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Combating combat stress

Being a neighbor to Camp Pendleton, Fallbrook is home to many who serve our country as Marines.

These men and women are on call to go overseas, fight terrorism and establish peace overseas for months on end. When they return home, they often find that their home life is different or that they are different themselves after being far from home for so long.

For certain Marines and other military personnel, the anxiety of dealing with issues related to war or trying to adjust to civilian life is difficult, if not crippling. The situation grows even worse if the Marine’s family does not understand.

Combat/Operational Stress, or feelings of depression, anger and isolation after a traumatic experience, such as serving under particularly violent circumstances, is normal, but Marines can feel isolated in their situation if they are unaware of the fact that they are suffering from something that can be treated.

“When an event happens that’s abnormal, we adapt and try to survive through it,” said Dr. Sally Wolf, PhD, a Marriage and Family Therapist who treats men and women who have suffered from combat stress in her Fallbrook private practice and with Camp Pendleton’s Counseling Services.

According to Wolf, once Marines return to US soil, they are given “initial incident debriefing,” in which counselors help them try to normalize an abnormal situation.

Soldiers are told they might lose sleep, relive the event and have flashbacks, which are all understandable reactions to combat and other traumatic situations.

However, these feelings should dissipate over time. If they do not and instead become intrusive thoughts, it may be time to get help, said Wolf.

Camp Pendleton has been working with some of the best counselors and therapists in the country to help Marines and their families deal with the change that comes from serving as a Marine.

This is part of the Marine Corps’ quest to “ensure that all Marines and family members who bear the invisible wounds caused by stress receive the best help possible and…are afforded the same respect given to the physically injured.”

According to the Marine Corps Web site, the corps uses Combat/Operational Stress Control to maintain a ready fighting force and protect and restore the health of Marines and their family members.

Two of the programs used by Camp Pendleton that “prevent, identify and holistically treat mental injuries caused by combat or other operations” include Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and the FOCUS project.

According to, the EMDR Institute’s official Web site, EMDR is a “psychotherapy treatment that was originally designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.”

According to Wolf, EMDR allows a person to “float back” to a disturbing experience in order to reprocess and desensitize it so the negative emotions from the experience are not carried forward into the present.

EMDR is not hypnosis, as the patient is conscious throughout the whole process. It is considered an adjunct to other treatments, such as seeing a psychiatrist.

“EMDR can work with cognitive and behavioral therapy but is only an additional piece to therapy,” said Wolf. “It is not a substitution for any existing relationships with psychiatrists, doctors or medication.”

While each EMDR treatment is individual, data shows it does seem to address the issues and offer faster healing, said Wolf.

“[Marines] can still have memory of the event but the preoccupation of it, the intrusive thoughts and emotions related to it, can be healed,” she said. “You see someone have a release of symptoms and experience a more satisfying life.”

Treatment for Combat/Operational Stress varies from person to person, but it is crucial that family members be fully supportive of any therapy the Marine may need to go through.

“[The Marine’s] quality of life could be affected,” said Wolf. “Take the stigma of treatment away by explaining that everyone needs help at some time of their life, and respect them for reaching out. Be there for them, but don’t intrude upon them or make fun of them.”

The Marine Corps has also recognized that a Marine’s wartime deployment does not take a toll only on the service member. Family members on the home front need support during and after the Marine’s time abroad as well.

This is especially true because of the stress and interference the time abroad causes; it disrupts parenting, family life in general and child adjustment in family roles, routines and support.

The FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) project was founded in 2007 by the UCLA Child and Family Trauma Service at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, in coordination with the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, after identifying a critical need for prevention and intervention services to foster resiliency within military families.

The project addresses concerns related to parental combat operational stress injuries and combat-related physical injuries with the spouse and children of the service member.

FOCUS has developmentally appropriate material in order to talk to children of US Navy and Marine Corps members who are separated from their families, said spokesman Dr. Greg Leskin, PhD.

This is especially useful for the 1.2 million children who have active duty military parents and the 40 percent of Navy and Marine Corps service members who have at least one dependent child under the age of 18.

“FOCUS does not offer mental health,” said Leskin. “It teaches children how to cope positively and to be strong during the time apart. FOCUS gives the tools and strategies to be able to function not only when the Marine is away but also in order to function as a family.”

“The family is the primary support system for a Marine,” Leskin added. “We enhance the strength of a family and open up communication strategies in order to relieve combat stress. We give the Marine peace of mind about his family, allowing him to be able to more fully serve his country.”

For more information about the Marine Corps’ Treatment for Combat Distress, visit

More information on EMDR and the FOCUS project can be found at and, respectively.

For more information on Dr. Wolf’s practice, visit

To comment on this story online, visit

Besides the FOCUS project and EMDR, Camp Pendleton’s Counseling Services and Programs to assist the Marine and his or her family during all times of the deployment cycle include:

• Counseling services at Camp Pendleton: a weekly skill-building Combat Stress workshop that provides the opportunity for service members to learn about stress reactions after being in a war zone and coping skills for daily life as well as troubleshoot some of the problems related to deployment or combat

• New Parent Support Program: a professional team of nurses and social workers who provide supportive services to military families with children under age 6. They employ trained Home Visitors who have extensive knowledge of the issues confronting parents unique to the challenges of military life.

• Palomar Counseling Services: works with families and young children (to age 5) to provide support and training on handling behavioral difficulties often associated with the military lifestyle

• Military Family Life Consultants: available during the summer months to work with youth and teens. They are embedded in the program to provide ongoing support and guidance.

• Coming Together Around Military Families: Zero to Three and the Military Child Education Foundation have joined to extend support to families with young children. More information may be found at

All counseling services offered at Camp Pendleton are available free of charge to active duty military and dependents.


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