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Sunday, March 7

Adjustment difficult for returning soldiers

By Mike Klein | Des Moines Register

Coming home is hard for soldiers. Even the most optimistic will tell you the problems can be large and small, mental, physical and emotional.

Every war is different, so military people tend to rank the degree of difficulty.

What doesn't change from war to war is this: The soldier is sent to a foreign land and is on constant alert to danger. Months later, the soldier arrives home, drops the duffel bag and then wonders why everything has changed.

The soldier may have seen people killed. The soldier may have killed. The soldier is asked to describe war or hears people say America should not be fighting. The soldier may have a new role within the family.

"Anyone, man or woman, who goes into combat comes home changed," said Bill Miller, a social worker with the Central Iowa Veteran's Administration. "They are never the same person that went."

While many soldiers come home and have no problems adjusting to civilian life, the mental fallout of war has plagued veterans throughout history.

"Wars are bad things and create physical and emotional injuries," said Steven Hagemoser, a clinical psychologist at the Central Iowa Veteran's Administration. "They once called it melancholy, shell shock, battle fatigue. The phenomena has been around as long as mankind has been around."

Hagemoser speculates that the way this war was fought will create more problems for returning soldiers than did the last war in Iraq. Troops are on the ground for extended periods of time facing a daily threat.

Mental or emotional problems after war are often diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. When a person experiences a traumatic event that is beyond the range of normal experience, it can cause a variety of dysfunctions, from social isolation and sleep problems to nightmares and emotional withdrawal.

Today, there is no shame for soldiers to seek counseling for it.

"Because you get PTSD doesn't mean you are psychologically weak," said Miller.

Experts work with soldiers to examine their feelings. The stress of going to war may aggravate underlying problems that existed before war, whether they are a family history of mental illness or minor marital problems.Other soldiers are just trying to get back to a civilian sensibility.

"The first thing they do in the military is desensitize you," said Richard Fees, 54, a Vietnam veteran who helps homeless veterans through a Churches United program called Circle of Friends for American Veterans in Des Moines.

"No matter your emotions, you follow these orders. When given a command, you use whatever force you need to. Then you come back to civilian life and those things land you in jail. They don't give you back your emotions or your sensitivity to others' feelings."