USS BOXER, At Sea -- USS Boxer’s medical department is literally a floating hospital, capable of handling most surgeries. The clinic has a radiology department with three X-ray technicians. It also has a blood bank, pharmacy, two laboratories, and more than 300 beds to hold patients.
Within the medical facility is a dental clinic staffed with a dentist, a certified dental hygienist, specialized Hospital Corpsmen and operating rooms.
Boxer’s medical staff has the physical aspect of patient care covered from top to bottom and thanks to the arrival of a two-man psychiatric team the mental health care of Sailors and Marines is also covered.
Lt. George Loeffler, a staff psychiatrist and Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (FMF/SW) Jake Skinner, a behavior health technician arrived aboard the amphibious assault ship two months ago adding a valuable resource to help Sailors and Marines during deployment.
“We are here to support the Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and help support the larger Operational Stress Control picture for the entire ARG /MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] across three ships,” said Loeffler, from New York City. “Our role is with the mental health aspect, improving performance, resilience, coping skills, and decreasing acute crises and medical evacuations. Mental health ultimately enhances fighting-force preservation.”
They didn’t waste any time getting settled either. Immediately they set up classes and started seeing patients. Helping Sailors and Marines is their main goal.
“I think I have the best job in the world,” said Loeffler. “I get to work with people on a real human level. Everyone suffers and I get to help them refocus on their strengths.”
One of the classes offered is Sleep, Anger, Stress and Relaxation (SASR), a skill based program held daily in medical. It’s a group forum, where the door is always open to any Sailor or Marine who wants to attend, whether they have seen the doctor or not.
“I give them relaxation and meditation techniques,” said Skinner from Moore, Okla. “I also try to help them put humor into everyday situations.”
Skinner, whose long term career goal is to be a detective, says his job lets him read his patients body language to get an understanding of their behavior and better help them.
“It allows me to talk to my Marines who have PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], relationship or family problems and be able to put the puzzle together on the outside and give them the tools to fill it in on the inside,” said Skinner.
Skinner, who has been in the Navy for more than eight years, says his biggest drive for wanting to help people comes from past experiences.
“I have had a couple of friends who committed suicide when they got back from deployment,” said Skinner. “I’d always say come talk to me, but what I said and what the chaplain said wasn’t enough. My drive is to never let that happen again.”
Loeffler and Skinner both teach the SASR class, which also gives service members coping skills to help them handle the kinds of challenges they might face during deployment.
“I’ve been really impressed with how adventurous the Sailors and Marines attending SASR are,” said Loeffler.
Loeffler recently introduced self-hypnosis during his SASR classes as a new stress control technique. He explains it as a combination of diaphragmatic breathing, tactical visualization and meditation or in other words a mellow, trance-like state.
“When I mentioned self-hypnosis I wasn’t sure how they would react,” he said. “But, other than a few comments like, ‘will you make me cluck like a chicken’ they really threw themselves into it.”
Loeffler says that he gets to see patients grow and succeed but, he also learns from them too.
“I think Sailors and Marines really enjoy the classes,” he said. “I know I do. I usually leave laughing. These classes are definitely the highlights of my day.”
Another class he offers is called Resilience and Performance Optimization (RPO). It’s an interactive workshop for individual shipboard departments or divisions based on a program from the Naval Center for Combat and Operational Stress Control. The class is approximately six to eight hours in length and can be divided into several smaller classes.
“Perhaps the biggest lesson is that stress is not the same thing as illness,” said Loeffler. “People can be stressed out, and it can make you feel terrible physically and mentally. But that doesn’t mean you’re sick; it means you need to work on dealing with stress. When you realize this it can be quite liberating.”
The mental health teams’ goal is to teach these lessons to Sailors and Marines aboard to help them recognize stress in their lives and learn how to better handle it.
“I see a lot of progress in the patients that we have seen,” said Skinner. “They are improving their coping skills and starting to identify their stressors and weaknesses as well as their strengths.”
Boxer’s Senior Medical Officer, Lt. Cmdr. Jason Palmer, said service members aboard have many tools available to them to strengthen their stress management skills and improve their performance while at sea.
“The addition of the psychiatric mental health team has made a significant impact on quality of care and health management aboard Boxer,” added Palmer. “Boxer is leading the way for implementation of enhanced mental health facilities.”