Coming home

WORTHINGTON -- Serving in Iraq is tough on soldiers and their families, but many don't realize that the return to home and family can be almost as stressful.

WORTHINGTON -- Serving in Iraq is tough on soldiers and their families, but many don't realize that the return to home and family can be almost as stressful.

Family of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Division, filled the auditorium at the Worthington Minnesota West Community and Technical College Saturday during a Family Reintegration Academy.

"We have a draft army," Brigadier General Mike Beaman told the assembled family members. "I'm a volunteer, but you're drafted. And that's a hard way to go to war."

Worthington's Family Reintegration Academy was one of many organized by the National Guard across the state. Others were in Moorhead, Brainerd, Duluth, Bemidji, Alexandria and New Ulm, with more projected in Brooklyn Park and Rochester. All the academies have a single purpose: helping families cope with extended deployments and their soldiers' eventual return.

"We're trying to prepare families prior to when the soldiers come home," Beaman said.


After mothers, fathers, children and spouses of soldiers heard a brief message from Beaman and listened to a recorded message from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, they split up into groups for workshops.

Topics for workshops included navigating federal groups and programs like Veterans Affairs, Veterans' Services, Family Assistance Centers, Tricare Insurance and the Minnesota Work Force Center.

Other workshops were more geared toward emotional readiness: Making Marriage Work after Combat, Reconnecting Your Soldier with Their Children and Combat: The Emotional Effects of War.

Treats were provided at the event by the American Legion Auxiliary with the assistance of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.

National Guard chaplain Major John Morris likened the soldiers' family's experience to a family canoe trip. A soldier announces he's going to Iraq and stands up in the canoe. When that soldier deploys, he jumps out of the canoe, threatening to upset it for those left behind and leaving them with two paddles and no help. And when he returns, he can't just reach up and pull himself into the canoe or everyone will get dumped into the lake.

While leading the Emotional Effects of War workshop, Morris explained how repetitive training a soldier receives changes muscle memory so that certain actions become reflexes. Under stressful situations like combat, the higher-order portion of the brain shuts down and without the appropriate reflexes, a soldier could freeze instead of reacting to a threatening situation.

The problem comes when the soldier returns home and the reflexes are still there.

"I don't have a button to push to calm them down, turn that off," Morris said.


Morris also likened a soldier's experience to that of a prisoner's, in that there's a set routine with very few complicated choices for a long period of time.

"It may actually be threatening to go out to a restaurant," Morris said. "It doesn't mean I'm mentally ill ... it means I've been in a very confined place."

A returning soldier's communication skills may also have deteriorated.

"We don't sit around having in-depth Dr. Phil conversations," Morris said.

Another problem returning military personnel have is finding meaning or purpose. They've had such a huge sense of personal responsibility and mission, Morris said, that they sometimes have trouble finding something equally meaningful.

He suggested joining a volunteer fire brigade or emergency services group instead of potentially self-destructive alcohol use.

Families also often hear their soldiers say they want to go back to Iraq, but this shouldn't be taken as rejection by hurt family members.

"It was simpler, more clear-cut. They felt needed, had something to accomplish and knew how to do it," Morris said. "They've invested a lot in Iraq."


Kaili Braa, the wife of Sgt. Michael Braa, attended the academy with her husband's parents.

"We actually got married after he left. It's something we knew we were going to face, so you've just got to take it in stride," Kaili said, comparing the extended deployment with having the rug pulled out from under her. "The extension part isn't fair. It's a raw deal."

Jennifer Rigge attended the academy Saturday because two of her sons have been in Iraq. Sgt. Corey Rigge is back stateside, but Sgt. Adam Rigge is still there.

"It was very eye-opening, interesting," Jennifer said of her workshop on the emotional effects of war. "It's going to be harder than I thought. It helped me realize the little details that are small for us, but are going to be huge for him."

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