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Community needs to rally around returning soldiers

When service men and women are sent off to war, they aren't just plucked off the streets and shipped overseas.

First they are sent to basic training, also known as "boot camp," where they spend the next six months being transformed from everyday citizens, to soldiers, and finally, to warriors.

They're taught to trust no one, watch everywhere around them for signs of danger, to follow the orders of their superior officers unquestioningly. As a result of that training, they withdraw from their loved ones emotionally.

After their training is complete, they're sent overseas, to Iraq or Afghanistan, where a relentless foe will use whatever means necessary to destroy them.

"They (soldiers) are steeped in an environment where it's all about survival -- they're focused on getting out (of combat) alive," says Major John Morris, deputy chaplain of the Minnesota Army National Guard.

"They can't trust anybody... everything they see on the street has the potential to conceal something lethal."

"The enemy will make a bomb out of anything," noted Jennifer Iveland, a combat veteran and outreach worker for the Veteran's Administration Vet Center who is also a combat stress specialist. "They're very resourceful."

In fact, it's IEDs, or "improvised explosive devices," that are responsible for most of the deaths and injuries among soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iveland noted.

Thus, soldiers are taught to see danger all around them. So what happens when these "combat-hardened" veterans come home?

"They need to revert back to citizen status... to learn how to find a new 'normal,'" Morris said. "There's no training for that."

"They can never go back to the 'old normal' -- it no longer exists," adds Jill Kriesel, a military spouse who has been married to a serviceman for 25 years, and now has a son who is also serving in the military. "So they have to make a 'new normal,' and that takes time."

"When you put on that uniform, you give up your freedom... you get used to people thinking for you," he adds, comparing a soldier's life in Iraq to being in prison. "Life slows down to a very simple routine."

When they come home, these soldiers are initially overwhelmed.

"They don't know how to handle complexity," Morris adds. The typical response to this situation, he added, is to either act out, or withdraw. Many even decide to re-enlist.

"Reintegration does not happen the day they come home to the banners and the celebrations -- that's just the beginning," says Kriesel.

And it's not just the returning veterans who need that support -- it's their families as well.

"When a soldier goes to combat, the family also goes into combat, in a different way," Kriesel adds.

The spouse and children have to live with the constant stress of knowing their loved one could die in combat at any time. They have to learn to cope with not having that person there to shoulder their usual role in the family, as caregiver, wage earner, etc.

Then, the soldier comes home, and the family is "re-traumatized" as they have to redefine their roles once again, and find a way to bring that person back into the family.

But that's where a veteran's home community can step in to offer the support that family needs, whether it's connecting them with counseling services, helping them readjust to their old jobs or find a new one, or sometimes, just providing a sympathetic ear.

"We're here to enlist your help with brining them all the way home," Morris says. "There is a role for each of you, and it's not short-term... it lasts months, and sometimes years. If you don't help us, who will?"

Fortunately, he adds there is a team of people ready and waiting to help, from the veteran's service office that exists in every county in Minnesota, to the Vet Center, to the Workforce Center (which can help with re-employment), to local veteran's service organizations such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and more.

"They're all part of the team... you should think of them as allies," Morris says. "None of you has to do this alone."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454