Combat Stress Gives Military Pause

"They realize they can get through the 12 months, the 15 months, it's not the end of the world," he said.

The Army urgently is trying to gather data to figure out why the suicides have increased so dramatically. In the meantime, Col. John Looper, a psychiatrist, said he thinks the level of stigma associated with mental health issues is gradually waning.

Lt. Col. Beth Salisbury, who runs the Camp Liberty clinic in Baghdad where the recent shootings occurred, likewise said, "I think this stigma has changed a lot," adding that it's a good sign when soldiers bring their peers into the stress center for care.

Still, Alex Penalver, 25, said he can relate to how many troubled troops feel during deployment. After three consecutive tours in Iraq, he, too, is at Pathway Home, where more than a 1,000 veterans from earlier wars now live.

Penalver is battling symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, as are about 20 percent of the 1.6 million U.S. servicemembers who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. While some get help and learn to cope, many others do not.

Penalver did three consecutive tours in Iraq and said his life changed when he first faced rockets and mortars.

"It prepared me for death. It prepared me. Mentally, I was prepared every day to die," Penalver said. "Every single day, I was ready to go. It was a little bit of a detachment. I had to detach myself from emotions. I had to detach myself from my life, the family life. I had to be ready to do what I had to do at any given moment. That's what I was trained to do, that's what I had to do."

Of the Camp Liberty shootings, Penalver said, "I can sympathize with feeling like there's ... nothing else you can do, feeling left, like you're against a wall."

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