Helping Troops Transition From Battlefield to Home

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The scene is by now commonplace: Families gather dockside at a Navy base, anxiously awaiting the return of their loved ones from months of service in Operation Iraqi Freedom (search).

The reunions are emotional, but the rush of joy can be followed by a complicated re-acclimation that churns up war aggression, lingering sadness for buddies who didn't make it back and guilt over not readjusting quickly enough.

To ease these transitions, the Army announced Thursday the advent of “Deployment Cycle Support,” (search) a program involving classes, discussions and psychological assessments to help facilitate a healthy return from deployment to home for soldiers and their families.

“We don't want them in a war zone one minute then stepping off [a] plane and going to Disney World without some transition period to deal with residual concerns,” said Col. David Orman, a psychiatry consultant to the Army Surgeon General (search).

The program is set up to track returning servicepeople "from the time they get ready to leave the theatre of operation, in this case Iraq, until they get home and then about the first 90 days back,” he said.

Orman knows all too well what can go wrong when a soldier returns to an unstable home environment. He led an investigation for the Pentagon into the reasons why four Fort Bragg (search) soldiers murdered their wives within a six-week span after returning from Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom (search) in the summer of 2002.

Three of the men committed suicide. All were later found to have had marital problems.

The report found support for troops and their families was inconsistent and varied, but Orman is hopeful the newly established program will ensure troops and their families are provided adequate mental care.

At Camp Pendleton, Calif., a program called Warrior Transition (search) starts providing assistance guidance on the ship passage home.

Chaplains meet with the Marines on board. “They might be feeling irritable, hyper vigilant or edgy. This is all normal for what you’d expect.  [They should] take it slow when they get home and allow things to progress,” said Dr. Chris Coulapides, manager of the intervention and treatment branch of Camp Pendleton’s personal services division.

“It’s an approach to give them a heads up that they may feel on edge for a while but don’t despair about that or think you have long-term problems.  Over a month or longer [they] should start feeling better, showing more changes back to the way they were.”

The readjustment process doesn’t just fall on uniformed shoulders however, it’s a “two-way street,” Coulapides said.

“While warrior transition is going on aboard the ship, there’s a series of classes and briefings being done for the family members, talking to them about this adjustment time period when their spouses return, learning about what might be their responses or reactions when they get home,” he said.

“Spouses have also been stressed out during this period taking care of all the bills, the home, the family, all while worrying about the welfare of their spouse … so they too need time to adjust back into the lifestyle they had before deployment.”

Orman concurred: “The biggest issues they face is readjusting to an old social situation … it’s common to have friction when they try to resume their lives.”

And it’s not just adults that need help adjusting — children face challenges when a military parent comes home.

“They’ve been relying on one parent to be the person that answers their needs and they go to with problems, now the second parent comes back and things change,” said Coulapides. “Mom may have had a rough time and kids may have stepped up to be the protector.”

Moving back into pre-deployment family roles can be tricky and sometimes it may not return to the way it once was, he said, adding families need to negotiate these changes together.

Having support when they return to native soil is one thing, but it’s common that many troops don’t have troubles until time has passed.

“When people come back, presuming things aren’t terrible at home, there is an elation with that that lasts a few weeks,” said Orman. “But they can have difficulties that emerge months later, this program is designed to be longitudinal and not just stop the minute they get back to base.”

Deployments are routine in the military, but what makes this return a challenge is the danger and unique experience of being in a war.

This uniqueness can play a role in problems back at home.

“They’ve been off doing fairly unusual things and exposed to traumatic scenes.  It can be hard to share that with someone else who hasn’t gone through it,” said Orman. “Some don’t talk about it at all, others are more verbose and want to talk about it, but unless there are forums that are created to get some of that off their chest, then isolation is one risk.”

But opening up emotionally isn’t second nature to soldiers who “aren’t allowed to have problems," says Eric Haney, an early member of the ultra-secret Delta Force.  "You take care of it yourself,” he told The Associated Press.

“I don’t believe they’re going to do a blessed thing other than go through the motions,” Haney, author of Inside Delta Force: The Story of America's Elite Counterterrorist Unit, said following the Fort Bragg investigation. “They’ll go overboard with it for six months, and there’ll be mandatory classes for every returning special operations soldier on not killing your wife … it’s just the military’s way of doing things.”

But military mental health experts say improvements have been progressing for years.

“As the military has evolved over the years, the incorporation of quality-of-life services is commonplace now, whereas 20 years ago they had not been developed. The services have grown as the military grows to understand the value of the well-adjusted family,” said Coulapides.

Happy at home means focused and successful on the job is how Orman sees it: “The Army has become much more enlightened to how important the social milieu they operate in is for the battlefield."