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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Time Mag and Minnesota's Warrior to Citizen Campaign: Something to Think About, Then Do

My work on the PTSD Timeline has gone on hiatus again for the past few months as I juggle four NIU classes and all other things (dropping so much along the way -- including far too many wonderful emails from PTSD Combat visitors, I'm afraid; I apologize to those that have gone unanswered).

Yet, the press-reported incidents of a wide variety of reintegration problems awaiting our returning troops continue to scream out from all corners of our county. Collection of these incidents continues behind-the-scenes, too.

While I save them for a time when I can go about the work of submitting them to my colleagues over at ePluribus Media, I rarely point these individual cases out here at PTSD Combat (except when writing about the occasional incident or when sharing news of a batch of our latest timeline entries).

I'm not sure I ever set about explaining why I don't, as a rule, share these difficult stories with you as I find them. The reasons are many-fold, the main one being simply that I don't want the incidents themselves to be the sensational driver of my work here. I think most of the readers that visit this online journal already know that these incidents are taking place; they don't need further proof.

[I, however, can't say enough how greatly I appreciate the work of those who do keep a running tally of such published articles. Kathie Costos at Wounded Times and Paul Sullivan at Veterans for Common Sense come to mind immediately; often their efforts are the only thing standing in the way of lost articles, lost information important for us to catalog, once public but now tucked out of our reach in archives or even wiped completely from servers to make room for the latest news.]

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

Most Americans by now also realize that we have deep and serious problems with the state of our stateside combat aftercare. They have heard the stories, they've seen the reports. And most know we will continue to hear of more tragedies as the years pound onward with no sign of relief for our volunteer military force tasked with doing so much for so long.

But the time for 'making the case' is over.

It's time now for us to really begin to tackle the heart of the problem. And, in certain spots, an article published by Time magazine today and written by Washington correspondent Mark Thompson does just that.

From Time:

A Maryland murder trial is being turned into a debate on the lingering traumatic impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the psyche of the Americans who served there. The prosecution is trying to prove that Gary Smith, a one-time Army Ranger, murdered his roommate of 20 days and fellow Ranger Michael McQueen, 22, by putting a .38-caliber revolver to his right temple and pulling the trigger. Smith's attorney, however, notes that the 25-year-old former sergeant has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following repeated combat tours, and insists that McQueen committed suicide, drunk, despondent and unemployed.

Whether McQueen's death was a murder or a suicide, the tale offers a rare window into the grim realities of post-war mental trauma. As the odometer of war clicks past 4,000 killed in Iraq, and approaches 500 in Afghanistan, it's stories like those about the Ranger roommates that often fall below the nation's radar screen. The Army introduced these two men to one another — McQueen was African-American; Smith is white — and dispatched them to Afghanistan together twice, in 2004 and 2005. There, it seems one or both became unhinged by the experience. But in a country that rescues Wall Street banks from ruin while down-on-their-luck homeowners find themselves suddenly homeless, the prosecution would prefer to keep the focus of the trial in the Rockville, Maryland, courthouse away from the war.

"This is a homicide — Gary Smith is the person that did it," prosecutor John Maloney said in his opening argument March 18 in what is expected to be a two-week trial. "The most important thing you'll bring to your deliberations is your common sense." But Smith's attorney, Andrew Jezic, said McQueen was unemployed, not in school and drinking heavily when he killed himself. Smith, upset at the death of a war buddy, tried to hide how he died to preserve McQueen's dignity — and to avoid being implicated — according to police files. "There is no motive in this case," Jezic said. "Zero." ...

Military leaders have acknowledged that the service was unprepared for the flood of mentally wounded caused by the wars. Given the lack of resources to handle the thousands of Gary Smiths and Mike McQueens returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, such collateral damage may be inevitable. "Treatment is a struggle," the Pentagon's top doctor, Ward Casscells, said at a March 14 congressional hearing.

Read the rest.

And then ask yourself what more you can personally do to change the dynamics laid out plainly above. Have you extended yourself, given even one day a month of your time, to reaching out to returning veterans? If not, here are a few ideas from Minnesota's Warrior to Citizen program that can be retrofitted or used as a springboard for your inspirations.

