FORT BRAGG, N.C. – A series of slayings of soldiers' wives at Fort Bragg last summer shocked the nation, triggering fears that troops returning from Afghanistan were having difficulty readjusting to being home.
The Army, hoping to ensure soldiers who served in Iraq don't face similar stresses, has implemented a new mandatory program designed to ease the transition to spouses and stateside life. The fort sent 20,000 soldiers from its conventional forces to either Iraq or Afghanistan at the height of the buildup in southwest Asia.
Under the new Deployment Cycle Support program, soldiers who used to get two weeks' vacation upon returning home must now remain on duty for an additional four or five days, during which they must complete certain tasks.
Those include attending meetings to get tips on how to manage the transition and discussions on how to reconnect emotionally with spouses and children who may not remember the absent parent. Spouses are encouraged to attend some meetings.
"We want to get them back here, get them some time to recoup, get them to spend some time with their family and community, and restore them to what we call the normal Fort Bragg pace of life," said Maj. Mike Charles, a chaplain with Special Operations Support Command.
The pilot program was created after four Fort Bragg wives were allegedly killed at the hands of their soldier husbands. In three of the killings, the men involved were soldiers recently returned from duty in Afghanistan. The fourth soldier hadn't been deployed.
"It makes us just that much more safer. Nobody wants to have what happened last year," said Sgt. Troy Sullivan, among 1,200 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division who came home over the past week. "You never know what a soldier can do coming back from an environment like that."
The killings prompted a report last fall that stopped short of drawing a direct connection between the service in Afghanistan and the killings. But it acknowledged that, once the cheering and flag-waving of the return is over, it can be hard on a soldier to go from shooting machine guns to changing diapers and paying the bills.
"As America's sons and daughters return from worldwide deployments, we want to help soldiers reintegrate with their loved ones, families and communities," said the Army's Director of Human Resources, Brig. Gen. Steven P. Schook.
Charles and other chaplains spent 40 hours training for the new program. The Army also has a toll-free phone number that soldiers can call to talk about personal issues confidentially.
During the transition period, commanding officers are urged to talk frankly with and keep an eye on their soldiers to determine whether they're having problems.
The program has already 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.
Back home, chaplains visit individually with soldiers very soon after they get off the plane to check for trouble. The signs may not always be clear.
"They look a little teary, they look out of sorts. They may be shifty," Charles said. In the days ahead, some soldiers may show more subtle signs -- skipping some required events, for example.
"That becomes a possible red flag," he said.
Army leaders are learning that, just as soldiers and their families prepare for deployments, they needed a structured way to re-enter the homefront, said Lt. Col. Spencer Campbell, a behavioral science officer with the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg.
"Deployment is a process, and we prepare people by giving them confidence in their equipment, confidence in themselves," he said. "Redeployment is a process. We want to help folks recognize that."