Returning Guardsmen Need More Help at Home

By WILL SKOWRONSKI, Capital News Service

BALTIMORE (March 20, 2008) - Maryland's post-combat support program is a good foundation, Guard soldiers told Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Barbara Mikulski Thursday at the Fifth Regiment Armory, but needs to be built on with more long-term care and one-to-one counseling.

Sgt. Iris Cruz-Story left her two daughters—Julissa and Iyania, now 2 and 5, respectively—in July 2006 to go to Kuwait. Their father, Sgt. Jon Story, who had just returned from Iraq, became their sole caretaker.

Cruz-Story was one of the first soldiers to go through Maryland's 90-day support program when she came back in October, she said, but didn't take it seriously enough because she was just excited to see her daughters and husband.

"You don't know that you have issues. You go participate. You have to be there," Cruz-Story said of her first meetings, held at 30-, 60- and 90-day intervals. "I've been home six months and now I'm starting to feel, OK, maybe I do need a little integration. Maybe I do need to talk to someone."

A funding partnership between the state and the National Guard initiated the program for the 1,300-some Maryland troops returning this spring. But, Mikulski is pushing for $45 million in emergency funding to take the Guard program national this year and lessen the blow for troops moving between combat and home. Another $73 million would be needed for next year.

"It has its limits, but it's a great place to begin and we can build from there," Mikulski, told the 25 or so Guard soldiers at Thursday's meeting.

Mikulski co-sponsored an amendment to create a national reintegration program for returning Guard and Reserve troops like the one in place for their counterparts in the regular military. It passed in the 2008 defense bill in January but wasn't funded.

"If you're in the same military and fight the same war, you should get the same benefits," she said. "The benefits are earned. They're not a gift."

The curriculum, modeled after a program in Minnesota, begins before soldiers return to the U.S., preparing them and their families for the experiences ahead.

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. In the third meeting, soldiers undergo a screening for long-term risks like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other mental problems.

The soldiers are made to feel stress is a normal part of coming home and are given a chance to express what they feel.

Beverly Fairchild, a volunteer therapist, said at the meeting the program should involve more one-on-one counseling and go beyond 90 days to make it easier for soldiers to tackle mental problems. Guard and Reserve soldiers, Fairchild said, many times find returning to normalcy more difficult than active-duty soldiers because the part-time soldiers live away from bases and are separated from their war buddies.

"They have lives. They have families. They have jobs. And when they're deployed all of that is disrupted," Fairchild said. "This is a very different situation for them."

Brigadier Gen. Edward Leacock has been sent to Bosnia and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba with the Maryland Guard and knows how hard it can be to come back home.

"The challenge is you're so caught up in the mission," Leacock said. "You get home, all of a sudden your world shifts 180 degrees. You've gone from 120 miles per hour down to 30, and you don't realize all the stresses on your life until six months or a year later."

Cruz-Story and her husband were apart for almost three years because of their back-to-back deployments. Story came back from Iraq in October 2006 and immediately had to work full-time and take full charge of his girls.

"Having come from a combat situation to basically being Mr. Mom, it was difficult," Story said. "I did the best I could. A lot of e-mails and a lot of phone calls to Kuwait for guidance."

The reintegration program, Story said, wasn't in place when he came back. The support, Story said, may have helped, but again as other soldiers said, he didn't really feel the stress until after more than 90 days being home.

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