After the Shooting

Article excerpt

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

Easter Sunday was not a good day for Devin Nuszbaum.

The Oregon National Guard staff sergeant had expected to feel safe back home in Tualatin after a nine-month stay in Iraq, where mortar rounds struck his base more than 300 times. But, three years after returning to civilian life, he remained anxious and agitated. He drank heavily. He lost his job as a railroad conductor.

He'd already had one run-in with police after speeding down the freeway at 90 miles an hour, his emergency flashers on and three loaded weapons in his car. Now, instead of joining his family's holiday gathering, he was again panicked, armed and intoxicated, and behind the wheel.

This time, he phoned 1st Sgt. Vince Jacques of Albany, a fellow Iraq veteran and founder of the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team.

"I told him, `I'm in trouble,'?" Nuszbaum said. "He told me there was help available. He told me he knew someone in my area who would meet me at the VA emergency room."

Nuszbaum had previously called a veterans hospital psychiatric worker, but the exchange had only made him angrier. His conversation with Jacques, however, was a turning point.

"It makes a difference, talking to somebody that's been over there," he said. "They know how you're feeling without you having to say it. You're not all alone going through this."

At the urging of the reintegration team, Nuszbaum enrolled in a residential post-traumatic stress disorder treatment program at the Roseburg Veterans Administration Hospital. There he learned that his problem behaviors - from drinking to road rage to the need to carry a weapon - were classic responses to the trauma of living in an urban war zone. There he learned that he could predict - and manage - his triggers for such behavior. He still has work to do, Nuszbaum said, but he's found hope again.

He is among hundreds of veterans helped by a team created when some of the first wounded Oregon Guardsmen came back to a state that they said was completely unprepared for them. They vowed to change things by the time the rest of their Eugene-based unit returned from the largest deployment of citizen-soldiers since World War II.

The five-member team is available by phone round-the-clock to soldiers in crisis. On 15 occasions in the past four years the team has successfully intervened during suicide attempts or police standoffs. That alone is no small accomplishment, with Army suicides at a 40-year high and Oregon veterans taking their lives more than twice as often as the general population. But the team also has worked to solve the daily medical, educational and employment barriers confronting soldiers and their families.

"There's no door we can't or won't kick in to try to find an answer," team member Sgt. Phil Maas said.

"We know for a fact that we've helped around 300 of our Guardsmen get family wage jobs," said Oregon National Guard Brig. Gen. Mike Caldwell.

In the top-down culture of the military, the reintegration team, which works with veterans of any conflict, is a bottom-up anomaly. So it may be fitting that Caldwell traces the team's beginnings to the Eugene Armory four years ago this month. Then, it was Jacques who was in trouble.

"I was down there for a meeting," Caldwell said. "The majority of the (Eugene-based) 2nd Battalion of the 162nd Infantry was still in Iraq, But Vinni was there with two or three other guys who had been wounded. Toward the end of the meeting, he pulled me aside and said, `Sir, we need some help. I don't think people understand some of the things we're going through. Me and my boys aren't doing so well at times.'?"

Caldwell knew such a plea couldn't come easily for a proud soldier and Purple Heart recipient. Jacques had suffered crushed legs, shrapnel burns and a concussion when an improvised bomb blew up his humvee, killing his driver and badly wounding his other men. …