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Friday, June 23, 2006

Growing Military Family Movement Helps Returning Troops

There's a movement underfoot these days. Can you feel it? Families who've lost loved ones in the new century's wars are beginning to find creative solutions to problems that the underfunded VA (as professionally-manned as it may be) isn't able to solve for our returning troops. I reported on Sarah Farmer's Lehner Foundation earlier in the month; now there's news of another woman, Nadia McCaffrey, using her personal pain to find a way of giving returning troops a sanctuary from the din.

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

First an editorial appearing in today's Tracy [CA] Press:

Sanctuary idea good for troops

Although it may have a fancy sounding name and acronym as post-traumatic stress disorder and PTSD, our troops are returning from war still shell-shocked.

It was that way during Vietnam, Korea and World War I and World War II. Even today, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are flaring up the PTSD in aging Vietnam veterans. The Department of Veteran Affairs says PTSD disability-compensation cases have nearly doubled since 2003 to more than 260,000. What may be happening is that many Vietnam veterans are reliving their own war trauma while watching or reading about the combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What we do know is that these flashbacks are striking America’s most recent war heroes, where the estimated risk of PTSD is 18 percent from Iraq and 11 percent from Afghanistan. Thirty percent of the 260,000 PTSD cases are Iraqi war veterans.

Our troops are reliving the nightmare of a war where there are no borders or uniforms worn by the enemy. The person standing next to you, whether a friend or a foe, might kill you, and sometimes himself or herself, too. No wonder our returning troops are edgy and many times unable to trust their families, friends and neighbors.

The mother of one of Tracy’s fallen soldiers, Nadia McCaffrey, wants to have sanctuaries for the returning members of our military. Her idea of civilian-run retreats across the country has merit. Our soldiers must have some vehicle to readjust so the symptoms of post-war stress can be controlled before becoming a psychological illness that further burdens VA medical care. We agree with McCaffrey that our war heroes need a place to heal their war wounds.

Nadia McCaffrey is back in the news two years after her son, National Guard Army Specialist Patrick McCaffrey, was killed while serving in Iraq. Only now, 9 months following the close of their investigation, is the DoD reporting to her (with no further explanation) that her son was actually killed by one of the Iraqi soldiers he was training. Senator Barbara Boxer today released papers to prove the charge, saying:

"The family was not told the truth," Boxer, D-Calif., told reporters during a conference call. "It's troubling that the Pentagon would withhold this information from the family. It's troubling that Specialist McCaffrey told his family that he had been attacked twice before by Iraqi soldiers. It's troubling that it took the involvement of a Senate office to get the autopsy and a written report about his death."

As painful as this time must be for McCaffrey, she's determined to do what she can to help other returning troops who are experiencing difficult readjustments to civilian life. Judging by the editorial board of the Tracy Press, she's on to something. McCaffrey's been inspired to act by one of her late son's Iraq battle buddies.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

There were three television satellite trucks parked Wednesday outside Nadia McCaffrey's house in Tracy. News organizations from around the world wanted to talk to her about the tragic story of her son, Patrick, who was killed by "friendly" Iraqi forces.

But that's not the only story she wanted to tell.

McCaffrey, while devastated by the news about her son, is also deeply concerned about the returning troops. When she met and spoke with National Guard veteran Steve Edward Jr., a friend of her son's in Iraq, and realized the terrible psychological trauma he's been having, McCaffrey came up with an idea.

"We would like to get an old farm, a place they could go to get help when they come back," McCaffrey said Wednesday. "We'd like to give them a paintbrush, a shovel, let them ride a horse if they wanted to. The machine does not function the way it did. We need to put it back in gear."

She got the idea from an experience Edward had after an 11-month tour as a combat engineer in Iraq in February. As Edward says, his counseling when he returned consisted of a week of debriefing and then, "Thanks, good luck, and have a great life. I just wanted to get into my blue jeans and a T-shirt and be home," he says. "But it hasn't worked out."

Edward, 40, who lives in San Jose, says he would lie in bed in the morning, literally afraid to open his eyes because he feared he would still be in Iraq. Once, when he tried to go shopping, a supermarket employee found him "huddled in a corner, behind my shopping cart, rocking back and forth."

Edward had PTSD, and his buddy's mother helped to set up a visit for him to the Zaltho Foundation in Oregon which offers a unique 4-day retreat for returning veterans (the next one scheduled to take place on November 16-19, 2006; email or call 503-636-8635 for more details).

Edward was sent on a four-day retreat in Oregon.

There, he and other vets met in groups, wrote out their experiences and practiced meditation. The experience was such a success that he called McCaffrey from the airport on the way back to rave about the program. "When I'm having a really bad day," he says, "I will just sit down and do 10 or 15 minutes of meditation. It helps me control my breathing and I feel 10 or 15 times better."

The important thing to remember about post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is not only are we just now beginning to find treatments, we have only now begun to recognize the condition. As Dr. Tasha Souter, a psychiatrist who directs the men's PTSD program at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital, says, the condition was not even identified until well after the Vietnam War.

"Part of the issue now is really getting people into treatment and agreeing to treatment," Souter says. "Members of the National Guard tend to slip back into their communities. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine in July 2004 said that 30 percent to 40 percent of those who need treatment are not getting it."

Although Guard members like Edward can feel lost and abandoned, officials at the Palo Alto facility stress that their programs are available. If McCaffrey is able to get her idea of a retreat up and working, that would be fine, but if not, the VA is not ignoring them. Most people seem to agree that the problem is, as Edward says, that "they don't always tell you what you are eligible for."

Kerri Childress, the spokeswoman for the Palo Alto facility, says she "would be the first to admit that it is extremely difficult to reach the Reserve and Guard soldiers. The first thing they want to do is go home, and then they tend to dissipate into the community."

Though Edward benefited from the program, he's still not interested in leaving his house. When he does, his anxiety and hyperarousal get the better of him.

"The minute I go outside, I am on edge," he says. "I get out of the car and I am looking at roofs and windows. My wife says, 'There are no snipers here. Stop that!'" But he can't. "I am not the Steve who left for Iraq," he says, "but I have to accept that. I am OK."

There are moments. The retreat gave him a glimpse of how he could manage his condition. And there are surprising moments of hope. His 10-year-old daughter Lauren read a pamphlet the VA provides called "Why is Daddy Like This?" and now sometimes actually steps in and explains the situation to others. "I am like, 'Who the hell are you and what did you do with my 10-year-old daughter,'" Edward jokes.

We need more moments like that. Edward is a part of a badly damaged generation of men and women who are going to need a safe place to try to recover as much of their lives as possible. Maybe that will be a retreat, like what McCaffrey has in mind, or a program with VA. But it is going to be with us for a long, long time. "Let's just say, I am not looking forward to the Fourth of July," Edward says.

I'll look into Nadia McCaffrey's plans for that farm retreat program, and see what more I can dig up. But, I want to commend people like her and Sarah Farmer for using their pain to ease that of those returning home and in need of our help.

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