Military reaches out to families struggling after troops' return
August 9, 2003
It’s called the “honeymoon period,” a brief but intense flash of marital bliss that envelops a couple when they reunite after a long separation.
Servicemembers and their spouses are no strangers to it, especially at homecoming ceremonies. The images are seen by many: teary-eyed couples hugging and kissing as a band plays, confetti flies and people cheer.
However, such rapturous episodes usually fade in a few days, a week at most, said Kate Summers of the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on domestic violence, particularly in the military.
“The question is, when you ‘return’ from that honeymoon, ‘What happens next?’” Summers said.
For U.S. troops deployed to Iraq, Kuwait or anywhere, it’s a question worth pondering, especially after the events at Fort Bragg, N.C., last summer.
A year ago, four Army wives were slain over a six-week period, allegedly by their husbands. Three of the men had spent time in Afghanistan as members of special operations units. The series of homicides ended with the death of a Special Forces soldier. His wife and 15-year-old stepdaughter were later charged with murder and are awaiting trial.
“Any time you are away,” said Col. Ron Strong, the senior chaplain for all Army communities in Europe, “re-integration is a difficult process.”
A report by the U.S. Army surgeon general found “no discernible individual epidemiological link” between the Fort Bragg cases. It attributed the deaths to marital discord, aggravated to varying degrees by the high operations tempo.
“Many of the soldiers who participated in focus groups reported that the pace of current operations is so high that there is not enough time for the soldier to adequately recover before the next deployment,” the report stated.
It went on to conclude: “Soldiers and families need earlier, more accessible, and career-safe behavioral health care.
The deaths and subsequent report have led Army officials to re-assess family counseling programs.
Today, each service offers an array of family support programs, from finance and career development to counseling and child care. One that has drawn growing interest is the Family Advocacy Program.
The Defense Department directive that launched the effort defines it as a “program designed to address prevention, identification, evaluation, treatment, rehabilitation, follow up, and reporting of family violence.”
Ricky Gibbons, director of Army Community Service for U.S. Army Europe, said the effort to prevent domestic violence in the Army “has come a long way,” though she acknowledges that progress takes time in this most delicate of domestic issues.
“This is all pretty new stuff” for the Army, Gibbons said of developing an effective family advocacy program. “We’re still learning.”
Lessons learned from Fort Bragg and other cases have led to some changes.
For example, troops slated to leave Iraq will attend reunion workshops before departing. That wasn’t the case for Fort Bragg soldiers in Afghanistan.
On the home front, spouses will have access to similar sessions.
The purpose of them “is to help smooth the adjustment phase of the reunion for both you and your loved ones,” explains a workshop handout.
The support network is significantly broadened when Family Readiness Groups, unit ministry teams and several Army Community Service programs are taken into account.
Gibbons said Army leaders in Europe would do whatever they can to support troops coming off the line. The 173rd Airborne Brigade from Vicenza, Italy, and the 1st Armored Division, headquartered in Wiesbaden, Germany, are expected to remain in Iraq until next spring.
“There should be no doubt that military health care professionals are committed to helping these servicemembers,” said Cynthia Vaughan, spokeswoman for the Europe Regional Medical Command.
Senior leaders realize that sending a servicemember on a long deployment “can affect their mental outlook,” Vaughan added. “That’s why we are putting these new programs in place. We are trying to approach things a lot differently” than after the 1991 Gulf War.
Servicewide, the Army is developing its Deployment Cycle Support Program. Part of the effort involves hiring 60 additional social workers for locations that have, or will have, large numbers of soldiers returning from Iraq or Kuwait.
“We’re looking to hire four additional social workers here in Europe,” Vaughan said.
Congress seems supportive, too, though there are mixed signals.
In July, the House Appropriations Committee decided to set aside an additional $26.6 million in its 2004 defense bill to increase and enhance domestic violence and family advocacy programs.
Summers, the director of Victim Services for the Miles Foundation, seemed satisfied with the figure, but wants Congress to sustain the effort.
Additionally, she wonders what happened to a $5 million outlay for victim advocacy that made it into a supplementary appropriations bill passed last year. Introduced by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., the amendment sought to expand victim advocacy programs and to create a fatality review panel.
“The priorities have been Afghanistan and Iraq,” Summers said, “but it would be interesting to know why those funds have not been set aside.”
Summers views the Fort Bragg slayings as a missed opportunity.
Before last summer, she said, there were clear indicators that a wave of redeployment rage might surface. She cites, for example, the recent increase in substantiated spousal abuse cases in the Army.
And the Miles Foundation hot line, Summers added, has been receiving three to four times more calls per month than it did prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
Asked if she thinks the military will be more proactive this time around, Summers said she hopes, but some trends trouble her.
“I am an optimistic person,” she said, “but from all the indicators we have seen, there has been a dramatic escalation of requests for crisis intervention” going back nearly two years.
Can the same military that goes to extraordinary lengths to rescue a servicemember in distress muster that same resolve when problems on the home front surface?
Strong, the senior chaplain, said one huge key is accessible, confidential counseling.
“The warriorlike attitude will not be diminished, but enhanced,” said Strong, referring to the stigma some people place on counseling. “We all have hurts, and it’s good to get help.”
Discord led to deaths
The Army’s report on last summer’s string of homicides at Fort Bragg, N.C., provides an insightful view into base life and the perceptions people have of the support network that is suppose to be there for them.
Chartered by the U.S. Army surgeon general, the report draws from material and views collected by a team of experts who spent three weeks on post. The team included experts from the Army and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The team’s primary goal, according to the report, was to assess and provide recommendations “to address potential systemic, cultural, and resource-limited factors which might be related to the recent apparent clustering of homicides and suicides, as well as deployment-related behavioral health issues.”
Dated Oct. 18, the report found “no discernible individual epidemiological link” between the five cases. The assessment team attributed the deaths to marital discord. In all the cases, the discord included recent or threatened separations.
The report made several recommendations:
• Recognize marital discord as a pervasive factor that affects the mission. Safe and earlier access to care is key to preventing the situation from escalating. It also said Tricare, the health care provider for the military, should increase the availability of appointments and institute reimbursement for marital, family and abuse counseling.• A study should be done that would explore the effect of the frequency of deployments. The report stated its data suggest the high operations tempo and all the associated family disruptions, coupled with a distrust of community counseling programs, are “significantly impacting families and may contribute in rare cases to tragedy.”• Re-energize deployment transition programs. Re-evaluate all current command-sponsored deployment transition programs, including Family Readiness groups. The report suggested transition programs might benefit by having a behaviorial health care person, such as a social worker or counselor, assigned to the unit itself, similar to how chaplains are used.• Make behavioral health services more available. Soldiers and families need proactive, accessible and career-safe behavioral health care.
A general distrust in community counseling programs was evident in the summary results collected from a series of focus groups, which included people representing junior enlisted personnel on up to commanders.
Several special operations commanders indicated in the report that “when there are problems with domestic violence the only viable option to soldiers is to seek counseling services off post, because of the impact that this had on the soldier’s career.”
Kate Summers of the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on domestic violence, particularly in the military, said that in the military, privacy and confidentiality of communication are the biggest concerns.
“You just can’t call to get information,” Summer said. “You have to identify yourself and tell why are calling.”
— Kevin Dougherty