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Friday, March 17, 2006

MN Community Reaches Out to its Troops

Little Cloquet, MN -- population 11,201 -- is making a name for itself. Last month, it began an outreach program to help 120 Iraq vets from the local Guard unit transition successfully back into the community. The local newspaper, the Pine Journal, got involved by publishing the first in a series of PTSD eduction articles that rival anything being done by the national media. Part I introduced the program and some of the veterans who'd served in Iraq; Part II reveals some of the barriers to a quick and easy transition into civilian life for these service members.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

I'll quote extensively from the Pine Journal:

“We want the community to come out healthy – and the soldiers to come out alive.” That was the straightforward statement made to local employers, business owners, law enforcement officials and members of the clergy last Tuesday by National Guard Chaplain John Morris. Morris went on to say that the jump from common citizen to “warrior” is a dramatic one – and one that takes months to learn.

“Our government takes our citizens and transforms them into warriors to execute the mission of the United States,” said Morris. “It took six months to flip the switch to transform some 2,700 Minnesota National Guard soldiers into warriors, but the question is, when they return, how do you flip that switch back? The road home is much longer, steeper and tougher.” ...

First, he pointed out, the community needs to understand how the “road to war” works. “We take our young men and women from citizens, to soldiers, to warriors,” Morris said, “from security to insecurity, from safety to danger, from comfort to discomfort, from order to chaos, from trust to mistrust, from ‘us’ to ‘me.’ They have to learn the hard way that nothing is predictable, and everything they once trusted in is turned upside down. Along the way, they become very self-centered. That doesn’t mean they’ve become evil people but that there’s been a transformation. And so, how can we help them go from that mistrust to trust once again? How can we convince them that the dead dog on the side of the road doesn’t have a homemade explosive device inside it?”

The Chaplain, a two-time veteran, went on to give an example of how behavior that works to protect on the battlefield quickly can create problems off. Standing in line one day at the airport, someone cut in front of him. He said, "This immediately threatened my sense of order," and a strong over-reaction to his frustration resulted in him directing strong words towards this person. A security guard quickly got involved to break it up.

This 'kinetic energy' -- a sense that they are in a commanding position, no matter where they are -- is one that is often misunderstood by the public.

The article continues:

National Guard Reserve units tend to have a tougher time making the transition back into society following an active combat assignment because, after their return, the unit splits up and its members go back into civilian life. “They are no longer with their comrades, their ‘battle buddies,’” said Morris, pointing out how the unit has become a support system that is often sorely lacking out in the community. “What they really need,” he said, “are employers, pastors, social workers and others who will take the time to try to understand them and support them.” In doing so, he stressed that community members must understand the challenges the soldiers face in that reintegration process.

First, they must strive to overcome alienation – from family, friends, co-workers and the community. He asked audience members to visualize going on a five-star vacation somewhere in the Caribbean where all they do is eat, drink, sleep and experience fun and excitement for an entire week, free from stress and responsibility.

“When you get home and go back to the office, the sudden return to routine, stress, and responsibility is hard enough to cope with,” he said. “And chances are, you’re also brimming over with stories to tell and photos to show off, but you can just about imagine how long your co-workers are going to be interested – about a minute and a half! You begin to realize that you have had an experience that you can’t share with anyone except those you were there with.”

Returning veterans have to cope with feelings of alienation, and worry they'll always feel different. These are the same factors that have driven many Vietnam veterans to homelessness and unsuccessfully coping with their mental health issues.

Solid suggestions for the community:

[S]ome 18 percent of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne National Guard units are showing signs of mental health issues after returning from combat, and 30 percent of the soldiers still exhibit signs of mental health issues four to five months after demobilization. “We can’t afford to lose these people,” he stated. “As employers, you can help. Be respectful, welcoming and show hospitality to them until they get their feet on the ground.”

Secondly, the community must help returning soldiers move from simplicity to complexity once again, from letting others think for them to accepting responsibility. “In civilian life,” Morris said, “we live complex lives. We often make some 15,000 choices a day, compared to only about 800 a day in the military. The fact of the matter is that most soldiers are not responsible for much, and it feels good. They no longer have to balance the checkbook, or change the oil in the car or cut the grass. When they come home and are suddenly faced with all those choices and responsibilities once again, they often feel grouchy and overwhelmed.”

Thirdly, returning soldiers are faced with the challenge of how to replace war with some sort of other “high.” “War is an adventure, and nothing in civilian life matches the intensity,” Morris admitted. “When it comes right down to it, most soldiers who train with the National Guard actually want to go to war to put into practice what they’ve learned to do, and statistics show that some 72 percent admit they are glad they did it.” The “high” of war is often replaced by a need for speed and reckless driving, resulting in traffic tickets, accidents and, in some cases, death. Others turn to drugs, alcohol and gambling.

Many returning troops never find the same 'rush' in civilian life; this may be one explanation for the National Guards' record reenlistments -- these veterans want to get back into the war zone.

The real challenge, of course, is for returning soldiers to learn how to accept life as it is, because for them, everything else pales in comparison to what they have experienced in combat.

Fourthly, the returning troops are faced with rediscovering who and what they are outside of their military role. “They have to find meaning and purpose outside of combat,” Morris said. “They have to realize that they were someone before war – and that they can be someone afterward as well, or they will be stuck in Iraq forever. If they can learn to draw from their combat experience and apply it to their lives, they can actually be better off than they were before.” Morris went on to say that combat veterans who have successfully made it through the first 10 years following their return often become among the most productive members of the community.

Finally, returning soldiers must learn to make peace with themselves, God and others in the community. “They may have done, or not done, things that violate their moral code,” Morris explained. “They may have participated in the killing of other human beings, or they may be plagued with thoughts of whether they really did their part after a fellow soldier gets killed right next to them, or if they remain in a non-combat position in the Forward Operating Base while the others are out there fighting. After they return, where do they go in the community for confession and absolution? Someone needs to help them in the process.”

Families and employers can play a strong role in helping the returning soldier. First, they need to learn to understand what they've been through, what combat stress looks and sounds like. Second, they need to let the troop talk about their expieriences at their own pace. Finally, they need to be sympathetic and patient in allowing the soldier to ajust to the changes that have taken place at home since their absence.

Sadly, however, nine times out of 10, many returning soldiers end up going to bars, where alcohol breaks down their inhibitions and they are able to confess their “sins” to whoever will listen.

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).

Related Resources

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) - Seamless Transition
Hearts Toward Home - Turning Your Heart Toward Home Workbook
National Center for PTSD - A Guide for Military Personnel and Families
THRIVEnet - Guide to Listening to War Veterans for Family Members

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