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Former Bemidji soldier recalls lack of post-deployment help

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ST. PAUL - Greg Roberts admitted he had "some serious issues" when he came home from the Iraq War but told legislators Monday that the National Guard did little to help him to be part of civilian society again.

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"We basically got put on the bus, we went home and did a ceremony, and that was it," the Bemidji man told House and Senate veterans' committees.

Speaking via Skype, Roberts said the Guard should have called and said: " 'Hey, man, are you doing OK?' But they didn't."

His testimony came during a hearing in which top Minnesota Guard officials said they are working to keep soldiers and former soldiers from committing suicide by providing help during and after their service.

"It's devastating when someone takes his or her own life," said Major Gen. Rick Nash, who leads the state Guard.

Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, said he is impressed with actions Nash and Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito are taking to help returning soldiers. Parry said he thinks Roberts fell through the cracks and he urged Roberts to refer any of his buddies in trouble to veterans officials for help.

Nash and Lt. Col. John Morris, the Minnesota Guard chaplain, told lawmakers about their efforts to reintegrate soldiers into society after their deployment ends.

Nash said most military suicides are of white men in their 20s, and many are from those returning home but do not have jobs. Surprisingly, he said, two-thirds of military suicides are by those who are not deployed.

In the past four years, nearly 20 Minnesota National Guard personnel have killed themselves. That is the second most in the country.

Soldiers coming home face many problems, Roberts said.

"Home is not what you remember it to be," he said. "It's the same, but you are different. ... You expect everything to be better when you get home."

He felt different after leaving the war four years ago.

"I was basically like an alien on Earth," he said, adding that only his Army buddies could understand what he went through.

Because of his emotional problems, he said he missed some National Guard reintegration drills designed to help him get back into society.

"The idea of putting a uniform on made me sick at my stomach," he said.

No one called him to ask why he missed the drills. "That, in retrospect, is quite a disservice."

Shellito said Roberts is normal. "He just wanted to be left alone."

As a Vietnam war veteran, Shellito said, his only therapy was talking to fellow veterans. Now, his department and the Guard have programs designed to help.

"We are light years ahead of other states," Shellito said of Minnesota's Yellow Ribbon program, which is geared help soldiers return home.

Such programs will become more important, Shellito added. With the end of the Iraqi war, more soldiers will leave the military, he said, which will put more stress on reintegration programs.

Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com

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