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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Unacceptable: National Guard Makes Post-deployment Mental Health Screening Optional

Haven't seen much of this anywhere else; but, the Boise [ID] Weekly has a disturbing report on the loosening of required post-deployment screening in the National Guard. This seems to be foolhardy. Rather than making once-required mental health screenings optional, we should be doing quite the opposite: increasing the amount of counseling our returning soldiers are required to complete. A more hands-on debrief process would go far in fighting back the stigma and fear which surely prevents many from getting the help they need.

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

From the Boise Weekly:

When it comes to obtaining post-combat mental health services, the infamous "fog of war" appears to be following veterans of the 116th Idaho Army National Guard Combat Brigade Team back home to Idaho. With some experts estimating that up to one out of 10 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other emotional disorders, military officers are emphasizing increasing access to resources for those who need them. But other senior staff, spouses and state officials quietly complain that a key component of that system has been dismantled.

At issue is the procedure whereby returning vets are screened and informed of the services available to them. The first set of troops returning through Fort Lewis, Washington, were all given up to one hour of mandatory mental health assessments, performed by a team of Veterans Center counselors. Then, according to a confidential e-mail sent to Boise Weekly by a concerned public health official, "One person of influence made the in-processing screenings (along with many other important 'stations' to tell folks about their vet benefits) optional instead of mandatory."

The confidential email continued to say that now that the 'honeymoon period' has come and gone, 6 months out there is cause for concern. This email received by the paper is far from the only confirmation they have of the loosening of the counseling requirements. Guard Lt. Col. Heather Taylor has noted that the 3,000 soldiers of the 116th went through the following required debriefs:

  • Vet Center Brief
  • Veteran's Benefits Brief
  • Tricare Health Insurance Brief
  • Chaplain's Brief that focused on reunion with family and stress management

However, she states, "the only station that was made optional was the 'One-on-One Vet Center sessions' during Phase III. When it was made optional, attendance for that one station dropped off significantly."

The article continues:

The licensed professional also passed on a letter from a northern Idaho clinician who treats returning vets, observing that "The soldiers are experiencing 'post-traumatic stress' due to combat fears, morbidity, near death experiences and adjusting to a completely foreign culture," yet "the soldiers do not want to 'complain' or appear 'weak' about their deployment experience, and it is manifesting itself with anger management problems."

But the concern isn't just outside the Guard. An officer within the 116th told BW that the returning soldiers he had spoken with were "pretty pissed themselves, let alone the people in leadership who thought it was an insane order" to make screening optional. Another guard member insisted that "there would not be any written documentation about the order given to make the information and screening optional." The member added, "Lots of people out at the Guard are pissed about this too, but can't say anything."

One National Guard officer, reluctant to give his name, explained that "there's peer pressure and leadership pressure. The leadership's position is that 'We will have no problems.' There's even no tracking of the divorce rate, because they're afraid to." Soldiers deployed in Iraq "couldn't talk to those of us back home" about any emotional difficulties, the officer said, "even though some of us have been friends for decades."

Asked why so many were reluctant to make their concerns public, the officer stated, "It's hard to explain a whole culture in one paragraph. Basically, you don't talk to anyone outside the unit. You're not a team player if you do." And in the highest echelons of the unit, "their attitude is that they can do no wrong" in the area of policy-making.

Be sure to read the rest of the report; and thank Boise Weekly for their attention to this important issue.

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