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Kentucky's Operation Immersion gives health providers an up-close look at National Guard training

By Cody Stagner | Kentucky National Guard | Dec. 31, 2012

GREENVILLE, Ky. - During Kentucky's Operation Immersion, behavioral health professionals were invited to Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center here from Nov. 14-16 for a behind-the-scenes look at military culture and ways to improve behavioral health care for service members and veterans living in Kentucky.

The event helped bridge the gap between the military and civilian worlds. A Soldier's mindset stems from unique training, experience and military culture, which can be misunderstood by members outside the military community.

Misconceptions like the one above are also evident when Service Members seek assistance in behavioral health. The same mindset of being strong and tough creates the stigma of service members feeling a call for help is a sign of weakness.

But, when they do reach past this stigma, other barriers may continue to keep them from receiving the best available care.

To reduce these barriers, the Kentucky National Guard teamed with Kentucky's Division of Behavioral Health to offer a first-of-its-kind immersion program in the Commonwealth.

"Access to care is the largest problem surrounding behavioral health in the Kentucky National Guard," said Col. Michael Gavin, the state surgeon for the Kentucky Guard. "We need more services available, and we need our providers to know how to reach out and find additional support. Operation Immersion gave Kentucky a chance for its providers to learn better ways to treat and service the military at the same time as networking with their peers."

Participants stayed in barracks, ate military food, conducted physical fitness training, completed basic soldier tasks, and attended classroom lessons on a multitude of behavioral health subjects.

Sgt. Maj. Steven Woods and his team from the Pre-mobilization Training Assistance Element (PTAE) instructed portions of this training to give perspective on being a Soldier.

"At the Field Leadership Reaction Course, challenges consisted of obstacles in which a team had to plan and work together in order to negotiate the obstacles," said Woods, the senior noncommissioned officer for the PTAE. "The course causes team members to have to give up some of their comfort levels and learn how to depend on and support others."

Teams navigated across the lava leap, breached laser beams, balanced their way across a rushing river, escaped the POW camp, and completed many other challenges.

"One of my most memorable experiences was the team challenges that we did the first day," said Brad Nelson, a drug court specialist from Louisville. "This was a great tool to show people what teamwork is all about."

Nelson included the early-morning physical fitness training on the second day as another challenge he will never forget. Between the dark hours of 5 to 6 a.m., the entire group broke a boot-camp-like sweat with nationally known Master Fitness and Resilience training instructor Staff Sgt. Ken Weichert, a.k.a. "Sgt. Ken".

Micah Thompson, a marriage and family therapist associate from Paducah, Ky., enjoyed the simulation ranges at WHFRTC the most.

"The EST and VCOT simulators gave a priceless closer look at what service men and women are really exposed to and have trained for," Thompson said.

According to Woods, the Engagement Skills Trainer and Virtual Convoy Operations Trainer allowed participants to simulate engaging the enemy with several different weapons in virtual reality tactical environments.

Operation Immersion progressed from electronic simulators to live rounds when participants tested their skills in urban combat. They were issued military-style paintball rifles and required to identify and eliminate threats as real Soldiers would in combat.

Although lives were obviously not in real danger, the urban combat scenario was a climax of the deployment experience. Intense engagement with opposition forces—members of the PTAE—conveyed heightened levels of adrenaline, fear and anxiety as experienced by service members in combat roles overseas.

"I have lived in a military town most of my life," said Noelle Fenske, of Elizabethtown, Ky., a suicide prevention specialist. "While I have always had great respect for service members, it is easy to get used to them and forget their sacrifices when they are part of your community.  Operation Immersion was a reminder of just how much our service members do for our country."

From the battlefield to the classroom, Operation Immersion staff kept the behavioral health providers busy. Classroom instruction focused key points on suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress, resilience, traumatic brain injury, military culture, service member stories and others.

"I work with service members regularly," said Fenske. "This event has given me tools that will help me to better relate to the service members I work with. The experience was truly a privilege that I will remember for a lifetime."