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New person, old life
A meeting Tuesday focused on helping troops who have recently returned from duty in the Middle East readjust to life outside of the battle zone.
More than 60 people gathered at the National Guard Armory in Baker City for a “Reintegration Summit.” Many attendees are law enforcement personnel and other first responders. But people who provide a variety of support services also were in attendance.
Some of the speakers are members of the Joint Transition Assistance Program Team, which is part of the Oregon Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program sponsored by the Department of Defense. Others who provided information are knowledgeable about the subject because they have contact with veterans and their families professionally or personally.
These military members only receive training to serve their country. There is little or no training on how to be a civilian again, said Elan Lambert, special projects manager for the Joint Transition Assistance Program.
Most veterans have little trouble returning to civilian life. Roughly 20 percent to 30 percent of these men and women, however, suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, she said.
“Everybody comes back changed,” Lambert said.
These men and women learn to conform, to stifle emotion and, in general, to prevail over the enemy by whatever means necessary while on duty, said Eddie Black, another manager with the transition program.
But it’s not always easy for new veterans to disregard that training in the seemingly more chaotic civilian world, let alone someone facing a long list of obstacles, he said.
Someone suffering from PTSD exhibits many of the same characteristics as a well-trained soldier and sometimes reacts to a situation in the same way — which can be dangerous or even deadly outside of battle, Black said.
They can lose self-awareness and sometimes can’t realize the level of their own anger. In a war zone only the aggressors succeed, he said.
“We’re the big dogs,” Black said of their mindset. “I’m not saying that it’s right. I’m just saying that’s their thinking.”
Black suggested that first responders do such things as finding something in common with the veteran so they’ll feel as if they have an ally. Law enforcement can use their rank as a way to earn confidence, for example.
Ask veterans to explain what’s on their mind so they too can understand the problem and help find a way to resolve the situation.
They might say “to see my kids or get to a coffee shop,” Black said.
And don’t make the veteran feel trapped because they might feel the need to fight their way out.
One law enforcement professional told the presenters that they don’t usually have a lot of time to deal with these types of situations. The list of resources and the information about the needs of new veterans provided during the summit likely would prove helpful, however, he said.
“We have to take everything case by case,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Brock Eckstein of Elgin, who’s a member of the 3-116th, the local cavalry unit that returned in September from its second year-long tour in Iraq, talked Tuesday about injuries he sustained while in Iraq.
He was close to a roadside bomb when it blew up. He suffered hearing damage and later discovered his lungs were affected by chemicals the explosive released.
“I’ve seen the worst,” Eckstein said of his Army experience.
Eckstein’s lung damage wasn’t detected by the military; he ended up going to a civilian doctor for help.
When Eckstein was through with Army service, he watched as some of his former comrades in arms numbed their pain with drugs and alcohol because “that’s all they had.”
His friends seemingly made “nonstop trips to the drunk tank,” he said.
This is why the increased interest in helping new veterans reintegrate is “awesome,” Eckstein said. “It’s good that it’s here now.”
About 600 members of Oregon Army National Guard’s 3-116th returned from duty in Iraq this past fall. Experts anticipate that some of these veterans will have difficulties that might put them in contact with first responders within a year to 18 months after ending their service.
Their families see it much earlier, however, said Jennifer Kotz, a family assistance specialist attached to the Oregon National Guard. She helps National Guard families obtain community and military resources and works in LaGrande.
The veteran can become distant, depressed, hyper-vigilant, and suffer from insomnia. Some spouses seek out help when they see their mates careening toward big trouble, but have received little advice or assistance in the past. Kotz said she hopes the information being disseminated now will make a difference for these veterans and their families.
Lambert also warned that local agencies should continue working together to help these veterans in case the state and federal reintegration programs are no longer funded.
Baker City Police Chief Wyn Lohner said that strengthening this effort is the primary goal.
He, Jane Chandler of Baker County Veterans Services, and Debbie Gargalis of WorkForce Oregon worked together to bring the reintegration training to Baker City.
“I think it was a great start. I heard a lot of positive feedback. It was an eye-opener,” Lohner said afterward. “The goal was to help understand, to prevent things from escalating so we don’t end up in a crisis situation with one of our vets.”
“We want to be proactive,” he said.
And Chandler found the event helpful because of the insight the speakers provided. Knowing that a soldier’s view of the world is “black or white” and “right or wrong” will allow her to better assist the community’s newest veterans.
It also would ensure they receive “all of the services they deserve,” she said.
The area transition assistance team is composed of Staff Sgt. Patrick Caldwell, Raymond Powers and Ricardo Gloria.
The program leaders were scheduled to hold similar events in La Grande, Pendleton and Hermiston by this evening.