By Lt. Cmdr. John M. Burger, officer in charge, 1st Marine Regiment, Operational Stress Control and Readiness (OSCAR) program
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were unfolding, Headquarters Marine Corps and the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery agreed to embed active duty mental health providers and corpsmen within deployed Marine Corps infantry units.
This strategy had been implemented at different times since World War I with clear recognition of its unique ability to conserve and potentially improve the fighting force of units. The title given to these Marine Corps mental health teams was Operational Stress Control and Readiness (OSCAR) Teams. Over time, commands came to appreciate the unique advantages of embedded teams and the once deployed-only role was expanded to garrison as well.
OSCAR Teams function in three overlapping roles. 1) They provide Marines and Sailors direct mental health care in the proximity of their training environment, 2) support and advise the command regarding psychological health, and 3) maintain and improve unit readiness through the care and support they provide.
OSCAR Teams embedded naturally enables Marines and Sailors to be evaluated and treated expediently with minimal disruption in their routines and duties. At the same time, the mental health team gains a better understanding of the warfighter’s culture and operating environment allowing them to uniquely understand the full context of issues and create tailored solutions. Reinforcing this, by expanding the role to garrison, OSCAR teams were able to better appreciate the complete cycle of workups and deployments and see patterns in areas service members experienced difficulties. They were thus allowed to better help service members with issues that became clear outside of the battlefield environment, especially issues around pre-deployment and reintegration.
This same concept applies at the regimental level as well. Being embedded offers OSCAR Teams a unique appreciation of unit-specific stressors and challenges. As a special staff officer, OSCAR providers can provide this insight to a commander before a unit’s potentially problematic trends become issues. Again, similar to the individual Marine or Sailor’s experience, OSCAR providers could offer tailored recommendations on the command level.
Unlike their peers at Navy clinics, hospitals, and treatment facilities, OSCAR Teams, while still in the Navy, are under the command of a Marine Corps commander, learn to understand and speak the language of the Marines, wear many of the Marine Corps uniforms, and are frequently seen alongside the commander and his staff. This distinctive aspect is crucial to their success. The OSCAR Teams come to understand the stress facing the members and units of the Fleet Marine Force, and hopefully a reciprocal understanding will eventually decrease stigma and further improve the health of these warfighters today and as they move into their futures.