Kathy Platoni, Psy.D., has left behind the 50-minute hours of private practice in Centerville, Ohio, for a different professional venue – the rugged terrain of Iraq where 100-degree-plus discomfort is regularly punctuated by exploding mortars or roadside “improvised explosive devices.”
“We’re going into our tenth month and we’re hoping to be home by Christmas,” Platoni told The National Psychologist in an interview during an all-too-short September leave back home with her husband, John Hutchinson.
Platoni is a lieutenant colonel in the Army with 26 years active and reserve service, including her current assignment with a combat stress unit of the 55th Medical Company from Indianapolis on deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Her husband is perhaps more understanding than many family members of those serving overseas because he is ex-military, a former Air Force navigator who retired as a lieutenant colonel.
At 53, Platoni said she is the oldest member of her unit and presently is officer in charge of a mental health team helping soldiers cope with the grisly duty of bringing in the dead or injured after explosions or striking back in raids on insurgent strongholds near Ar Ramadi 30 miles west of Fallujah in Al Anbar Province – an area known as the Sunni Triangle of Death.
“It’s where the insurgency is operating at an all-time high,” Platoni said to describe the FOB – the Army acronym for “forward operating base.”
Platoni, who weighs just 92 pounds, said the work is physically demanding as well as mentally challenging and often involves scrambling in and out of Humvees and other military vehicles in full combat gear.
“I’ve carried my own body weight on my back,” she said. Any trip “outside the wire” of the military compound means donning 40 pounds of body armor and special helmets. The two sergeants assigned to the unit as mental health technicians carry automatic rifles and Platoni is armed with a 9mm Barretta. Each keeps a round “in the chamber” for quick response if needed.
Despite the danger, team members accompany units on missions whenever the command will allow because that’s how they gain the respect and trust of combat soldiers. “You make yourself one of them – which we are. We all wear the same uniforms and are all part of the same Army, regardless of rank or gender. Putting oneself in harm’s way is not gender-specific.”
Ar Ramadi is her seventh duty site in Iraq, which began with her assignment as Deputy Commander of Clinical Services in the Baghdad International Zone. FOB assignments are considered more dangerous, but Platoni said danger is relative in Iraq. Even “inside the wire” half the chow hall had to be closed after it was showered with about 500 pieces of shrapnel from a mortar attack.
“There really is no safe place,” she said.
Platoni said she has been part of more than 200 debriefings of Army and Marine personnel after encounters with potentially traumatizing experiences, which are everyday occurrences in a place where innocent civilians are indistinguishable from insurgents and soldiers must deal with exploded vehicles, body parts and roadway shrapnel regularly.
Those who continue to show symptoms of combat fatigue after primary intervention – extreme anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, or erratic behavior – are kept back for further evaluation and restoration programs, but to a large degree, the on-the-scene immediate care is effective and has earned the respect of military commanders, she said.
“This concept has been a Godsend in the theater of operations,” Platoni said, adding that the Army is far ahead of the other branches of the military in providing combat interventions.
Maintaining availability means 12- to 20-hour shifts seven days a week with the unit’s building open to soldiers every day until 1 a.m. Some come in with something “to talk out” while others simply stop by for a snack or a cup of coffee. It all contributes to developing the needed trust for the unit to do its job.
“It’s such a wonderful thing to overcome these challenges,” Platoni said. “I love the mission. We don’t have all the amenities, but we have each other. I hope I’ve given at least a quarter of what I’ve gotten in return.”
Iraq is not Platoni’s first experience with extreme stress. She also served 10 months at Guantanamo, counseling military and civilian workers overseeing detainees at the “Gitmo” prison camp.
“I had minimal contact with the detainees,” she said, adding that mental health services for detainees were provided by other specialists. Her duty was to care for military and civilian personnel assigned to the camp. She said in many ways those assignments can be as stressful as combat.
“You’re not being shot at, but you’re being assaulted by bodily fluids of all sorts.” She said the detainees often strike out with the only weapons at their disposal, sweat, blood and even urine.
She said the mental health workers of the Army and Navy assigned to treat the detainees were “top notch” and included Ph.D. psychologists, medical doctors and psychiatric nurses.
When not on active duty, Platoni is an adjunct assistant clinical professor with Wright State University, providing occasional presentations and giving on-the-job training in her office for graduate and medical students.
As if Gitmo and Iraq were not enough, Platoni also served most of a year as a volunteer in New York after the 9/ll attacks on the Twin Towers and returned there in 2002 at the invitation of the NYPD. “Debriefings were conducted for the better part of a year at Ground Zero for the New York Police Department,” she said.
She said the importance of immediate mental health attention (combat operational stress control) after such emotionally scarring experiences cannot be overstated. “Without it, people tend to relive these situations over and over.”