How Will We Serve Our Veterans? It Takes a Community: Pennsylvania Disabled Veterans Rehabilitation/vocational Retraining Project Is Laying the Groundwork

Article excerpt

This article is the first in a series about a special project underway in southwestern Pennsylvania, in which community leaders, healthcare providers, employers, government leaders, and volunteers are attempting to help recently returning veterans as well as longstanding veterans reintegrate back into nonmilitary life, restore their physical and mental health, and build meaningful, productive lives with the aid of ongoing community structures and support.

Many United States

Armed Forces servicemembers who are returning home after having served in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) or Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) are not returning home to a military base, with a military hospital and all of the coordinated care available on a base, but instead to a civilian community, where care might be spread out among various healthcare facilities and organizations. These servicemembers belong to the National Guard and Reserves of the various U.S. Military services. It is simply the inherent nature of the Guard and Reserve structure that there are no central military installations for its members. Yet in the current conflicts, Guardmembers and Reservists are being used in a fashion far different than the norm. Like their active-duty counterparts, they have served in extended and multiple deployments in OEF and OIF.

For many of the Guardmembers and Reservists, just as with their active-duty counterparts, the extended stays and multiple deployments have produced deeper stress both in the field and on their return home. Yet there is a profound difference between the experience of the two: Instead of returning to a centralized installation with facilities, supports, and a community of comrades and families with whom they can identify, a Guardmember or Reservist returns to a civilian community, where they are meant to blend back into a nonmilitary lifestyle--to their jobs, to their families, to the life where they left off. The problem is, in many cases this is not happening. The trauma of extended warfare has caused issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and, in some cases, substance abuse. Some servicemembers are returning with physical injuries, including traumatic brain injury (TBI), limb loss, and burns, all of which can lead to psychological distress. Some are having difficulty holding onto jobs that they had handled without a problem before they left. Some are losing their marriages. For some veterans, emotions like anger and fear now color their worldview and their ability to cope or thrive.

Without a comprehensive community system for oversight and care, many of these returning servicemembers are struggling day to day, just to make it through. The struggles are having an impact on their mental and emotional health and their physical recovery, their families, and their employers who are relying on them as a reliable component in their businesses. …