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Experts: Help veterans fight toll of deployments

| Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, 12:16 a.m.

On the eve of Veterans Day celebrations, experts participating in a two-day veterans' issues program at Duquesne University urged civilians never to forget that the cost to society of war often must be paid long after the battles.

The “Post-Combat Problems in the 21st Century” conference, hosted by the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law, gathered decorated combat veterans and leading lawyers, physicians, social workers and psychologists nationwide to discuss the complex issues facing hundreds of thousands of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his address on Friday, Army Reserve Lt. Col. Thomas J. Stokes urged civilians to go beyond the obligatory salutation “thank you for your service.” Instead, Stokes said, the public should acknowledge both the heroic service of many American combatants and the toll their overseas deployments took on them and their families.

Statistics from the conference paint a bleak picture. Every day, a member of the military commits suicide — so do 18 veterans.

Pennsylvania has about 17,000 National Guardsmen, 53,000 military reservists and another 63,000 men and women serving on active duty globally. More than 40 percent of them will file for a service-connected disability upon return; about a third will report mental health problems.

“When our men and women come home, they lose their culture, their purpose, their language, their camaraderie, their common purpose,” said Stokes, a former social worker for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and the officer who ran the Combat Stress Clinic at Forward Operating Base Gardez in Afghanistan's Paktia province last year.

“You have to look at the reintegration process back into civilian life in terms almost of death, as if you're losing something,” said Stokes, now in private practice in Etna treating veterans and their families.

Stokes said too many veterans back from war suffer in silence — they and their families often isolated from a civilian society that largely has forgotten Afghanistan and Iraq.

His prescription: Treat returning veterans in the same way he did on the Stress Team in Afghanistan by restoring their ties to the larger society; building relationships of trust; and working to prevent suicides and other problems.

That's something the Rev. Michael D. Wurschmidt, an Anglican priest, does daily at the Shepherd's Heart Fellowship homeless program in Uptown. Since 2006, more than 80 percent of the veterans whom the program serves have found jobs and permanent housing while they work to reunite with their families.

Wurschmidt, an Air Force veteran and federal chaplain for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Pittsburgh, said civilians can aid veterans by donating clothing — especially coats as winter looms — and helping stock their pantry.

Carl Prine is a staff writerfor Total Trib Media. He can be reached at cprine@tribweb.com or 412-320-7826.

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