Conference offers help to returning war veterans

Services offered to smooth re-entry to civilian life

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A two-day conference ending yesterday in Oakland for veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq sought to smooth vets' re-entry to civilian life.

More than 20 public and private groups offered services at Soldiers & Sailors Military Museum and Memorial, including suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep counseling, education and entrepreneurship programs, employment services and physical rehabilitation. Dozens of veterans attended.

A prominent theme was deconstructing the stigma commonly held by returning vets about seeking help for mental trauma incurred in combat. Some even neglect to register with Veterans Affairs for financial benefits, which can only be claimed for a finite period after leaving active duty.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, a trained psychologist, spoke about the tendency of veterans to play down their traumatic experiences.

"For whatever reason -- modesty, machismo, whatever -- soldiers tend to minimize their experiences, always looking to a guy who had it worse. But they are still suffering mental wounds of combat," said Mr. Murphy. "A sense of victimization or helplessness can quickly turn into a downward spiral if left unaddressed."

Army chaplain Lt. Col. Doug Etter, who delivered the keynote address, explained the conundrum faced by combat veterans coming home.

"Most of the soldiers with whom I talk cannot wait to leave this place and return home, and yet that's exactly where the dilemma comes," he said. "As excited as we are to go home, many are equally afraid ...

"They are afraid they won't fit back into their family or circle of friends and they are privately nervous about what long-term effects this experience will have on them physically, emotionally and spiritually."

Col. Etter was wearing the watch of a good friend who was killed in Iraq, Lt. Col. Michael McLaughlin of Mercer County, a posthumous recipient of the Silver Star for valor.

Area veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who missed the conference were urged to call the Pittsburgh division of Veterans Affairs at 412-365-5150.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Attendees at a two-day conference to assist returning war veterans heard Dr. Barry Fisher of the Veterans Administration Medical Center on the first day of the event at Soldiers & Sailors Military Museum and Memorial in Oakland. The conference concluded yesterday.
Click photo for larger image.

I. Harrison Kriegish can be reached at ikriegish@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1887.


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