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Deployed mental health tech hits the ground flying

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq - -- Just 24 hours after landing at Balad at 3 a.m. for a four-month deployment, Master Sgt. Robert Preble found himself airborne again -- as a mental health escort for a 21-year-old Army soldier who had become suicidal.
Mental health personnel at the Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad determined the soldier needed the higher-level-treatment available at Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany.
The tough, muscular soldier was apprehensive and shaking.
"He had just come in 'from the field,' his uniform was dirty, his stress level obviously high. Problems at home were definitely stress multipliers," said the 439th Aeromedical Staging Squadron mental health technician deployed to Iraq.
"During the flight, he showed me a picture of his daughter. We talked a lot about things back home. It seemed to help him."
As a 23-year veteran corrections officer in New York, Sergeant Preble is no stranger to stress and suicide watches.
"We see it in the prisons all the time," he said, "but this [the deployment] is much more fulfilling because we're helping them get home.
Sergeant Preble used the five-hour flight to help put the young soldier's life circumstances in perspective and reassured him that he would be okay. In fact, by the time they landed in Germany, the young Army specialist was making eye contact and speaking directly to Sergeant Preble.
"When I told him I couldn't be there for the next leg back to the States, he told me he thought he'd be okay," said Sergeant Preble.
With two years Army experience and 16 years with the 439th ASTS, Sergeant Preble is part of an experience-rich three-person mental health team deployed from Westover. Tech. Sgt. Penny L. Brooks works as a civilian with the Troy, New York domestic abuse division, and Maj. Carole A. Dube works as a registered nurse in a psychiatric ward in New Hampshire.
Now, just two weeks into their deployment, the team has seen several cases of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"Mental health is a pretty big item, especially over here," he said.
Even though Balad is 40 miles north of Baghdad, mortar attacks directed at the base are not uncommon. They work 12-hour shifts and sleep two to a 10x10-foot trailer room. It was freezing temperatures when they arrived and they had a rare snowfall the day before - making cold showers feel even colder.
So, it's not just the patients that get the attention of the mental health team - they take care of each other.
"We've just started the deployment," said Sergeant Preble, referring to about 60 Westover members deployed to Balad.
"We keep an eye out. So far, everyone is okay."
He hopes to help keep it that way.