Returning soldiers warned about stress
Editor’s note: Stars and Stripes reporter Rick Scavetta is embedded with the 94th Engineer Battalion, a Vilseck, Germany-based unit that has returned from Iraq after a yearlong deployment.
This is the fourth in a series of articles on the soldiers’ return to Germany.
VILSECK, Germany — Chaplain Cliff Vicars began the 94th Engineer Battalion’s third day of reintegration sessions by asking troops to list their expectations after returning from a yearlong deployment to Iraq.
They replied with a long list: rest, showers, money, sex, leave, shopping, food and alcohol.
When those expectations are not met, the 43-year-old Army captain from South Carolina explained, it can lead to depression, anxiety, frustration and stress.
“Here you are trying to do reintegration stuff — you came home expecting stress levels to lift,” Vicars said. “But in some cases, stress continues.”
Soldiers sat in the same base chapel that was under construction when they left for Iraq last January. The brief training sessions should build bridges to the soldiers, giving them resources for help, Vicars said.
“The reintegration training doesn’t solve their problems. It reminds them that when problems arise, there’s somewhere for them to turn,” Vicars said. “I’m sure there will be folks who call my office.”
Some soldiers complained that they underwent nearly identical briefings in Baghdad and in Kuwait. But they actively participated, calling out answers to Vicars’ questions.
Vicars kept his discussion light-hearted and full of anecdotes.
When Cpl. Stanley Osinski, the wisecracker of the group, kept bringing up the lack of sales at the base electronics store, Vicars seized upon Osinski’s heckles to segue into the perils of wasting the cash they earned downrange at the post exchange.
“They will help you allocate your extra pay. They have a DVD player with your name on it,” Vicars said. “If you overdo shopping, you get more stress.”
Even during serious portions of his briefing, which was part of the U.S. Army Europe-mandated reintegration sessions, Vicars related to the soldiers through his experiences dealing with veterans. He encouraged them to tell their stories about the war.
He spoke of two veterans he met as a civilian pastor, an Air Force colonel who served in Vietnam and a sailor who endured a deadly mission. The colonel was active in veterans groups and talked with others, making him better off. The Navy veteran kept his feelings inside and was pretty messed up, Vicars said.
“You need to talk about your story,” Vicars said. “If you don’t, it will stay bottled up inside you and you may have trouble later on.”
He suggested that troops write a journal and mark details on photos, to remember facts for posterity.
Vicars talked about changes in relationships. Spouses may have their own routines. Children have grown.
Meanwhile, problems soldiers faced in their lives before the deployment may still exist and need to be dealt with.
“I’ve been away so long, I feel disappointed in myself,” said Spc. Rebecca McKinney, 29, of Jonesboro, Ark., a single mother. “The Army took me away from my children.”
Back home, her parents, Neal and Carol Loveless, are caring for her sons, 8-year-old Justin and 6-year-old Billy, and her daughter, Jessica, who is 5.
She hasn’t seen her children since April. A close-knit group of sergeants supported McKinney throughout the redeployment. McKinney had a tough time when family issues were mentioned in the briefings, she said.
After the chaplain’s discussion, and a short break, Army Community Service counselor Mark Killin launched into a fast-paced program geared toward troops identifying symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and coping with family and children after months of deployment.
“Your mind is still there [in Iraq],” warned Killin, himself an Operation Desert Storm veteran.
Things to watch for, Killin said, include changes to sleep or eating habits, flashbacks, thousand-yard stares and feelings of guilt or depression.
Some symptoms, such as not caring about personal hygiene, apparently affect soldiers as well as families enduring life on the home front. While soldiers were deployed, one spouse stopped cleaning. About 30 trash bags full of garbage were removed from her home, Killin said. There were 15 cases of child neglect, he said.
Meanwhile, it can take time to identify post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers, as many of the signs are a natural reaction that should subside with time, Killin said. If symptoms persist past six weeks, or any signs of violence arise, soldiers should seek help, he said.
Single soldiers were excused for the second half of the briefing, as Killin focused on marriage and family issues. High expectations of romance often end in failure, he said. Children compete for attention, while spouses may resent a soldier’s coming back and trying to take charge, he said.
Killin touched on effective communication skills and the importance of taking a break if necessary.
“I asked for a timeout,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Onsemus Smith, 38, of Atlanta. Smith’s wife, Delesa, and their son, Keith, 13, almost overwhelmed him during their first hours together.
“He was on one side, she was on the other,” Smith said. “The idea for timeout, we had been using that anyway.”
While the day’s briefings did not cover all the issues soldiers face, they gave troops ideas for further assistance, Smith said, such as the upcoming parenting class that ACS offers.
“This training shows me that the Army cares about its extended family,” Smith said.