A Helping Hand for Returning Veterans

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2011 16:10

By Kerry McCray

Counselor Susan Reid has this advice for parents of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan:

No surprise parties.

The reason? In war zones, roadside bombs go off with no warning. Bullets fly. People scatter.

An unexpected roomful of friends and family, however beloved, could startle someone who has come to see surprises as potentially life-threatening rather than fun, so he or she may react with irritability rather than pleasure.

“People really don’t like surprises when they come back from war,” says Reid, a psychotherapist who counsels veterans and their families in Tuolumne and Stanislaus counties under contract with the VA Vet Center program.

As veterans return home, it’s not easy for family, friends and community members to decide what to do. Do we thank them for their service? Do we ask them about their experience? Do we offer to help them get a job? A car? An education?

All of the above, say Reid and others who work with veterans just home from tours of duty overseas.

“I always make it a point to thank them for their service,” says Barbara Childers of Sonora, whose 23-year-old son left for a second U.S. Army stint in Iraq in August. “It warms their hearts to know people care.”

Nearly 30,000 U.S. veterans return to California each year, many of them from Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the state Department of Mental Health.

While some vets don’t immediately report problems associated with war, like post-traumatic stress disorder, nearly all have changed, says Pat Noonan, a social worker with the Veterans Affairs clinic in Sonora.

“They don’t feel like they fit anymore,” she says. “They miss the brotherhood of service.”

Imagine: You’re a soldier with a unit in Iraq. For one year, you and your comrades do everything together, from eating to sleeping to patrols and combat missions. When you leave your compound, someone’s always got your back.

You fly back to the U.S., maybe with a few buddies. By the time you get home, you’re alone, or so it seems. It’s not easy to talk to your parents, or even your spouse.

“Their wives are still the high school girls they left behind,” Noonan says. “The vets don’t think their wives understand them, and some probably don’t.”

Pfc. Chris Wellhausen with his wife, Sarah

Even more puzzling for a veteran is not understanding his or her own behavior.

It’s normal for recently-returned soldiers to seem quiet or withdrawn, experts say. Take Chris Wellhausen, Childers’ son, a newly married 2006 Sonora High School graduate who is on his second tour of duty in Iraq.

“When I came home from Iraq the first time, I was nervous,” he says in an e-mail. “I didn’t really want to talk about it.”

People asked if he killed anyone. That’s a callous question, according to Reid.

“You never want to ask a vet that,” she says. “It’s a little like asking a woman who was molested as a child about her experience. It’s a private thing.”

So, what is OK to ask?

Reid’s suggestions: Are there people in your unit you are still in touch with? What was the hardest part? Were you in combat? What’s it like to be home?

Another way to break the ice is to offer help adjusting to life in the states. Help your veteran friend or relative land a job interview, get a loan, even buy a car or get into college.

Don’t be surprised if recently returned vets seem anxious, angry or have trouble concentrating. Those are signs of readjustment difficulty, Reid says, something nearly everyone coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan experiences for a while.

Veterans are also prone to longer-lasting difficulties like PTSD, brain injury and suicidal thoughts. Between 11 and 20 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars live with PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Symptoms can include nightmares, difficulty experiencing closeness, feeling jittery, trouble sleeping or concentrating, and being prone to rage.

The incidence of traumatic brain injury is higher during present conflicts than in previous wars. Caused by powerful blasts of roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, these injuries were recently found to affect about 60 percent of soldiers screened for them at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Suicide is also a problem, one the federal government is doing something about. In 2008 it launched the Veterans Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK). In 2010, more than 12,000 Californians called between January and July.

Do veterans commit suicide more often than non-veterans? A 2007 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health says yes. Veterans in this study were found to be more than twice as likely to die by suicide. The risk is greater, the VA says, if a soldier has endured frequent deployments, long deployments, a sexual assault or a service-related injury, among other things.

Hoping to help, the government last year launched Operation Welcome Home, a program designed to provide counseling and case management to veterans before problems escalate. Workers regularly check in with vets who sign up for services with the VA. In the first seven months of the program, they reached out to nearly 14,000 veterans.

