When reaching out for help with a mental illness, there are many questions soldiers often ask themselves. Is this going to impact my career? Am I going to be labeled by my peers and chain of command? How can someone I don’t even know help me?
For Spc. Jack Buckwalter, a mental health specialist with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, easing troops’ minds has become his daily mission.
“The Army has come a very long way in the battle against stigma, but it’s still very prevalent,” Buckwalter said. “Soldiers are always going to have second thoughts about seeking behavioral health. It’s my job to make sure their worries are rested and ensure they receive the care they need and deserve.”
Now working at Troop Medical Clinic 12 at Hood Army Airfield, the soft-spoken and reserved Buckwalter began his journey into the medical field shortly after graduating in 2008 from Warren County Technical School, N.J.
Upon graduating, “Buck,” as he is often referred to by fellow members of his unit, attended college at Raritan Valley Community College for a year, where he tested the waters, trying to find what career he wanted to pursue.
After paying out of pocket for a year’s schooling, Buckwalter began running short on funds and it became apparent he would have to do something quickly if he wanted to continue his education.
“I was running out of money, so I initiated contact with a recruiter and I found myself in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood (Mo.) shortly after,” Buckwalter said. “The next thing I know, I was at Fort Hood for only 23 days, including in-processing, and was then deployed to Afghanistan with (the brigade).”
Making an impact
During his deployment to Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, Buckwalter admitted he was initially uneasy about deploying so quickly, but soon went on to make an impact for not only his brigade, but the entire Regional Command North.
“I ended up playing an instrumental part in establishing the first tele-behavioral health system in RC-North,” Buckwalter said. “By doing so, the system (which is similar to Skype) allowed behavioral health access to forward operating and combined operating bases in the region that didn’t have the personnel and clinics available to provide adequate care.”
After Buckwalter and fellow colleagues implemented the tele-behavioral health system, similar systems were placed throughout the region to make up for the lack of facilities in the region at that time.
Upon redeployment, Buckwalter found himself once again playing a key role in the behavioral health field as he was informed his military occupational specialty was being added to the brigade’s modified table of organization and equipment; a first for the aviation unit.
“I was told I was the first organic behavioral health specialist in an aviation unit,” Buckwalter said. “Whereas in the past units would augment themselves with mental health specialists from other units, now we had an official slot for a mental health specialist on our MTOE.”
Now a seasoned mental health specialist with a combat deployment under his belt, Buckwalter assists soldiers with their mental health concerns not only at the clinic, but throughout formations in the brigade by performing walkabouts to battle stigma.
Walkabouts are a method commonly used by mental health specialists to interact with soldiers on an informal basis. They facilitate a relaxed opportunity for behavioral health members to chat with troops in order to dictate the warfighter’s wellbeing and potential need for care.
During his more than 150 walkabouts since returning stateside, Buckwalter has joined soldiers throughout the ranks of the brigade in casual conversation to ensure their safety and welfare without coming across as intrusive.
“The mission for walkabouts is preventive care,” Buckwalter said. “Walkabouts give me a chance to chill with soldiers and discuss what’s all going on in their lives if they feel like doing so. If they require help, it gives me the chance to come to them and provide them with several relaxation tips, or to point them in the right direction if I’m unable to assist.”
Staff Sgt. George Watlington, with Headquarters Company, has worked side-by-side with “Buck” during the last several months and said he is impressed by his motivation and commitment to improve every day.
“He’s the first line of defense at TMC 12,” Watlington said. “When soldiers enter the clinic with mental health concerns, they see Buckwalter first most of the time and receive their triage or biopsychosocial interview from him. He his always expanding on his (military occupational specialty), and he’s entering the Warrior Leader Course next week. He’s in the molding process of becoming a great noncommissioned officer.”
At the end of the day, Buckwalter said, he’s learned from each and every member of his team, and seeing a soldier who was battling mental issues respond successfully to his team’s treatment makes his job worth waking up for every morning.
“What’s really cool is when a soldier completes treatment,” Buckwalter said. “They might come in one day droopy and leave smiling when they walk out of the door after receiving the help they needed. That’s when I get a sense of job satisfaction and know what I do truly has an impact.”