry says Fort Drum is adapting at home, too.  The Army is beset by high suicide rates and an epidemic of combat trauma.  Divorce, domestic violence, and drunk driving are all up.  Terry acknowledges repeat deployments to dangerous war zones have taken their toll.

We have been at this, the 10th Mountain Division, since September of 2001.  We've been at this longer, actually, than we were at World War 2.

The Fort Drum commander spoke of new efforts on post to help stressed soldiers and their families.  Even before the 3rd Brigade returned from Afghanistan in January, Terry says officers and mental health staff identified 1200 potentially at-risk soldiers, nearly a third of the brigade.  And they were monitored closely.

Before they redeployed, after they got off the plane before they went on block leave, and then again after they returned from block leave, so we can properly integrate all those soldiers back into our formations and get them back into the requisite readiness standard that's out there.

Fort Drum's emphasis on mental health comes as the Army deals with more bad press on how it's handling such issues.  A recent New York Times report described harsh treatment and warehousing of injured soldiers at Fort Carson in Colorado.  A high-ranking general acknowledged the report last week, saying the issues will be examined.

General Terry says it's hard to penetrate the stigma of mental health problems among rank and file soldiers.

This screwdriver up here at the division installation level trying to tweak the processes and procedures all the way down to the soldiers just doesn't get it.

Terry says new mental health councilsare trying to take the message down to the company and platoon level.

Another big problem is dwell time, the time in between deployments.  Terry says it's averaged 12 months in the past but is up to 15 months for most brigades.  The 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, however, is going to Afghanistan this fall, after returning from Iraq last fall.  Brigade commander Colonel Pedro Almeida says it's a challenge.

Certainly not the most desired course of action for soldiers and their families to turn them around in 12 months.  We realize that, we understand that, but the soldiers are definitely rising up to the occasion, and they're making it happen.

According to General Terry, the last time the 10th Mountain Division had most all its troops back at Fort Drum was in 2005.  He says if troop drawdowns happen in Iraq and Afghanistan as the Pentagon foresees, Fort Drum could be whole again in 2012.  But he concedes that's a big if.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein at Fort Drum.

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