USS PELELIU, At Sea - The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), embarked aboard amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu (LHA 5), prepares for deployment with an Operational Stress Control and Readiness (OSCAR) program that will provide mental health and stress control guidance for all Marines.
The United States Marine Corps' OSCAR program is an early stress detection program designed to reduce stigmas related to mental health, augment awareness of operational stress controls among war fighters and decrease lasting deployment-related stress problems.
Navy Lt. Christopher Ragsdale, a licensed clinical social worker assigned to Combat Logistics Battalion (CLB) 15, is the OSCAR program mental health provider during this upcoming deployment.
"The Marine Corps ultimately assigns providers, like myself, to embed with the ground combat element and go wherever they go," said Ragsdale.
Mental health professionals are not primarily clinical health care providers. Instead they are combat stress control professionals who instruct and learn about their units through constant contact in the field, before, during and after deployment. OSCAR mental health providers, Navy hospital corpsmen and Marine non-commissioned officers spend as much time as possible with their Marines as possible.
"Education is a big part of my job," said Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Travis Sells, a behavioral health technician assigned to CLB 15. "It can be formal training such as operational stress classes, stress and anger management and sleep hygiene training or any number of different classes. There's also informal training, and I tend to do those a lot with junior Marines. It's important to educate the junior Marines about getting to know each other and what some of the warning signs are of someone who may be experiencing a lot of stress or contemplating suicide."
OSCAR provides three levels of dealing with stress.
"The program was set up to work the entire chain of command from the lowest level to the top," Ragsdale said.
The first level is mentors. Mentors are Sailors or Marines who have a genuine desire to help their fellow shipmates or troops. These mentors can settle many stress-related problems just by talking about issues and teaching how to handle these issues in a positive manner.
The effectiveness of the program lies in the training and awareness of the enlisted troops to be able to notice when a fellow Marine may be experiencing stressors that can lead to violent or suicidal tendencies.
"It's important to have enlisted guys, such as our corpsmen, because the majority of our patients are enlisted," said Sells. "A lot of times they see officers and don't really want to talk to them. You have that enlisted connection with them, and they understand that you have been through some of the same things that they have been through and may understand some of the stressors that they have."
If additional help is needed, the mentors may direct the person to an extender, the second level of treatment. OSCAR extenders may be a Navy medical officer, hospital corpsman or a chaplain. Extenders are a median between mentors and providers. Providers are Navy mental health care professionals who have spent time embedded with units in the field.
"On deployments, we integrate with the troops," Sells said. "I get out there and do what the Marines do. I eat with them, PT with them, live in the same spaces as them and really get to know them. One of the biggest parts of my job is to be seen, not giving a sales pitch or convincing them to talk to us, but just being there."
Team members are expected to learn as much as they can about the stresses their Marines cope with, how they would generally cope with those stresses, and how they view themselves along with their own stress and reactions to that stress.
"There's a lot of misconception about mental health in the military," said Ragsdale. "They often think that if they go see the mental health provider, they will be removed from the fight, never to return. We are trying to reduce that stigma. After I embed with them for a while they get to know and trust me. There's an opportunity to recognize and intervene earlier when we notice someone who may have a problem, and they can talk to us openly without being embarrassed or worrying about the consequences."
The OSCAR program is for Marines by Marines. Looking after one another is embedded in each and every Marine already, and this program takes it to a higher level.
This program began with the implementation of MARADMIN 428/03 as a pilot program with 2nd Marine Division in 2003.