Reintegration Program Helps Reservists

Members of the Maryland National Guard and Army Reserve are given assistance through the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program.
Members of the Maryland National Guard and Army Reserve are given assistance through the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. (By Master Sgt. Ron Pitts -- Maryland Army National Guard)
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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

The first time Sgt. Kyle Payne came home from Iraq, the Army's counseling program was well-intentioned, he felt, if mind-numbingly boring. "It was 'Welcome back. Don't kill yourself. Don't kill your family. Now go on your merry way,' " the reservist recalled.

He tried to pay attention, but coming just days before he and his fellow soldiers were to see their families again, all he could think was: "Please just let us go."

So when Payne, recently home from his second Iraq tour, was again ordered to go through post-deployment counseling, he groaned at the prospect. But it soon was clear that things had changed.

The event was held at a downtown Baltimore hotel on a recent Saturday, not on an impersonal Army base. Instead of being excluded, families were encouraged to attend. The presenters were some of the best mental-health professionals in the state -- university psychologists, Veterans Affairs social workers and private-practice therapists. A psychologist from the Johns Hopkins medical school set the tone by opening the event with a frank discussion about suicide, a growing problem in the Army.

Although he had quibbles with parts of the program -- did he have to discuss suicide at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday? -- Payne, 30, of Alexandria couldn't help but say, "They put a lot of thought into this."

The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, launched last year by the Pentagon, is designed to ease the transition home for reservists. It comes as the Army's suicide rate of soldiers on active duty climbed to an all-time high of at least 133 last year. Last week, the Army announced that so far this year there have been 56 reported suicides, of which 22 have been confirmed.

In a statement Friday, Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff, said that seeking help "without fear of stigma has to become second nature in our Army community, it has to become part of our culture. We're not there yet, but we're going to get there."

A recent Pentagon study revealed the particular troubles citizen-soldiers face: Thirty-eight percent of active-duty soldiers report psychological symptoms within 90 to 120 days of coming home. That number jumps to almost 50 percent among the National Guard.

Part of the problem, officials say, is that once home, citizen-soldiers did not have to check in with their units for as long as 90 days. Suddenly cut off from their "battle buddies," they feel isolated in civilian life. And the counseling they did receive was often no more than a group session they were forced to attend shortly before being released from active duty.

"If we screwed them up, we should fix them," said Lt. Col. Michael Gafney, who runs the reintegration program for the Maryland National Guard. "We tend to give soldiers the information they most need at the worst time and in the worst way. Who wants to sit through a PowerPoint presentation right after you get back from Iraq?"

But now, he said, "the military is working hard to change all that."

The new reintegration programs are held on weekends, 30, 60 and 90 days after the soldiers come home. The sessions cover anger management, financial planning and substance abuse, and feature several resources designed to help the soldiers get back on their feet. The soldiers learn about veterans benefits and can meet with job counselors or college representatives.

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