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Joint Chiefs head: Returning veterans need our help

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ann Rairigh is keeping her fingers crossed.

Her husband, Matthew, is scheduled to return soon from a yearlong deployment with his Army unit in Afghanistan. As director of the University of Pittsburgh's Office of Veterans Services, Rairigh knows better than most the resources available to help ease his transition from a war zone to Pittsburgh's quiet, tree-lined streets.

The trick is getting the word out to everyone else, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a crowd of more than 250 in Oakland on Monday. About 50,000 troops are scheduled to return from Iraq by September as part of the pullout of U.S. combat forces. In coming years, more will cycle through Afghanistan as troop levels there increase.

"The Department of Defense can't do this alone. The VA can't do this alone. The only way we can address successfully the ... literally hundreds of thousands of men and women and family members who have been affected by these wars is to do it together," Mullen said during an hourlong panel discussion at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum.

About half the veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars living in Western Pennsylvania registered with the Pittsburgh VA Regional Office, said Michael Moreland, director of Veterans Affairs facilities in Pennsylvania and surrounding states.

"That's great. That's phenomenal. But that means 50 percent have not" signed up, Moreland said.

As many as one-third of children with a parent who's been deployed "have some sort of anxiety disorder," said U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. Murphy, a former child psychologist, serves as a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve Medical Service Corps.

"It is not enough to have community members say 'I tied a yellow ribbon on the tree out front.' That is helpful, but it's also extremely helpful that we teach other people ... the importance of understanding how to support our families," Murphy said. "We have to be reaching out and being a part of it to let the teachers know and the principals know and the pastors know that there are people who care about them."

Support networks must include the families, said Jeremy Feldbusch, a spokesman for the Wounded Warrior Project who was blinded by shrapnel in Iraq in 2003. During his two months at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, his mother quit her job and his father took a leave from his job so they could be with their son.

"They're not leaving us, and we've got to take care of them," Feldbusch said.

Most of those returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are in their 20s, and the expansion of education benefits in the Post-9/11 GI Bill mean colleges need to get ready for a wave of students, Rairigh said. These students, she said, "often have children, a wife, a house — far more obstacles to overcome than a traditional 18-year-old coming from high school."

About 430 are enrolled at Pitt, 300 of them at the Oakland campus, she said. Academic advisers had to learn how to help translate a military resume into the civilian work force, and counselors have been preparing to treat combat-related disorders.

"Our veteran population is going to grow," Rairigh said. "We need to make sure all the student services within the university are able to" handle it.

Mullen and his wife, Deborah, will tour the country during the next year to talk about reintegrating returning troops. They toured Pitt and UPMC facilities serving veterans, and met with social services agency officials.

Mullen graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. A failure to focus on reintegrating returning troops allowed mental disorders to go untreated, and led to substance abuse and homelessness among veterans, he said.

"I believe we did not do well as a country taking care of our veterans when they came back," Mullen said. "And, in fact, we are still paying that price decades later."

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