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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Are We Really Supporting Our Troops?

The Australian government, through its Vietnam Veterans Counseling Service (VVCS), offers their returning troops -- along with each immediate family member, including partners, children, widows, and even some ex-partners -- complimentary reintegration services that include individual, couple, and family counseling services as well as a plethora of other programs to help their troops fold back into society. Are we doing as much?

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Many military families (especially those who've suffered losses due to PTSD-related suicide) say that it's wrong to expect that individual troops should have to seek out help on their own when they're floundering. They say it's hard enough to get their loved one to admit they need help when they need it; it's even harder to get them to agree to go to the VA and use the services set up to help them. One question I'd like to ask as I advocate for these families: why is it that our system is set up in this way? Why are individual troops expected to go it alone -- did they aquire the mental problems all on their own?

One point I've heard made is this: just as troops are required to go through basic and combat training to learn how to fight and kill, shouldn't they be required to go through some form of reintegration program to decompress on their return home?

To be effective, post-deployment help should be more than one weekend affair -- even one week doesn't cut it. It should be a full program (anger management, stress reduction techniques, counseling support to deal with family reintegration and the horrors of what they've seen (and done), etc.) that allows every troop to be assisted for a period of months on their return.

Why do some families say this reintegration program should be mandatory? Because doing so would neuter the stigma surrounding the need for mental health/post-combat stress support. Troops wouldn't have to worry about losing a promotion or being labeled as 'weak' because everyone would be going through the same program, too. Those who seem to be doing fine could be placed into roles of assisting others who are having a harder time of it.

A program like the one I outline here -- one which many military family members are advocating -- requires a society to be mature and exhibit some sort of moral responsiblity to those they sent into war. We need to grow up concerning mental health issues vs. falling back on the desire to sweep these things under the rug and tag anyone suffering as 'crazy' or 'weak'.

In Australia, they take the opposite track. Things aren't swept under the rug. And their approach is much more holistic than the one we've in place at home. Although their reintegration programs are not mandatory, they do offer a wide variety of counseling and social functioning programs. And their offerings are available not only to the veteran, but to family members as well.

So, let's say the troop doesn't want to own up to his/her problems; yet, the spouse is at their wits end under all of the stress at home. They can go in and get complimentary help. The troop still doesn't want to go in to get help; yet, their kids are really having a hard time adjusting to the upheaval at home? They can access care, too.

Besides these counseling options, the Aussies offer the following programs (and more) -- all free to their former veterans, returning troops and their immediate family members. From the Vietnam Veterans Counseling Service (VVCS) Services Guide [pdf]:

  • Dealing with Daily Hassles for all Veterans -- a 7-week program that meets once a week for 2 hours which helps vets learn practical skills to help them better manage their day-to-day lives.

  • Lifestyle Management for Veterans & Partners -- 5 day/4 night group program that offers lifestyle strategies and coping skills training, stress management advice, info on PTSD, and more...

  • Heart Health Program -- A 40 week that promotes health and well-being.

  • Keeping it Cool -- A 6-week program where participants meet once a week for 2 1/2 hours and learn to apply advanced skills to better manage anger.

  • Changing the Mix -- Alcohol and substance abuse information session.

  • Worry & Blues: It's Mind Over Matter -- A 7-week program teaching skills to better manage depression/anxiety.

  • Stepping Out of the Workforce -- 1 1/2 day workshop to help recover from having to step out of the workforce due to disability.
We in America today seem unwilling to do this much for our troops and their families. Has it always been this way?

Although WWII-era troops didn't receive any mental health care support, even they returned home to a heck of a lot more support and services than our troops find themselves on the receiving end of today: Fully funded education (including books, fees, a monthly living allowance), low-cost loan guarantees for starting your own business or purchasing your first home; job-search help, and even unemployment pay of $20 (1944 dollars) a week for up to 52 weeks.

The only benefit remaining in the gutted GI Bill requires our troops pay in $100 per month for 12 months (non-refundable if they don't use it) during the last year of their service. In return, they then receive $1004 per month for up to 36 months towards college. $1004 a month doesn't even cover average tuition costs if they're attending a university, much less leave money for books, fees, or monthly living allowances.

Let's be honest here. We Americans today don't seem to have a clue what really supporting our troops looks and feels like. Isn't it time we begin to put our money -- and effort -- where our mouth is?

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