WASHINGTON – Soldiers coming home from Iraq will get counseling, marital advice and other help in a new Army program aimed at easing their transition from the bloodshed and stress of war back to life in America.
The military is trying to prevent tragedies such as occurred last summer when three men from Army commando units at a North Carolina base killed their wives after serving in the counterterror war in Afghanistan. A fourth wife also was killed at the base, Fort Bragg (search), all in the span of six weeks.
"We have people who have gone through some tough stuff," Brig. Gen. Steven P. Schook of the Army's human resources office said of the war in Iraq.
"Part of the message ... is that you've been through something extraordinary," Army psychologist Lt. Col. Charles S. Milliken said at a news conference Wednesday with Schook.
"Every person who has been through it and every family that has been through it ought to have some kind of reaction to it. And that's OK," he said. "And if you need some extra help, that's OK too."
Troops returning from the Persian Gulf will get mandatory training on how to fit back into marriages and families that may have changed during their absence. They and spouses will answer questionnaires to help assess their marriages. Those who feel they need it also can call a toll-free hot line to talk confidentially about marriage or other things troubling them — and get up to six counseling sessions for their problems.
The program is expected to become ready at military bases as troops return. Already, it has begun in the Persian Gulf region, where troops are being questioned in their units to see if they have alcohol problems, depression, suicidal thoughts, financial issues or other factors that might hurt their ability to fit back into civilian society.
All services have had some types of readjustment assistance for some time. Army soldiers, who get "more up close and personal" on the battlefield, tend to be more at risk for problems, Schook said.
The Army has had programs through the chaplain's office, family advocacy services and home bases, but they have not always been used fully, he said.
"Folks hesitate to come forward and get help," Milliken said.
And, until now, programs have been neither required nor uniform across the entire Army. The hot line has been tried at Fort Bragg and a couple of other bases since the deaths last year. It is expected to be available service-wide around June 1.
Some soldiers may have a parent who died while they were away, or a spouse who started divorce proceedings in their absence.
"They may find if they've been gone six months to a year that their wife may have exerted a greater role in running the household," Schook said. "The kids have adjusted to the wife's new role in that household. So as they come back they are going to find a different set of conditions within that home."
While they are being trained on how to handle such developments, officials are working with families as well to give spouses the skills needed for the reunion or with information on how to spot problems.
Part of the reason for the expanded program is to make sure units that suffered a significant number of casualties in Iraq do not go home without proper help. But the program is not just for them, but for all Army active and reserve troops, as well as civilian defense employees and family members who want it.
The killings at Fort Bragg forced the Army to take a hard look at the culture of its elite soldiers and programs aimed at helping them.
On June 11, a Special Forces (search) soldier shot his wife and then himself two days after he returned from Afghanistan. Later that month, police allege, another Special Forces soldier killed his wife; weeks later, he led authorities to her body.
On July 19, another, reportedly a member of the super-secret Delta Force (search), shot his wife and then himself. A fourth soldier, an 18th Airborne Corps member who had not been to Afghanistan, was charged with stabbing his wife.
A study later said the couples probably had pre-existing marital problems that were aggravated by the separation of deployments.
Schook said the killings were a factor in augmenting the programs, as were changing demographics. Reservists who must return to civilian jobs are relied on more than ever. More than 50 percent of troops are married. Also, they have an average of 2.1 children today compared with 1.5 in the 1980s.