At the end of this month, the 90 men who comprise the Battery A, 1st Battalion, 152nd Field Artillery Regiment of Maine’s Army National Guard will return to the US from Iraq. They were part of an element called Security Force II, and they’ve been overseas for one year, providing security for troops and vehicle convoys — meaning they’ve had some dangerous jobs, driving through Iraq and getting hit by roadside bombs.
Like so many national guardsmen and women before them, these soldiers face a difficult transition as they reintegrate into their communities, their jobs, and their families. Whereas active-duty soldiers return as a group to a military base upon coming home, National Guard members disperse into their civilian communities, separated from their friends and the daily routine to which they’d grown accustomed, and surrounded by people who don’t actually know what they’ve been through.
Just last week, the national organization Americans Against Escalation in Iraq launched a new statewide campaign to pressure Maine senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to end the war in Iraq and to “insist on a policy which responsibly brings our troops home.”
It’s easy to call for the return of American soldiers from Iraq. But if we want to bring them back, we have a responsibility to understand what they go through — the good and the bad — when they return.
It’s possible that the unit coming back in July — known as "SECFORII" — will have an especially difficult transition due to the recent death of their comrade, 26-year-old Sgt. Richard Parker of Phillips, who died in Iraq on June 14 after a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle. He died just five weeks before he was scheduled to come home, and was buried in Waterville on June 26.
“You’ve got some very fresh pain here,” says Chaplain Andrew Gibson, who returned in April from a tour in Afghanistan, and who coordinates a team of civilian and military volunteers that helps service members upon their return from conflict. When a fellow soldier dies overseas, “it’s very surreal,” Gibson says. “And then when you have to come home and deal with the fact that your pals aren’t with you, it’s that much more significant.” So, in addition to normal readjustment issues, these soldiers will be reliving a still-raw memory.
It’s been well reported that the men and women fighting the War on Terror have been exposed to unique and haunting experiences (such as insurgent fighters who make it difficult to identify the enemy, increased incidents of sexual assault and harassment, and body armor that saves lives but leaves soldiers without limbs). It’s also widely known that post-war reintegration is daunting, and has broad societal implications. But there’s a part of the soldiers’ timeline that remains relatively unexplored: the crux of their return — the first moments in which the country reaches out to its newest veterans.
It’s understandable to feel ambivalent about veterans’ services in this country, considering that several top officials at the nation’s most recognized veterans’ hospital (Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC) recently resigned or were fired amid accusations of mismanagement and mistreatment of patients. And the Portland Press Herald recently ran a piece questioning whether or not Maine’s Bureau of Veterans’ Services was equipped to handle the onslaught of returning soldiers it will see over the next decade.
For all these doubts, there are promising cases to be found. One thing we know for sure is that today’s veterans are receiving better mental-health care than did the last generation’s.
“It was so sad back in our time,” recalls 62-year-old Vietnam veteran Arthur Roy, of Lewiston. “Nobody seemed to care.”
But Maine’s National Guard officials, Veterans Affairs counselors, and civilian mental-health-care providers have been preparing for SECFORII’s arrival for weeks. From the moment the unit starts preparing to leave Iraq, through its five to seven days in Fort Dix, New Jersey, and finally at the soldiers’ “Hero’s Welcome” in Maine (and well after that), these service members will be exposed to a bounty of mental-health resources, among other benefits.
So far, those mental-health services are under-utilized — in part because their use depends on veterans seeking out services themselves. After all, even when those veterans are being reached out to, such as by the Phoenix for comment for this story, they are reluctant to speak about mental or emotional woes.
It may take another generation to see if the military’s new programs can change its own mental-health culture.
A continued push to de-stigmatize mental-health care among national guardsmen and women, along with creative approaches to doing so, are what’s called for. But “some guys and girls don’t want anything to do with the military when it comes to seeking help,” admits Adjutant General John W. Libby, who heads the Maine National Guard. “We tend to be a bunch of Type A personalities who may regard seeking out emotional or mental counseling as a sign of weakness.”