PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION — Chief Warrant Officer Bob Turner spent most of the past year at an Army base in Afghanistan, far from his fellow sailors and the sea. The 28-year veteran was one of thousands of sailors attached by themselves to Army and Marine units, groups that trained together stateside — without them.
These solo sailors and their families lack the usual support groups for deployed personnel, and the costs of that can be considerable.
The stress for "individual augmentees," as they're called, can be greater than shipboard assignments because sailors deploy alone for six months to a year and are doing entirely different jobs than they've had throughout their careers, said Cmdr. Tracy Skipton, a psychiatrist at Pensacola Naval Hospital. Turner, for instance, was providing electronics support for a special operations team working outside the base.
"It was a whole new life for me," Turner said.
Even though Turner wore an Army uniform and worked closely with soldiers, it took him months to feel that he was part of the team.
"You definitely know you are an IA because you see a group of Army come in together and they've trained in the states together and made plans to get ready for this," he said.
To stretch the military's taxed resources, thousands of sailors with electronics, communications, medical or other skills have been sent one by one to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past several years. They assist Army and Marine units in a program the Navy says is part of a new era of warfare and cooperation among military branches.
Navy leaders acknowledge, however, that the families of individual augmentees face different stresses, including not having support groups that come when large units deploy.
"Units that come and go together have their colleagues to talk to about the experience when they get back. They can watch out for each other and if they have problems talk to each other," Skipton said. "When groups deploy as a unit, the families work together (back home) as a support group and help each other."
The Navy offers counseling before and after augmentees deploy, and support programs for families. Attendance at those groups has been sparse, Skipton said. Getting the word out is tough because families are scattered and augmentees have deployed from several Pensacola-area Navy installations in various jobs, Skipton said.
Turner wouldn't talk about the specifics or dangers of his work because of security concerns, but said it was among his most rewarding and important.
"I've never been that close to the tip of the spear," he said.
Returning to their old jobs in their units also can be a struggle for augmentees. Capt. Maryalice Morro, commanding officer for Pensacola Naval Hospital, said sailors returning to the hospital find it tough because they have so much freedom with medical decisions while deployed as corpsmen in combat zones.
They also can feel isolated when they return to their routine duties, said David Dean, a psychologist who works with returning sailors.
"You might be working with people who haven't been overseas in combat yet, so you think they might not relate to or understand what you've been through," he said.