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Monday, February 27, 2006

Small Town Learns How to Support Returning Troops

Little Cloquet, MN -- population 11,201 -- is making a name for itself. Last week, community members and leaders gathered at the National Guard Armory in Duluth. The reason? They wanted to learn how to help 120 Iraq vets from the local Guard unit transition successfully back into the community. Little Cloquet is on the cutting edge. Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

The local paper, the Pine Journal, does a great job of touching authentically on many of the most serious issues facing the returning veteran. In the interest of education, I'll quote from it extensively:

Event facilitator Chaplain John Morris, himself a two-time combat veteran, referred to the session as a “nation-leading effort” because it was one of the first in the entire country to extensively deal with the re-integration of National Guard soldiers back into the community. In fact, the event was considered so ground-breaking that a television crew from ABC News was on hand to record it.

“The adjutant general of the state of Minnesota has committed the state’s resources to helping our combat veterans reintegrate,” said Morris. “I am here to ask for your help, because there is no way they can make a healthy integration without your help and support. We’re in this as a community, and everyone has a role to play. You have a chance to be a part of something no other state has done.” The program is part of a series of reintegration sessions designed to help the 120 soldiers from the local Guard unit make the necessary psychological and emotional adjustments after returning to the United States last month.

Morris went on to introduce Minnesota National Guard Sgt. First Class Keith Huff, a veteran of 18 years in the military who spent a year during 2003-2004 performing route clearance missions along 144 miles of roadway in central Iraq. “Basically, we went out every day looking for roadside bombs,” explained Huff, who displayed a piece of razor-sharp shrapnel similar to those used in the lethal homemade devices. “I went over there with 35 men under me, and I am proud to say I came home with 35 – though one had his arm blown off and another had his ear shaved off.”

Huff said when he returned home from the harrowing experience in Iraq, “I had no clue what I was getting into.” “I got off the plane, got in the car with my wife, and they told me, ‘See you in 90 days.’ I had no warning of how different the world seemed. That night I left the airport, I made it to my house in Litchfield in only an hour. I was king of the road in Iraq. There were no tickets to be issued and no one in our way. We were the law. My wife was really scared that night.” ...

“The younger guys are even worse,” he added. “Five of them have been involved in serious car accidents since they got back, and they have had countless charges of driving under the influence and reckless driving because they are constantly pushing the envelope for speed.”

Pushing the envelope and blowing up in anger are two markers of combat PTSD. The rage is often directed at loved ones.

Huff explained that combat veterans also experience a great deal of anger – much of it admittedly groundless – and their tempers are a lot shorter than most.
“My tolerance for things that upset me is a lot less,” he said. “If my wife leaves something in the wrong place, I jump all over her.” ...

“After an initial honeymoon period of three or four days,” he related, “there was instant friction between us. I was used to an immense amount of power, and I had to learn to communicate with her all over again. I was downstairs one day watching television, and I had it turned up really loud because after being in combat, my hearing is shot. My wife came up and stood beside me, and since I didn’t hear her coming, I actually squealed. Now, she has learned to announce herself when she moves through the house so she doesn’t startle me. We still struggle with things like that today. It’s a long road and process.”

He's not the only one having a hard time of it. Huff says 4 of his 35 'boy's under him are having a hard time holding down jobs or navigating a return to school. He reflects on their struggles, and then returns to his:

Huff said he found he, personally, was still not doing well last Christmas so he reached out for help. The social worker made him go through 45 minutes of explaining what he was going through and them “came at me with words I didn’t like,” he said. “I was hurt, felt talked down to, and didn’t connect.” He tried again in January, and the counselor suggested he try “closing his eyes and do deep breathing.” When he finally met with a doctor, he was frustrated and scared, but the man achieved an immediate connection with Huff when he told him he was experiencing “a normal response to an abnormal situation.”

“He made me feel accepted and understand that I wasn’t going crazy,” Huff summed up.
Huff told the audience at Tuesday’s event that what they were doing there that day was “a huge step for the community and yourselves.”

“If I had had the benefit of something like this when I came back,” he continued, “it would have made a huge difference.”

Next week, the paper presents Part Two of their new series. The Long Road Home will discuss the 5 leading challenges each troop faces when they arrive stateside, again. I want to applaud the little town of Clouquet, MN and its Pine Journal for their great work on behalf of PTSD education -- and the soldiers who've returned home to them.

More and more, local media is pummeling the national outlets when it comes to PTSD reporting. If you'd like, email the Pine Journal a quick thank you for their coverage; being a small paper, they'll probably really appreciate hearing that their efforts are being recognized. Perhaps consider contacting your local officials to ask if your community has any plans to organize something like this, too (especially if you live near a base).

Read Part II in the Pine Journal PTSD series. Then read a few more examples of the stellar PTSD reporting happening on the local level in communities all around the country.

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