For War Veterans, New Help From States

By: - August 10, 2007 12:00 am

After more than a year of patrolling the deadly roads of Iraq ‘s volatile Anbar province, Staff Sgt. Jeff Anderson of the Minnesota National Guard returned home in late April – only to face a new set of challenges.

The 31-year-old owner and manager of a lakefront lodge in Walker , Minn. , came back to a business that was in financial trouble after his 19-month absence. His father was recovering from a stroke, leaving no one to care for his 7-year-old son, Quinn.

To make matters worse, Anderson still had to come to terms with the war itself. Just weeks before he left Iraq on a financial-hardship discharge, one of his friends and fellow soldiers – 28-year-old Sgt. Greg N. Riewer – was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) near Fallujah.

Now, like thousands of other U.S. soldiers who recently have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan , Anderson is trying to find his feet in the civilian world after spending months in a war zone. The Minnesota National Guard is determined to help him. Starting on Saturday (Aug. 11), Anderson will participate in a first-in-the-nation program created by the state Guard to give its returning soldiers more assistance as they adjust to life at home.

The program, called Beyond The Yellow Ribbon, requires all returning Guard members from the state to attend regular counseling sessions to address everything from paying bills to reconnecting with family members, with special emphasis placed on “negative behaviors associated with combat stress.” The initiative has been hailed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and could become a national model under a bill being considered in Congress.

“It’s quite a transition from seeing all that over there and then coming back over here and getting back to normal life,” Anderson said, acknowledging the need for the program. He could be joined in his counseling this weekend by soldiers he served with in Iraq , most of whom recently returned after 22 months – the longest tour of any U.S. military unit since the war began.

Minnesota ‘s program places it among a growing number of states that are exploring new ways to reach out to returning soldiers, especially members of state-run National Guard units. While state governments have unveiled scores of measures in recent years to repay veterans for their service – offering them financial benefits such as education credits and tax relief – states now are focusing more attention on how to help soldiers re-enter society, experts say. In many cases, that includes caring for veterans’ psychological health.

Illinois last month announced another first-in-the-nation plan that will require its returning National Guard members to be screened for traumatic brain injuries, which frequently occur when soldiers are close to heavy explosions such as IED blasts, often go undetected and can have mental-health repercussions. The state also will set up a 24-hour hotline for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can cause nightmares, flashbacks, anger and other symptoms.

Florida, Massachusetts and Wyoming also recently have acted to assist returning veterans, particularly those with PTSD and other mental-health conditions. A June report by a Pentagon task force found that thousands of U.S. military personnel – including nearly half of all Army National Guard members who have seen action in Iraq or Afghanistan – have reported psychological problems after tours of duty.

Minnesota ‘s Beyond The Yellow Ribbon program is groundbreaking because it requires most returning soldiers to attend counseling as soon as 30 days after arriving at home. The idea is to provide an immediate support structure to soldiers “with no training on how to be civilians again,” according to Lt. Col. John Morris, a chaplain in the state National Guard who developed the program at the request of Pawlenty.

“If I put someone in prison for 22 months, I’d give him a parole officer and a halfway house [when he leaves],” Morris said, noting how long some of Minnesota ‘s soldiers were deployed.

But some Minnesota National Guard soldiers remain skeptical. Staff Sgt. Brad Gerten, who returned from Iraq last month and works as a correctional officer, is wary of mandatory counseling sessions because they will force him to miss more work. He said he already feels as though he is “taking advantage” of his employer; after his 22-month deployment, Gerten has spent more time away from his job than at it.

“When you’re gone that long, you just want to get home and get on with your life,” Gerten told .

In Illinois, the state “want[s] to be there when our guys need help,” said state Department of Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth, herself a National Guard member who lost both legs and injured her arm when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004.

Duckworth, who attracted national attention as an outspoken critic of the Iraq war during an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House last November, has lent a recognizable face to Illinois ‘ outreach efforts. She was the driving force behind the state’s push for mandatory brain screenings and PTSD support services, which will cost an estimated $10.5 million a year.

The screenings – which will be available free to all Illinois veterans, not just the state’s National Guard – will include a written questionnaire and medical evaluation. Duckworth likened the screenings to checkups that a high-school football player would receive after a season of rough games.

The PTSD hotline is essential for those who live too far away from federal veterans’ facilities to receive immediate attention, Duckworth said. Psychiatric professionals will staff the hotline around the clock, she said.

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