FORT POLK, La. - Atop a hill overlooking a small, makeshift training village at Forward Operating Base Forge is a small shed designed more for the storage of lawn tools than the rehabilitation of Soldiers. The plywood walls hold two desks, three chairs, one storage box for medical manuals and a cot.
It is in these Spartan conditions that Soldiers of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team can find a resource more valuable than any of the tools it might naturally store. It is the 202nd Brigade Support Battalion's behavioral health clinic and despite being out of the way, the traffic hasn't suffered any, said Spc. Axeo Rowe, the mental health specialist who splits the space.
Capt. Michelle Tsai, the behavioral health officer for the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, is the office's other occupant. She is at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., with the 202nd BSB, participating in a training exercise for the Raider Brigade's upcoming deployment to Iraq, where she will offer her services in order to ensure the mental health of Raider Soldiers.
"To me, a Soldier has put their life on the line. If I can do anything to help them relieve that level of stress...it's very rewarding," said Tsai. "We are at war now, and a lot of Soldiers have difficulty dealing with either family issues or combat-related issues."
Tsai hadn't planned on being an Army psychologist — at least not in the beginning. She earned her first degree in pharmacy. However, Tsai said the work was not enough of a challenge. Her favorite part of pharmaceutical work, she said, was the interaction with patients and her capacity to help them.
She began taking psychology classes, and fell under the supervision of a lieutenant colonel during a practicum at Fort Belvoir, Va. He recruited her to use her skills to help Soldiers, she said.
The Army is in need of qualified professionals such as Tsai. Suicide rates amongst Soldiers have been on the rise as the Army has remained in persistent conflict over the past few years. In fact, she — and those like her — is one of the ways the Army is combating suicide and stressors that may push Soldiers into thinking it is a viable solution.
When it comes to suicide, everything is about prevention, she said. By the time a Soldier comes to the clinic, they usually have already expressed or demonstrated some form of suicidal behavior.
"We're not only working with Soldiers with psychological issues, but we're also working with the healthy Soldiers to provide them with coping skills so that they can improve their resiliency," said Tsai. "If they have good coping skills and resiliency, then it will help them not to engage in [suicidal] behavior."
The Army is currently experiencing a shortage of licensed psychologists. A psychologist must be licensed in order to deploy, according to the Surgeon General.
Tsai has spent her entire Army career with the Raider Brigade, and she has the distinction of being one of the few psychologists fully embedded into the unit with which she is deploying.
"I think being embedded with the unit, it helps a lot because I already start to witness what works with Soldiers," said Tsai.
Rowe has been working with Tsai for only three months, but he said he sees the benefits of embedding the behavioral health officer.
A psychologist placed by the Professional Filler System, a method of selecting psychologists from clinics and placing them with a unit for a one-year deployment, doesn't have the opportunity to get their face out there like Tsai and let the Soldiers know they're here for them, said Rowe.
Throughout the JRTC rotation, Tsai and Rowe have been going out to different FOBs and talking to Soldiers in chow lines and around the barracks.
"She's really willing to get out there and just mingle with the Soldiers," said Rowe. "Capt. Tsai's being here, on a day-to-day basis, having the chance to go out to different units — it has a tremendous impact."
An impact that manifested itself in the aftermath of a recent incident, said Rowe.
"She gave a critical incident debrief to the Soldiers. I feel it was quite beneficial to everybody involved there," he said. "It gave many of them a chance to get their feelings of what happened out, and she gave them some tools to take with them to help cope with that."
Tsai's skill set and friendliness with the troops may be the keys to her success downrange, but she also has used JRTC as an opportunity to raise awareness about her presence with the unit and promote her strategy of prevention. She sees the rotation and the upcoming deployment experience not only as a mission, but an opportunity for growth as a psychologist.
"If I've been through whatever the Soldiers have been through," said Tsai, "then I can better help the Soldiers."