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Saturday, July 28, 2007

As Another Suicide Occurs, Minnesota Leaders Urge DoD to Revise Post-Deployment Contact Rules

Last week, 2,600 of Minnesota's National Guard members returned from overseas duty. Following a 4-month extension, their brigade's 22-month deployment achieved something no other Guard unit has to date: the longest such continuous call-up of National Guard forces in our nation's history.*

When looking at the data on the strain of extended deployments and the special stresses of 'weekend warriors' vs. that of the active forces, it's obvious the state's leaders felt the need to be proactive in ensuring their citizen soldiers' reintegration goes as smoothly as possible. But proactive homecoming measures aren't always enough to counterbalance months on end away from family and sanity and moments of relaxation.
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* Arriving home this week vs. last, the Iowa National Guard also completed a 22-month deployment. I guess the Minnesota Guard's distinction of being the longest-deployed guard unit didn't last too long. Sigh.

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

In March, NPR reported on the Minnesota Guard's extended deployment, and what the state was doing to ease the added burden:

Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito commands the Minnesota National Guard. He calls the four-month extension a sucker punch, and says it will make re-entry exceptionally difficult. "The problem is when they come back home, they'll get the hugs and kisses, they'll drink their favorite beer they couldn't drink over there," Shellito said. "They'll get mama's favorite meal cooked for them two or three times, then, about a week later, everyone goes back to work, kids go back to school, and they're home alone."

And alone can really mean alone in rural Minnesota. The 1st Brigade Combat team comes from 87 of the state's 89 counties, many of them quite isolated. Normal military policy gives a soldier a full 90 days off to reconnect at home after deployment. But Minnesota isn't taking any chances. Soldiers will be required to check in several times over those three months. Families can't always spot emerging psychological problems, Shellito said.

"Mama can't look him in the eye, wife can't look him in the eye. She'll know something's wrong," Shellito said. "But I'll tell you those buddies, those battle buddies — they'll know when he's happy, sad, lying, whatever."

In this vein, from AP:

Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are urging the Defense Department to change a policy aimed at giving some breathing room to returning National Guard and Reserve troops, saying it prevents some soldiers from getting the kinds of integration services they need.

The policy exempts returning soldiers from being called for mandatory activities for 60 days after they return home from combat, although it does allow the military to organize voluntary activities for the troops.

Coleman and Pawlenty, both Republicans, argue that policy doesn’t reach soldiers who are at risk. "The guys with the problems are often the guys who don’t want to come back and have the conversation," Coleman said in a telephone interview Monday. "It’s an intervention thing."

Although most soldiers returning from combat do fine, others face challenges and stresses, Coleman said. "It’s team members and commanders and unit members, they’re the ones who can say, ’Hey, I think you need to talk to someone,’ he said. "And that’s why the mandatory becomes pretty important."

Last weekend, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman filed a blistering critique of the state's elected leaders on general issues concerning the war and its warriors. The strain of the star of the north was clearly evident:

Coleman recently was quoted saying, "We are going to be in Iraq a long time." If he thinks that's true -- and he's not against it -- he must defend it. Minnesota won't like it. Seventy percent of Americans want the troops home by next spring, and in Minnesota, where there is a palpable sense of relief over the return of 2,600 National Guard soldiers from Iraq, the percentage is probably even higher.

Even Gov. Tim Pawlenty has begun to show some exasperation. After welcoming the returning troops, he came close to criticizing the Pentagon for extending their duty and giving the Minnesota Guard the dubious distinction of having served the longest uninterrupted periods of any soldiers who have been deployed to Iraq.

But like the Scandinavian who loved his wife so much that he almost told her, Pawlenty was so upset he almost said so. When he becomes chair of the National Governors Association soon, he said, he will push for "consistency" in Pentagon deployment practices.

Bravely said, Gov. Pawlenty!

Of course, the Pentagon might achieve consistency by extending all deployments to the length Minnesota's soldiers served. That won't help. The problem is the regular Army is overextended, the National Guard has been abused (and its strength in many states depleted), all to prop up a last-ditch effort to keep Iraq from falling apart in a civil war.

While people die.

Of course, the columnist was referring to those troops killed in action overseas. And yet, they are dying at home, too. Heartrending evidence arrives today of another slipping past Minnesota's commendable efforts at helping their returning troops adjust:

An Iraq War veteran reported missing a few days earlier was found dead of an apparent suicide, according to the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office. Noah Charles Pierce, 23, was last heard from Wednesday afternoon when he left his Mountain Iron home. His body was found Friday in the Gilbert area. He reportedly left his home carrying several firearms, authorities said. Several of Pierce's friends told authorities that he had sent them text messages indicating that he was suicidal.

The sheriff's office said Pierce had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Authorities had indicated before he was found dead that Pierce may have been a danger to himself and others.

This Minnesota tragedy comes on the heels of a highly-charged January incident; another returning veteran had taken his own life after being turned away from one VA facility and put on a long waiting list at another. With this latest case, Minnesota alone has tracked at least 14 cases of suicide of returning troops. Extrapolate that to 50 states, and that would equal at least 700 OEF/OIF troops that may have taken their own lives after returning home safely from Mideast combat zones.

Of course, this isn't a concrete figure; we have no idea how many post-deployed troops have killed themselves. The DoD isn't tracking such cases. And neither is the VA. But, along with my collaborators at ePluribus Media, we are in the PTSD Timeline, wishing with each case that it would be the last.

As today's Editor and Publisher says:

One of the least covered aspects of the fallout from the Iraq war is the rising toll of suicides, both near the battlefield and back home. Latest official figures released by the Pentagon reveal at least 116 self-inflicted fatalities in Iraq. But this does not include several dozen still under investigation, nor any of the many cases back in the U.S. ...

This past January, Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman noted in the Hartford Courant that veterans advocates had found the increase of suicides in 2006 “troubling.”

Steve Robinson, director of government relations for Veterans for America, told them he was particularly disturbed by suicides in the war zone because combat troops are supposed to be screened for mental health issues before they join the military, and throughout their careers. "These people aren't the kind of people that you would think would take this step," he said.

[Note: While writing Moving a Nation to Care and touring behind it have taken me off the PTSD Timeline project temporarily, my colleagues at ePluribus Media and I are in the process of updating the database with the far too many new incidents that we have continued to collect these past months. The timeline, meanwhile, waits solemnly. New data is currently being fact-checked and is expected to appear by mid-week.]


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