Two weeks ago, the Army took the extraordinary step of briefly suspending operations at Kentucky's Fort Campbell so officials could focus on the mental-health needs of soldiers there after 11 confirmed soldier suicides this year.

Earlier in May, a communications specialist near the end of his third tour of duty in Iraq allegedly gunned down five fellow troops at a combat stress clinic in Baghdad.

Nationwide, Army suicides have reached record highs, from 67 in 2004 to 143 in 2008. In January, 24 soldiers took their own lives - more than the 16 combat deaths that month.

With each new tragedy, John Musewicz worries more about the stress and stigma suffered by soldiers fighting the war on terror. Ignoring the pain allows it to fester, said Musewicz, a Vietnam vet and a therapist running a new Council for Relationships program for soldiers and their families.

Operation Home and Healing offers counseling at any of the council's 14 locations in Pennsylvania and South Jersey. Help can even be had for free if that's what it takes to persuade the proud, reluctant community to step forward.

It's a hard group to reach. Estimates say at least 50,000 guardsmen, reservists, and other troops who served in Iraq or Afghanistan live in the Philadelphia region. But since October, only 16 have used the counseling service.

The patients include men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, couples who grew apart during long separations, and kids struggling with a parent's sudden return.

"One soldier's young daughter dumped her breakfast on the kitchen floor," Musewicz recalled. "He insisted she get down on her hands and knees and eat the food."

The wife became hysterical, her husband stunned by his own anger.

"You can't stay bottled up forever," Musewicz explained. "Part of therapy is about giving that rage a safe place to come out."

A mother's gift

Bonnie McCausland's son, a Marine reservist, was deployed to Iraq in 2002 during the run-up to the war. A member of his platoon killed himself en route.

The unexpected trauma led to a family meeting in Folsom.

"There were handouts on the chairs," recalled the wife of Airgas chief executive officer Peter McCausland. "The chaplain never once said the word suicide. Nobody dealt with it."

Chris McCausland came home with "nightmares and paranoia" to a Main Line family that could well afford the private therapy he got. That made his mother wonder about all the troops facing more terrifying demons, alone.

"Many are afraid to go into military counseling," she said she had learned. "They don't know whom to trust."

Her response? Using McCausland Foundation money to establish Operation Home and Healing, bypassing the military so soldiers can vent without risking their careers.

Discussion and discretion

Discretion was essential for Steve, an Air Force pilot whose marriage dissolved during a combat tour in Iraq. Steve wanted to talk about his troubles, but did not want to involve his superiors or, for that matter, use his full name.

"So much of it is perception, but pilots are scared of docs," he explained. "We already get extra physicals, extra tests. Unless your arm is falling off, you don't seek help."

He found Operation Home and Healing online (www.operationhomeandhealing.org). The program has 25 military-trained therapists, but Steve chose Musewicz - the only one who had worn a uniform.

"It's a challenge," noted Will Barnes, a Delaware National Guard chaplain and therapist. "Veterans want to talk to someone outside the military, but they want someone who understands the military culture and speaks the language."

That's a dilemma for Musewicz, who wants to serve more soldiers but must limit his practice while he battles pancreatic cancer.

Recently, Musewicz referred a troubled soul to a colleague. "So far, he hasn't called."

Monica Yant Kinney: To Get Help

For more information about Operation Home and Healing, call 215-382-6680 or go to www.operationhomeandhealing.org

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Contact Monica Yant Kinney at myant@phillynews.com or 215-854-4670. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney