FORT HARRISON (AP)
In a large, sparsely populated state like Montana, it can be difficult to make sure that returning war veterans get all the help they need. Ryan Ranalli joined the Army in 2001 and was part of the 2003 invading force into Iraq. He was eventually "med-boarded" home and struggled with anger, anxiety and alcohol. Vet-to-vet counseling was helpful, despite some initial uncertainty on Ranalli's part. "When I finally got back here, I came to a (vet-to-vet) meeting, and when I first walked into it, I thought I was at a retirement home," he told the Independent Record in Helena. "Regardless of the generation gap, those guys were in combat, and I was in combat. I can come to them with whatever problems I have, and they can relate to it." The shared experience makes a difference, Ranalli said. "These guys really understand what I was feeling, and what I'm still going through right now," he said. "PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is hard for people who don't have it to relate to it. The people closest to us, We push them away." At an open house here Thursday, a number of veterans talked about the Veterans Affairs counseling program, which has grown in Montana, although there are still communities without a program and people still seeking assistance. Kellie LaFavre, a suicide prevention coordinator with the VA Montana Healthcare System, said it's hard to say precisely how many vets are in need. She receives about three calls per week regarding Montana cases taken over the VA's suicide-prevention hotline. The cases can involve veterans of all eras. Montana has lost at least two Iraq veterans to suicide. The VA is promoting its services in Montana to try to prevent such deaths. Mike Collins, a Vietnam vet, spent some time in inpatient treatment at a clinic in Boise, Idaho, that was equipped to treat PTSD. "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference," Collins read, clearing his throat at the microphone. "I must admit, I spent a good deal of my life not being able to tell the difference." Today, Collins wants to help keep a new generation of veterans from making the mistakes he did. "I've already fought my battles, and I have great confidence in using what I've learned to help my brothers and sisters, so they don't have to go through the 35 years of misery I went through, and the misery I put other people through," he said. Collins and some of his peers have found emotional healing in therapy with others who have seen the trauma of war. "The one emotion we come home with is anger, and the other emotion we come home with is no emotion at all," said vet-to-vet member Tom Huddleston. "At these sessions, we ask each other how they handle it, and we share it back and forth. We give each other hope, and we recall the one thing the military gave us that we never want to lose we leave nobody behind." Brig. Gen. John Walsh, the Montana adjutant general and commander of the Montana National Guard, led the state's 1-163rd Infantry Battalion to Iraq in 2004. Back then, there was little focus on mental health and veterans as they transitioned back into the civilian world. In the last five years, there have been changes. The Guard implemented more than a dozen recommendations made by a PTSD task force. It now takes post-war counseling so seriously that it has become a mandatory part of the state's demobilization process. "We have a lot of young soldiers who have returned from Iraq, and there's a lot of concern out there about the stigma of PTSD," Walsh said. "We need to make sure they don't have that stigma, and we're continuously trying to make things better. We put a lot of effort in making sure our soldiers are taken care of when they return." ___ Information from: Independent Record, www.helenair. com.