SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer
HELENA The Montana National Guard must monitor its soldiers for postcombat stress longer and more often to prevent further suicides among discharged troops, a report presented to the Schweitzer administration Tuesday concludes. The 25-page report, compiled by an 11-member task force, also recommends better education on mental health issues and a “crisis response team” to contact Guard members who stop attending postcombat drills. “If people don’t show up, we need to find them and ask them if they’re OK,” said Maj. Gen. Randy Mosley, adjutant general of the Montana National Guard. Mosley commissioned the Post Deployment Health Reassessment Task Force after the suicide of Chris Dana, an Iraq war veteran from Helena who shot himself in March. Dana’s family said he had become depressed and withdrawn, and the military failed to help him. Dana’s stepbrother, attorney Matthew Kuntz of Helena, applauded the report’s findings Tuesday but said they must be followed correctly to work. The task force, for example, recommended monitoring Guard members for post-combat stress every six months over a two-year period, rather than just once. But only face-to-face contact, not just another form, will produce results, Kuntz said. “If it’s a brochure, it’s going to fail,” he said. The task force recommended 14 total changes to the Guard’s post-traumatic stress disorder program, as well as two changes for the governor’s office. Both agencies were reviewing the recommendations for possible law changes and funding requests. “This is a priority of the governor and this administration,” said Bruce Nelson, chief of staff for Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Those recommendations, some of which are already in place, include mental health training for military commanders, better partnerships with state veterans organizations, allowing Guard members to request an honorable discharge for physical or mental health reasons, and evaluating soldiers who ask to leave the Guard or aren’t attending drills. Kuntz has described his stepbrother as a good soldier who became unable to attend National Guard drills and was released from the service with a less-than-honorable discharge, a demotion that haunted him. “A lot of folks who had been our best soldiers and done the best work are getting real bad discharges,” he said at a Great Falls hearing on the issue in April. The task force also suggested allowing Guard members to attend drills once they return home, rather than making them wait 90 days, as a way to put them in better contact with commanders and “battle buddies.” Schweitzer’s office, the report stated, can help by encouraging soldiers to seek assistance, educating the public on veterans’ health issues and advertising the statewide suicide hot line. The governor can also work with the state’s congressional delegation to expand veteran health services and speed up military service awards, which can bolster veterans’ self-esteem, task force members concluded.