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Bombing Aftermath: Stress Management and ‘Spiritual Triage’

July 1, 1996

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ Now that the dead have been eulogized and the injured evacuated following the bombing of the Al-Khobar dormitory complex, the U.S. Air Force is turning its attention to healing hearts and minds.

A 15-member military stress management team has been flown in from Germany and extra priests and ministers have arrived in Dhahran to do what Air Force chaplain Dennis E. Aleson calls ``spiritual triage.″

For some of the troops here, the initial shock over Tuesday’s blast that killed 19 Americans and injured hundreds has turned to anger, grief or guilt.

``We’re trying to extend a hand, to say those are normal feelings,″ Aleson, a native of Wahpeton, N.D., said Sunday. ``We’re here to help them deal with those feelings.″

Civilians are pitching in, too. Donations of underwear, toothpaste, towels _ even home-baked cookies _ have come from the American, British and European business communities in Dhahran for the scores of airmen who lost their belongings in the explosion.

The Air Force evacuated seven of the last eight seriously wounded patients to Germany on Sunday. The remaining man, whose name has not been released, is in a Saudi hospital with a severe head injury, base officials said.

Many of the injured remain at Al-Khobar, which houses the Air Force units that fly patrols over southern Iraq.

Senior Airman Tracy Peckham, a 22-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., sat on the front steps of her dormitory Sunday, a white brace encircling her neck. The blast had thrown her from a chair and into a balcony wall, injuring her neck.

``At first I thought it was a dream, but now it’s starting to hit home that it’s real,″ Peckham said.

``I wish I could wake up and find that none of this had happened.″

At The Ark religious center, a young airman in sand-colored fatigues sat in the corner of a sofa, a bandage on his right hand and a Bible in his left.

``Are you doing okay?″ asked a chaplain softly. The airman burst into tears and buried his face in the chaplain’s shoulder.

Army Lt. Col. Bruce Crow, a clinical psychologist who came in with the stress management team from Landstuhl, Germany, said some troops couldn’t sleep, had recurring nightmares or difficultly getting images of horror out of their minds. Some jump when a door slams or a light flashes.

``The people closest to the blast or more involved with the aftermath generally have the most intense reaction,″ Crow said.

He said that the team, which includes a psychiatrist and occupational therapist, was doing ``group debriefings″ with various units and one-on-one counseling.

``What they need by and large is information _ that what they are experiencing is similar to what others are experiencing and that it is not abnormal,″ Crow said.

Crow, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had come to Saudi Arabia with a similar team of experts after extremists set off a bomb last November outside a U.S.-run military building in Riyadh, killing five Americans and two Indians.

The Konnection recreation center was busy Sunday, drawing dozens of men and women to shoot pool, play ping-pong or watch videos of movies such as ``Towering Inferno″ for a bit of escapism.

Others attended Catholic or Protestant church services _ chaplains said the turnout was higher than usual.

Senior Airman Pate Jones, 25, of Beaumont, Texas, said he found comfort in the prayer service.

``A little more anger is starting to come out,″ he said of himself and his comrades. ``The people with a strong relationship with God can find strength to carry them through trouble. And we can be more helpful to others.″

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