Compassion, understanding key to easing soldiers' reintegration
National Guard prepares for soldiers' return
Published Thu, Apr 3, 2008 12:00 AM

Returning home after a tour of duty is almost always a joyous occasion for National Guard soldiers, but that doesn't mean it's easy for them or the people around them.

"One day, they're leading a firefight, and then in 240 hours, they're walking in stores in downtown Beaufort," Chief Warrant Officer 3 Terry O'Connor of the S.C. National Guard told about 20 people in Beaufort's National Guard Readiness Center on Wednesday. "Sixteen months (overseas) and we're going to change everything in 240 hours? There's probably not a whole lot of logic in that."

O'Connor told stories of soldiers who became claustrophobic and aggravated in traffic jams after returning from overseas or who dove into bins at hardware stores because they were startled by a bell that sounded like the signal for a mortar attack. For most war zone veterans, it takes months before their mind adjusts to civilian life, he said, and more than 40 percent of National Guard soldiers return home with some mental health issue, such as alcohol abuse.

"They bring back some great skills, but they bring back some tough things too because they're in a tough business," O'Connor said. "The more we help them with the adjustment, the better off they're going to be."

When a soldier returns home, he said, families often want to throw a reunion party for the soldier. But the soldier is still in the war-zone mindset and knows that large crowds make big targets. Therefore, a party is the last place a soldier wants to be.

Family members also frequently make the mistake of asking too many questions about a soldier's time overseas.

"Don't ask what went on," O'Connor said. "You really don't want to know, and they don't want to tell you."

When a soldier feels ready, he said, the soldier will seek out an appropriate person to talk to about their experiences. And it probably won't be a family member. Instead, they will often spend large amounts of time on the phone with other members of their unit.

"For 16 months, my survival was based on my gunmen right here," O'Connor said. "When I come home, you think my family is going to become my family again right away? I guarantee you, you're wrong. You're my No. 2 family. You will become No. 1 again, but not right away."

Nothing can match the intensity of a war zone, he said, but soldiers often try to find that intensity in activities such as riding motorcycles, which O'Connor said is the No. 1 killer of military personnel. They also have trouble finding purpose and meaning in civilian life, he said, after spending months on tasks such as building hospitals and bringing clean water to communities in need.

O'Connor said that when he returned from Desert Storm, where he served in the Marine Corps, he was "wired up all the time" and unable to sleep through the night for seven months. He also slept with a gun by his bed and had trouble communicating with his family.

"When I come home, I go and issue instructions to my wife, because for 16 months, that's what I (did), but she probably doesn't like taking instructions," O'Connor said.

"We work with spouses to understand, he's still in the zone, so listen to him and help get him back," O'Connor said. "If a spouse reaches out and says, 'I'm right here,' you can't imagine the difference that makes."

With patience and understanding, a soldier's family, friends and co-workers can greatly ease a soldier's transition and reintegration into civilian life, he said.

"Remember what he's been through and show them compassion and tolerance," O'Connor recommended. "If you're not going to pave the road home for those soldiers, at least get the obstacles out of the way."

For information on helping to reintegrate a National Guard soldier, call 803-806-1641.