Maryland, Guard Step In to Help Iraq, Afghanistan Vets Combat PTSD

By WILL SKOWRONSKI, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON (March 23, 2008) - If statistics hold true, almost half of the Maryland guardsmen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will face mental problems within a few months of coming home.

Between 10 and 25 percent will be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and 1 in 5 will plan to separate or divorce from their partners, all within a year.

These hard truths came out of a Defense Department study from June 2007, before Congress voted to put National Guard soldiers through a post-combat support program like their counterparts in the regular military.

The program may not happen for many in the Guard because the Bush administration failed to fund it, but it will be reality for the largest Maryland Guard deployment since World War II thanks to a funding partnership between the state and the Guard. Still, the battle to take the program national continues.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., co-sponsored an amendment to create the national reintegration program for returning Guard and Reserve troops. It passed in the 2008 defense bill in January, but it wasn't funded.

Without Bush's wallet, Maryland lawmakers and Guard officials scrambled over the past few months to fund a state program to lessen the blow for Maryland troops moving between combat chaos and home.

That funding allowed the multi-step program to continue for the 1,200 Maryland Guard troops who have or will return this spring, including the 120-some troops who returned to Easton Thursday night after nine months in Iraq as part of the 158th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Squadron B Troop of the Maryland National Guard.

Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, an Army Reserve colonel who served in Iraq, said he understood the need for a reintegration program to help soldiers and families. Maryland kicked in $800,000 for the program.

"It's about taking care of our neighbors who live in Maryland," Brown said. "Having spent 10 months in Iraq in a combat environment and coming back to a community environment, I know that there are some challenges and potholes and pitfalls and surprises along the way."

Chaplain William Lee, with the Maryland Guard since 1987, said he sees first-hand how combat can affect people.

"Personally, I've seen both sides of the coin," Lee said. "Overall, the majority of families and the soldiers do well."

But, some soldiers will just compartmentalize stress while deployed because of their intense focus on the mission, he said.

"When they get home and the threat's not there, the adrenaline starts to seep out and the walls come down."

The Maryland Guard, spokeswoman Maj. Kristine Henry said, began testing the program in October with an infantry unit that returned from Kosovo and an aviation maintenance unit, well before Congress demanded it.

Maryland, said National Guard Bureau spokesman Rick Breitenfeldt, was one of the first states to adopt the program. Ten other states have similar programs.

"They pushed real hard to get this up and running in their state," Breitenfeldt said. "Now they're going to put their money where their mouth is and really take care of the soldiers."

The National Guard Bureau contributed $1.5 million to secure the Maryland program, said Bureau spokesman Manny Pacheco, and has helped fund programs in the other states.

The curriculum, modeled after a successful program in Minnesota, begins before soldiers return, preparing them and their family for the ordeal ahead. The soldiers then meet as a unit with their families at intervals of 30, 60 and 90 days after they return for focused programs, said Maryland National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Charles Kohler.

The first meeting focuses on reconnecting with families, the second on addressing negative behavior with videos on road rage and other examples of anger issues, Kohler said, and finally soldiers undergo medical screening to check for long-term risks like PTSD or other mental problems.

Soldiers, Lee said, are made to feel stress is a normal part of coming home and are given a chance to express what they feel.

"We normalize what they're going through because we draw from the experiences from those who have been there before them," he said. "It's a simple enough model to adapt itself to the different-sized states out there."

With Maryland's program on track, Mikulski is pushing for $45 million to be put into an emergency supplemental spending bill that will be debated in April to fund the national program this year, the senator's spokeswoman said. Another $73 million, said Melissa Schwartz, will be needed for 2009.

"The Guard is treated like a stepchild when they fight abroad, and when they return," Mikulski said in a statement. "It is unacceptable that returning members of the Guard and Reserve don't receive the same care as returning active duty soldiers, even though we are asking them to make the same sacrifices."

Brown, Mikulski and Gov. Martin O'Malley will have a roundtable discussion with National Guard troops and their families Thursday to better understand the hurdles they must overcome. Mikulski, Schwartz said, will be able to use what she learns to call for the emergency funding in April.

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