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National Guard Works to Ease Soldiers' Return

Minnesota's National Guard is taking some extraordinary steps to help troops returning from Iraq readjust to life at home.

They have finished the longest deployment in the history of the guard — 22 months. Now, they are being ordered to participate in a program aimed at dealing with the aftermath of that long, tough service.

But some soldiers say they would rather be left alone.

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When guard units come back from Iraq, they usually have 90 days at home before they have to report back for weekend training. But Minnesota's First Brigade has been pulled back together for a mandatory session only 30 days after their return.

In all, 900 soldiers — some with spouses and a few with children — walk into the River Center in St. Paul, Minn., applauded by older veterans of previous wars, who have lined up along the entrance hallway.

There is lots of back-slapping and hugging as battle buddies are reunited. Then, the crowd sits in a giant auditorium to listen to speakers before breaking out into counseling sessions.

Chaplain John Morris tries to assure them that they are not considered mental cases and that most of them will reintegrate into society with no problems. But he cautions that the transition from the battlefield to civilian life will not be easy for some.

"When you start calling people dirt bags, they don't seem to like it in the civilian world. Have you noticed that? Morris asks. "You start feeling that the whole world is chaotic, and you're the only person that's got it together. And people start saying, 'Dude, you have PTSD, you're all tense.' And you say, 'You know what, I don't have PTSD, but I do have a lot of anger and I'm about to express it to you.'"

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Morris's talk is larded with humor, but his message is serious.

"If you're going to bars and your intention is not to drink, it's to fight, okay, get that out of your system," he warns. "If you're not getting that out of your system, you got a problem, because you've got the potential to kill somebody."

Program a Tough Sell

Sgt. Randy Hatch is among those who resent the intrusion.

Hatch lives in the tiny town of Princeton, Minn. Like many guardsmen, he is far from active duty soldiers and their families, who may be on a base with men who and women who might spot the signs of a problem.

"After the hugs and kisses are over, and the favorite meals are consumed, the spouse goes back to work, the kids go back to school and all of a sudden they're (the veterans) home alone," says Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, the head of Minnesota's National Guard.

Shellito has little patience with guardsmen who resent the program because it is about 100 miles to the nearest Veterans Administration hospital or psychological counselor.

"If I have to force them to sit down for one day with their spouse and talk about issues that might come, and they don't like it, I don't care. If it saves their marriage or helps them understand what's going on, it's a price well worth it," Shellito reasons.

Shellito says he knows all about 20-year-old Rambos because he is a Vietnam veteran.

"I mean, I was the same way — leave me alone, leave me alone, I'll take care of myself," he says. "And in retrospect, that doesn't work."

Sgt. Jason Surface is in the leave-me-alone category, and he seems to be just the kind of guardsman this program aims to help. Surface says when he came home on leave during the deployment, he and his fiancee had big trouble.

Surface said he was afraid he was going to be killed when he returned to Iraq, so he drank too much while he was home on leave. Surface says he partied hard when he came back this time, too, but he says he is past that. Now, he and his fiancee are trying to work on their problems.

Surface admits, however, that he did not come to this event because they had an argument. And he is not too happy about attending, either.

"Its not necessarily a waste of my time, but I feel that if I had trouble I would seek help, as opposed to them coming to me and telling me I have to spend a mandatory Saturday," he says.

Deployments Will Continue to Take a Toll

Participants wear colored tags: red for married and parenting, blue for single, and green for divorced. There are 35 to 40 green-tagged soldiers sitting together in one corner, some looking nervous and irritated. After the speeches, the different groups go into counseling workshops run by non-military facilitators.

Sgt John Keiser experienced a bruising separation while he was deployed. Even though he was uneasy about his marriage when he came home on leave, his wife reassured him.

He says he tried to ignore signs that his marriage was disintegrating.

"I got a birthday card, and this was something that made me wonder because the birthday card said 'love,' and (had) my children's names. My wife left her name off of it," he recalls.

Keiser says when he came home his house had been sold, one of his retirement accounts had been nearly emptied, and his wife was asking for divorce. The only bright spot, he says, is that he is able to visit his two sons.

The chaplain says the exceptional length of this brigade's deployment is likely to take a huge toll. He says he has already been handling a large number of separations.

"This brigade has a toll that I believe is going to continue throughout time — of broken relationships, of children who are deeply affected by either the shattering of a relationship or the absence of a soldier who came back and had missed two years out of that child's life," Morris says.

National Guard officials from several other states are observing Minnesota's effort. Shellito says just getting these soldiers together in one place so they can look each other in the eye and make sure everyone's okay is the most important part of the program.

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