CAMP PHOENIX, Afghanistan -- Before they wrap up a yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan, S.C. National Guard soldiers will be checked for signs of depression and combat stress.
The S.C. troops, some leaving Afghanistan to return to the United States later this month, first will be briefed at this camp outside Kabul, said Lt. Col. Lawrence Dennis of Elgin, a chaplain in the Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team.
There will be further evaluations at Fort Bragg, N.C., where the troops will demobilize and begin the trek back to civilian life, said Dennis, the brigade's chief chaplain.
The psychological questioning "will try to engage how involved they were in stressful situations," Dennis said, adding, "Everybody has to go through some stress here."
The need for more mental-health counseling and treatment for soldiers was highlighted in a study released last week by the Army's Surgeon General.
The report, which surveyed troops in 2007, found the percentage of Afghanistan veterans reporting depression was higher than their comrades who served in Iraq.
Additionally, the report stated mental health problems were higher among soldiers serving in Afghanistan than in previous years. About 11.4 percent of Afghan veterans suffered depression compared to 7.6 percent Iraq vets, according to the study.
The increases in mental health problems reflect the growing violence in Afghanistan as Taliban fighters step up attacks against troops and civilians.
Eighty-three percent of U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan reported being exposed to some combat, ranging from fire fights to mortar attacks against their bases. That was compared to 72 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq.
"We are in more contact with the enemy than the people in Iraq," said Dennis.
What makes stress worse, the troops say, is the type of war they're fighting in Afghanistan.
Every day, when S.C. National Guard soldiers leave their bases here, they have to be on the lookout for suicide bombers on foot, behind the wheel of a car or riding a bicycle.
Then, there are the roadside bombs that can blow apart an armored Humvee, killing everyone inside.
"You never know what's going to happen," said Spc. Richard Ferguson of Ridgeland. "You're always on the lookout for that one suicide bomber or IED."
IED is military lingo for improvised explosive device, better known as a roadside bomb.
The stress is further compounded by the role that the S.C. troops are playing in Afghanistan. The brigade's mission is to train and mentor the Afghan army and police, meaning the troops take on a supportive role. But they're still the targets of insurgent fighters, who do not wear uniforms and use the civilian population for cover.
Because U.S. and coalition forces want to hold down civilian casualties and win over the Afghan people, soldiers must exercise control when they respond to threats.
"You have to know when to shoot and when not to shoot," said Staff Sgt. Clyde Waddell of Beaufort.
Waddell, a Vietnam combat veteran, said there's a world of difference between the two wars. "When some guy was shooting at you in Vietnam, you didn't have to worry about shooting back," he said.
Spc. Jason Jordan, who fought in Iraq in 2003 with the Army's 1st Armored Division, said Afghanistan is different.
"There was more shooting in Iraq," said Jordan, a Guardsman from Phoenix, Ariz., who volunteered to serve with the S.C. unit. "We could be more aggressive."
Adding more stress, many of the troops in Afghanistan are stationed at small, isolated bases, surrounded by the enemy.
Their isolation is further exacerbated by poor Internet and telephone connections at those bases, making it difficult for the troops to stay in touch with loved ones.
To help make the adjustment to civilian life, the Army has launched a program called "Battlemind Training I," Dennis said.
"Battlemind" attempts to show troops that the mindset they needed to survive in a combat zone could be "hazardous to your social and behavioral health in the home-zone," according to a program brochure.
The troops will be counseled on how to avoid withdrawing from families, how to deal with a world where there's no chain of command and how to resist the temptation to drink too much.
Another issue "Battlemind" tackles is the desire of some troops to keep a weapon "locked and loaded" at home or in the glove-box of their car. That's because some troops still may not feel safe, even back in the United States.
Despite the isolation and danger, a survey of 218th troops found overall morale to be "above average," commanders said.
"We're doing something positive," said Sgt. Samuel Johnson of Camden. "We're making history and changing things for the better."