National Guard set to return
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Alice Campbell Havre Daily News [email protected]
Time is an undulation of emotions and events, and it has changed the home environments of soldiers in the 639th Combat Sustainment Supply Company during their recent deployment to Iraq. Soldiers and families expect things to be the same as when the service members left, said Col. Jeff Ireland, the Montana National Guard's personnel director. "But it takes some time to get back where you were," he said. Often, returning guard members are more irritable, snapping at children and family members more quickly than normal, not as willing to go out in public and not as willing to participate in conversations. Spouses often complain of their loved one's erratic driving, too, Ireland said an essential skill in theater. Some find it difficult to adjust to a changed household dynamic that is created by the vacuum left by a missing father. Readjustment is different for each soldier. Some experience little impact from deployment and recover quickly, while others might need years, Ireland said. The 130 members of the 639th, based in Havre with members from Libby and Kalispell who conducted transportation, fuel and maintenance missions, will go through that readjustment cycle when they return around the New Year to U.S. soil after spending 11 months in Iraq. The soldiers' return will be different than their last return from deployment to Iraq in 2005, with a new system of support known as Beyond the Yellow Ribbon. The program began before the soldiers deployed, with the creation or strengthening of family readiness groups and a pre-deployment academy that seeks to educate service members, spouses and children about what deployment will be like on both ends. The academy teaches about ID cards, educational resources, insurance benefits, programs available for kids and family assistance centers "all of those things that take away some of the unknowns," Ireland, who helped create the program, said. The family readiness groups compliment the overall program and provide support for families left stateside, he said. When guard members returned in 2005, they were reunited with family members, then underwent a lengthy paperwork process and were given vast amounts of information. It was difficult for them to concentrate because of wanting to be with family members, Ireland said. This time, they will be reunited with family members, undergo a short paperwork process and be given 30 days to reconnect with their families, he said. After the 30 days, the Guard brings the guard members and immediate family members to a location near an armory, usually a hotel. The guard members wear civilian clothes for the weekend while Veteran Affairs describes benefits to them and vendors provide information about resources available to them. Every effort is made to make the event as comfortable as possible to maximize retainment, Ireland said. Sixty days after returning, guard members are taken to a similar location as the first retreat, but the discussion is different. "This time we're talking about things that are much more difficult to talk about," Ireland said. Discussions about issues such as substance abuse, suicide and behavioral health issues occur, he said. "It's not just if you're OK on the outside, but if you're OK on the inside, too," he said. The event raises awareness of behavioral health, Ireland said, and helps to take away some of the stigma of weakness that seeking help for issues traditionally carries. "You should expect to have some struggles readjusting," he said. Problems are identified at the event, creating a better chance of solving them before it turns into a potential crisis. The process of screening has been effective so far, Ireland said. After only being implemented as a permanent program since mid 2008 a pilot program took place for a year prior it has gained national recognition and become the national norm after legislation was passed this year. The most common issues identified are anxiety, marriage and family issues, sleep disorder, hyper-vigilance "an exaggerated state of awareness" and post-traumatic stress disorder. Of the soldiers going through the health stations, "we do have quite a few folks" who potentially need help, Ireland said. In the first six months of the program, 40 percent of those seen were issued a referral in the five categories. In the second six months, 25 percent of people seen were issued a referral. Ireland said he expects that number to rise as more are reported in the summer, when referrals are usually scheduled. Some of the soldiers screened go through the stations because of self-reported issues from previous deployments, he added. At the 90-day mark, soldiers are given a post deployment health reassessment for both physical and behavioral health. Soldiers are good at covering up any issues they might be having, Ireland said, and the screening ensures "that we have visibility of anything that's still uncorrected." Soldiers also still receive Tricare benefits at 90 days out, he said. A celebration of the soldiers, their families and employers is usually held at the same time, Ireland said. Every six months after that, soldiers go through another health assessment to make sure that no one falls through the cracks, he said. Because there are not enough behavioral health specialists in the guard to handle the number of soldiers, work for the program is contracted out to TriWest Healthcare Alliance. Soldiers who have a behavioral health issue are seen by civilian professionals, which helps the overall process, Ireland said. It can be easier for a soldier to speak with a civilian than to a person in uniform and the codes of confidentiality also mean that he is more likely to disclose issues he might be experiencing, Ireland said. Receiving care from civilian providers limits the amount of follow-up the Guard can do statistically, Ireland said, but the important thing is to let soldiers know about services for issues so that they can get help. Overall, soldiers are glad for the program, he said, and there's an appreciation that the organization is doing what is needed to help with reintegration. Soldiers who deployed in previous conflicts have commented on the program as well, Ireland said, adding that they say, "I only wish we had this when we deployed."