It’s not easy for military men and women – trained to be resilient problem-solvers – to seek mental health help. It often makes them judge themselves as weak. Some mistakenly believe going to counseling could bar them from law-enforcement jobs, a common career path for veterans. Others might not want to acknowledge a problem.

“Who wants to be thinking, at 21, there’s something wrong with them?” Reid says.

Close friends and family may spot alarming changes, including excessive alcohol and drug use, or talk of suicide.

“It’s OK to ask, ‘You seem depressed. Do you want to talk?'” Reid says. “And, if a parent or wife is really concerned, they should call somebody.” (See resource list.)

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if something, like spending lots of time alone, is normal for a recently returned soldier, or if it indicates a more serious problem, says Childers, the Army mom. That’s where support groups come in.

Childers belongs to Operation Mom, a group for parents of service members that meets monthly in Sonora. At these meetings, Childers discovered many young veterans can be short-tempered or reluctant to talk about their time overseas.

“You find out you’re not the only parent who experiences this,” she said.

Another thing she learned from group members: Don’t hound them for war stories.

“They’re home to be away from that,” she notes. “Don’t keep needling them.”

Reid tells parents of new veterans not to take things personally. If a soldier only stays 10 minutes at a family gathering, or prefers not to come at all, he or she doesn’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. They just can’t feel comfortable around people, even loved ones.

They may be silently bearing the burden of loss: Loss of friends, of innocence, and of feeling safe. It’s likely they need to be alone to come to terms with their emotions. And they may be wary of crowds due to their experiences at war.

Instead of surprise parties, Reid recommends quiet gatherings like intimate lunches, picnics in the hills, or fishing.

And, even if you notice they seem different, don’t tell them they’ve changed, she says.

“They know that,” she says, “and it makes them feel really bad. It’s not something they need to hear.”

Instead, tell them you’re glad they’re back.

“Tell them something ordinary and funny,” Reid suggests. “Make them laugh. Share your life with them. Help them normalize this life without war.”


Local and National Resources for Returning Vets

Sonora VA Clinic, 13633 Mono Way, Sonora. 588-2600

8am-4:30pm weekdays. Pat Noonan, mental health social worker; Erin Dale (588-2622), Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF-OEF) social worker, will run support group for returning veterans. Clinic offers eligible veterans access to medical and mental health care, referrals, support groups and mobile outreach clinics. Support groups (including those for women and new veterans) emphasize education and coping skills for PTSD, anger management and depression. Schedules available at front desk.

VA Vet Center Program

Nationwide network of centers specializing in post-combat readjustment counseling. Susan Reid, 533-2679, is the program’s outreach counselor in Sonora; call for appointment. PTSD assessments, individual and group therapy focusing on trauma recovery, readjustment skills. Services free of charge to combat veterans.
Modesto VA Vet Center, 569-0713.

Veterans Services Offices

Help with registration and claims related to disability, compensation, pensions, health care, in-home and nursing home care, VA-backed mortgages and referrals. In Tuolumne County: 105 E Hospital Road, Sonora, 9 am-noon, 1-4pm weekdays, drop-in basis only, 533-6280. In Calaveras County: 509 E. Saint Charles St. at Mountain Ranch Road, San Andreas, 9am-5pm weekdays, by appointment only, 754-6624.

Military OneSource, 800-342-9647, militaryonesource.com.

A 24/7 phone line staffed by professionals, many of whom have returned from deployment. They answer questions, provide referrals and offer a listening ear to active duty military, veterans, retired military, civilians with Department of Defense, and National Guard reservists.

Suicide Prevention Hotline, 800-273-TALK, followed by 1
A 24/7 line staffed by professionals for active duty military, veterans and family members in emotional distress.

Operation Mom
Sonora branch of national support group for parents meets second Saturday per month. Members also assemble care packages for servicemen and women overseas. Email Pat Padavana, (209) 532-8051.

Center for Trauma Recovery
Inpatient program for active duty and veterans needing intensive help with PTSD symptoms, through Palo Alto VA HealthCare System. Referrals through the Sonora VA Clinic and VA Vet Center program. Online at ptsd.va.gov, more info plus articles on deployment, homecoming suggestions and more. Also available: Inpatient treatment for substance abuse, accessed through Sonora VA Clinic.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors Magazine


By Guest Contributor December 15, 2011 16:10