1st Responders Trained to Spot Troubled Vets
By Stephanie Reitz - The Associated Press
Monday Feb 4, 2008 6:27:58 EST
HOLYOKE, Mass. - For many returning troops, lifesaving combat instincts can complicate life at home: constant vigilance, agitation in confined places, bolting from loud noises and other behaviors that can be misinterpreted by police.
Concerned that some may wind up in the criminal justice system instead of counseling, some police and other emergency responders are learning how to recognize and cope with unique behaviors of troubled combat veterans.
“Our law enforcement community has really become the safety net. If they can get to the root of what’s happening with these guys, they’ll get helped instead of getting criminalized,” said John Downing, president of Soldier On, a western Massachusetts service organization known until recently as United Veterans of America.
His group and other veterans’ advocates, mental health experts and prosecutors recently launched a training program for police, dispatchers and other emergency workers. Organizers believe it is the first of its kind in the nation, and hope it other regions copy it as more veterans come home from wartime deployments.
Authorities say it is not unusual to meet recently returned combat veterans who are suicidal, take risks such as extreme speeding or become part of domestic disputes. It’s part of a post-combat culture shock that can be isolating and hard to explain, some say.
“I went from seeing such horrific scenes every day to seeing people here getting their morning coffee, going about their business. I’d wonder, ‘Don’t they know what’s going on over there?’” said Jason Harder, a Massachusetts probation officer and Air Force veteran of the Iraq war, Gulf War and 1993 peacekeeping venture in Somalia.
The training program’s organizers say they have no firm statistics on how many troubled combat veterans have clashed with police while readjusting to civilian life. The training is not a response to a spate of such incidents locally, the organizers say, but is intended to help prevent them.
They worry the encounters could increase as more deployments end, and as soldiers - often worried about the stigma of seeking counseling - return to civilian life with a host of unresolved problems.
The training also focused on how to recognize when erratic or defiant behavior stems from untreated trauma, lingering survival instincts or hidden brain injuries.
Some of their behaviors could make no sense to strangers: diving to the ground at the sound of a muffler backfiring could revive memories of being ambushed, while an unintentional jostling by a stranger could reawaken fears of suicide bombers.
“We recognize that when someone’s under stress and in a crisis mode, the last thing you want to do is deal with police. But we don’t know you’re in that mode when we initially meet you,” said David Guilbault, police chief in the 18,000-person town of Greenfield, Mass.
The experts advise police to stick with particular behaviors when meeting troubled veterans. That includes giving them ample space without touching them, unless necessary; recognizing their agitation might stem from flashbacks or a fear of the officer’s weapon; and realizing they are unaware of how strange their anxieties appear to others.
“Once a person has already entered the criminal justice system, we typically don’t know they’re a veteran who has seen combat unless it’s pointed out to us,” said Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, one of the training program’s creators.
“If first responders are educated in what to look for, there can be some early intervention and those veterans can get services they need before we even encounter them,” she said.
Mental health experts say the lessons of Vietnam resonate today. Some veterans of that war attributed their later conflicts with police to post-traumatic stress disorder, a syndrome first recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980.
One year later, a federal government survey of 1,000 combat veterans found that nearly one in four had been arrested after returning home, compared with 17 percent of other Vietnam-era veterans and 14 percent of non-veterans.
Some combat veterans from that era said sounds of helicopters, the smell of rice cooking and other seemingly simple triggers set them off.
“It takes a while for these soldiers to stop seeing everything as maybe life-threatening,” said Darrell Benson, a western Massachusetts veterans’ case manager.
In Lenox last year, officers responding to a medical call found a man who was out of control, making threats and affected by alcohol and pills. They had no idea he had recently returned from a stint in Iraq, said Lenox Police Chief Stephen O’Brien. Once they learned that, they took him to a hospital - rather than arresting and jailing him - and he eventually was referred to the Soldier On program for help.
“We’re in tune to the fact that some people have a difficult time transitioning back into the community,” O’Brien said. “There isn’t a patrolman here who doesn’t have the utmost respect for these veterans.”
Massachusetts State Police Lt. Daniel Kennedy, who participated in the recent training session in Holyoke, said troopers also have to make quick judgments about difficult situations, such as when a person has a firearm.
“What’s different for these combat soldiers is that they’re not putting their gun on the front seat to say, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m tough, I’ve got a gun.’ It could be someone coming back from one of these conflicts who feels they need that weapon because that’s their security,” Kennedy said.
“Some of these people are still in their ‘battle mind’ after being back and forth between Iraq and Afghanistan, then back home,” he said.
Guilbault, the Greenfield police chief, he agrees dealing with combat veterans is unique.
“You can’t treat them the same initially as you’d treat others because they’re very independent. They’ve been through something you don’t know about, and it can be harder to get them to verbalize what’s going on with them,” he said.
That, says one expert, could help explain the scarcity of programs that teach emergency responders how to differentiate combat veterans from other troubled people they encounter.
“How you handle a potentially violent situation is going to be the same regardless of the population, since our officers go into it not knowing what’s gotten the person worked up,” said Audrey Honig, chair of psychological services for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“It’s asking a lot of too few officers to be able to quickly differentiate someone who’s an Iraq veteran, or who has bipolar disorder, or who’s schizophrenic, or who’s just having a really bad day,” said Honig, who is also chief psychologist for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
However, she said, specialized training such as the Massachusetts program could help officers refer troubled veterans to the right services - but only after the crisis is calmed with the tried-and-true techniques that officers have been trained to use.
“Good people skills is really going to be the order of the day for dealing with any populations with special problems,” she said.
Some people with a foot in both worlds agree.
Jason Richard, an Army Reserve soldier in Iraq in 2004 and early 2005, said he has occasionally encountered other combat veterans since he returned to his job as a patrol officer for the Granby, Mass., Police Department.
His approach and his advice to fellow officers, he says, is simple. “Just be patient. You don’t get over it easily. You just don’t,” he said.
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