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Help returning soldiers adapt

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Column by Beth Avey

Back in 2005-06, my younger brother, Sam, spent a year in Iraq – an infantry soldier with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He was in the Sunni Triangle going out on “missions” daily.

Understandably, it was a stressful year for the entire family. So imagine our relief when he came home safe and sound. Everything was going to be OK. We could all go back to life as normal.

But pretty soon we realized that wasn’t the case.

Sam, that sweet, loveable, gregarious guy, was angry, short tempered. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t seem to get going with work or school. He said he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But not to worry, right? He said some of his buddies were much worse off and they were getting together and meeting with a counselor occasionally. Surely, it would all sort itself out.

And then the phone call from my Dad at 5 a.m. April 10, 2007. Sam was dead — a single-vehicle automobile wreck mere miles from home.

I still can hear my Dad’s voice. Just awful, indescribable.

Was Sam just blowing off steam or looking for an adrenaline rush? These guys always were driving at high rates of speed to avoid the enemy and IEDs and they survived combat. They were invincible.

But if you ask some of Sam’s closest friends, they’ll tell you they think he committed suicide.

Regardless, he was gone. And I often wonder: Could we have taken this more seriously? And had we, could we have helped avoid this senseless tragedy? And where was the community at large? Did they have any idea at all about the struggles of returning veterans?

I don’t think so.

I don’t believe that a region could show any more love and affection for its soldiers than that which the region surrounding Fort Knox demonstrates. And soon, we’ll get another chance to show how much we do care, as we are about to welcome home the largest number of returning combat veterans our region has seen since 1942.

The more than 3,500 men and women of the Duke Brigade will begin returning to Fort Knox in mid-November, a homecoming that will continue through January.

Many have seen combat and all have lived through a situation that most civilians only can imagine. They’ll all need to readjust to normal civilian life and some may have a tougher time of it than others. They’ll need our thanks, our continued appreciation for their service and maybe even a little understanding.

On Thursday, Nov. 17, at the Fort Knox Leaders Club, One Knox is hosting “Returning from Combat ... Building an Understanding Community.” Check-in is at 11 a.m. Our general session begins at 11:30.

Join us for lunch and hear from Edward Tick, Ph.D., a nationally renowned expert on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He also is the author of “War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Immediately following lunch, we’ll hear from three experts in the field of mental and behavioral health, Dr. Melanie Morin from Ireland Army Community Hospital along with Drs. Dan and Jennifer Williamson from Institute of Advance Studies at Lindsey Wilson College. They will give a presentation about the challenges our soldiers and families may face, how they might behave and how we as a community can help.

So who should come? It’s wide open across all sectors – representatives from local law enforcement, clergy and lay leaders, faith based organizations, the judicial system, education, elected leaders, health and human services, community nonprofits and just about anyone who works with the public and comes in contact with military families should register at www.oneknox.com/ events.

Thanks to the generosity of some wonderful partners – Communicare, Hardin Memorial Hospital, Lincoln Trail Behavioral Health System and the Fort Knox Federal Credit Union — there is no cost to attend.

But the Leaders Club only holds so many people, so seating is limited. Please register your attendance as soon as possible. Registration closes on Veterans Day or sooner if we reach capacity.

You may think you understand the challenges these soldiers and families will face. Being a veteran and being married to a combat veteran, I thought I did.

Beth Avey is the outreach coordinator of One Knox.