The Challenge – Veterans need valuable outlets for their new skills and experience and Minnesota needs the insights and expertise our veterans can offer – but we’re not making the connection.

* We need to build on our rich history of veterans as returning citizens. For instance, after World War II, public policies like the GI Bill recognized that veterans would be mainstays of their communities and, as a result, Minnesota and American civic life was immensely strengthened.

* Today, many of us are aware of challenges that some veterans face when they return home. As a society, we are increasingly aware of things like post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury. and other lasting effects of wartime service. We are continuing to develop services to meet the needs of soldiers struggling with these and other serious issues.

* But despite the challenges some veterans can face, we must remember that they do not see themselves as victims. They are not fragile or broken. In fact, most are just the opposite – stronger and more accomplished than ever before.

* They have new skills and experiences in addressing a range of practical issues – far more than combat – such as water purification and distribution projects, conflict resolution, and infrastructure development as a result of their service. Unfortunately, after the fanfare of their arrival dies down and life returns to “normal,” many of our returning veterans will struggle to find valuable, productive outlets for those new talents within their families, workplaces, neighborhoods and broader communities.

* This is a frustrating experience for our soldiers – and a potentially tragic loss for Minnesota. We are failing to tap the civic leadership, skills and passions of our veterans. We may be reaching out to lend a helping hand if we see a need, but we aren’t asking our veterans how they can use their new skills to contribute to our organizations, our civic groups, our businesses, our schools, and our communities.

* With 2,600 Guard members returning this summer, Minnesota citizens have an historic opportunity to help our warriors become active, engaged, valuable citizens by asking them to help build communities here at home – if we’re up to the challenge.

Warrior to Citizen Campaign – A citizen-led campaign to help returning veterans re-engage as citizens.

* The Warrior to Citizen campaign is a broad but simple statewide effort to encourage ALL Minnesotans to think about the ways that veterans are especially qualified to contribute to the strength and growth of our communities.

* The Warrior to Citizen campaign is a growing coalition of individuals and organizations throughout the state, including National Guard members, legislators, faith-based leaders, health care professionals, local government officials, social services providers, students and many, many more. It is being organized by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

* The Warrior to Citizen campaign is NOT an effort for only those who are directly connected in some way (through a family member, colleague, church, etc.) to a returning soldier. In fact, the Warrior to Citizen campaign is meant to speak directly to people who may not think they have a specific role to play. Those are the people who can open up creative new networks and new opportunities for returning veterans to engage with their communities.

Call to Action – You can lead or help with the Warrior to Citizen campaign in your community in many ways.

* By asking veterans to share their stories, skills and expertise, we continue to honor their service while providing a valuable outlet for their new ideas and abilities.

* Here are some starter ideas for what individuals, organizations, and entire communities can do to lead the Warrior to Citizen campaign:

  • If you are an employer, consider holding job fairs designed to leverage the special skills many returning veterans have. Or, invite a veteran to provide advanced training for your existing workforce, if expertise is appropriate.
  • If you are an employer or community organization, consider hosting a brown-bag lunch event featuring a local veteran who is interested in telling his/her story and answering questions about their experience as a warrior.
  • If you are a member or leader of a church or a faith-based organization, consider dedicating a service or social gathering to promoting the Warrior to Citizen concept; encourage community members to tap the skills and experience of your local veterans.
  • If you have a neighborhood association or live in a close-knit community where block parties and social gatherings take place, invite local veterans to discuss their experiences.
  • If you run a youth group or are a teacher, invite a veteran to train young people in a certain skill.
  • The list goes on and on.
Closing, Next Steps and Resources

* Encourage the group to commit to at least one specific goal or effort related to the Warrior to Citizen campaign. Identify a small group that wants to continue working on this issue.

Please visit the Warrior to Citizen website for more ideas and resources. Last month's Minnesota Journal [pdf] offered up a full 12 pages to cover the call of citizens to the project; I'd highly recommend reading Sean Kershaw's article, "Our challenge isn’t warrior-to-citizen, it’s citizen-to-warrior," found on page 3.

Whatever you do, just do.

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