A Program That Helps Returning Warriors Share

Across the country, the Navy is running Returning Warrior Weekends to ease the transition from war zone to civilian life for sailors coming home after yearlong deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan. The Navy gets a few hundred of them together in a hotel and tries to get them to talk.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We've been hearing this week, from a U.S. Marine named Colonel Drew Doolin. He told ALL THINGS CONSIDERED last night that he struggled with panic attacks and insomnia brought on by a tour in Iraq.

Mr. DREW DOOLIN (Colonel, U.S. Marines): You're trying to lead a battalion of people who are going through issues. You yourself, you don't want to be the one who's having issues.

INSKEEP: Many troops have issues returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress; others just can't sleep. So, Navy officers came up with an idea, which they call a returning warrior workshop. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports from the latest one in Austin, Texas.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Well, it's breakfast time. We are in the ballroom at the Radisson Hotel in Austin, and there's about 150 sailors and their spouses. They're all trickling in. They are making a beeline for the coffee, it looks like, which they're going to need because it's a big day coming up.

Ms. MARTHA HERB (Captain): How's everybody doing this morning?

Unidentified Man: Good.

Ms. HERB: Okay. Is everybody…

KELLY: That's Captain Martha Herb welcoming everyone. Herb is the unofficial MC of the weekend - introducing speakers, steering people towards buffet lines, offering tips on the best local jogging trails. But her main job this weekend is to help people cope with the transition from war zone back to routine daily life.

After deployments, sailors have reported symptoms ranging from flashbacks and anxiety attacks to drinking too much and sleeping too little. Captain Herb tries to persuade them to get help if they need it. Not an easy message, she says, in a military culture that prizes toughness.

Ms. HERB: It's about, you know, we're strong, we can do anything, we can leap tall buildings. You call us to do a tough job and we're going to do it. And to look at somebody and go, I'm having a little trouble with this one and I can't even put a label on what it is. You know, we're our own worst enemy sometimes.

KELLY: The Navy flies in chaplains for the weekend, also counselors and financial planners. Tables line the hallways staffed with reps from veterans groups and the military's health care provider. And speaker after speaker hammers home the point: feeling angry or sad is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation like war.

But it's clear from the questions people ask that they're worried about the stigma of being seen to have mental issues. To that end, the Navy also flies in a three-star admiral - in this case, Vice Admiral Kevin McCoy - to deliver this message:

Mr. KEVIN MCCOY (Vice Admiral, Navy): I know that what you have been through has affected you. Of course it's affected you. There's no shame in that. Every single one of us in this room seeks medical treatment when we are hurt and sick, and we are not ashamed to get that help. Why should post-traumatic stress be any different?

KELLY: Most of the people here have not been diagnosed with PTSD. That's a severe and ongoing condition. Some we talked to say they're struggling in smaller ways; some said they're doing just fine. That, in fact, they wouldn't mind another deployment. One of the panels is titled, Why I Want to Go Back, a subject that makes many spouses roll their eyes, but rings true for Chuck Rayburn(ph), a Navy medic from Harper, Texas.

Mr. CHUCK RAYBURN (Navy Medic): When you're deployed, you're on a strict schedule and that's what you adjust to. It's like, man I miss that. I miss that four o'clock workout, I miss chow being served at this time, I miss this routine. I guess that's the only way to describe it.

KELLY: Nearly every sailor at the Returning Warrior Workshop has their wife or husband or another family member there with them. The Navy view is, to heal the sailor, you have to heal the spouse. And it's the spouses who get left behind during deployments, trying to sort through military benefits and paperwork.

Ms. SHELLY AMBROSE (Military Spouse): I'm military illiterate.

KELLY: Shelly Ambrose of Baytown, Texas.

Ms. AMBROSE: I don't know abbreviations. They seem to have abbreviations for everything, and it's a foreign language to me. So, being able to have some idea of where to start, where to go, what to do - I feel like I have a better sense of understanding.

KELLY: Ambrose's husband, Garrick, finished a six-month deployment to Kuwait last May. She says when he came home, there was a definite readjustment period. Couples at the Returning Warrior weekend are encouraged to spend time reconnecting. In one session, husbands and wives write a love letter to each other. And once they get that down, Navy Chaplain Jane Bingham told the crowd it's time to take it to the next level.

Ms. JANE BINGHAM (Navy Chaplain): Yes, the chaplain's going to talk to you about sex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BINGHAM: Now hopefully, warriors, you've had a chance to work through this. If not, you are in a very nice hotel this weekend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BINGHAM: If you need some instruction, there are people around your table that might be willing to give you some advice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BINGHAM: This is a big one, folks.

KELLY: Well, perhaps to that end, the Navy also puts on a party that first night.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: There are huge trays of Texas barbecue, and then a few dozen sailors hit the dance floor.

(Soundbite of song, "Cha Cha Slide")

Mr. C (Singer): (Singing) Freeze. Everybody clap your hands.

(Soundbite of clapping)

KELLY: All right. Hard to deny these sailors are having fun. But whether all this actually works, and these weekends really help people in the long-term is hard to say. What is clear is military leaders have realized they have to take mental health issues seriously, as the wars have ground on and suicide rates have climbed and troops have faced longer and more frequent deployment.

Dozens of mental health programs have been rolled across the military services. Among them, a new Army program designed to prevent suicide; the Marine Corps runs an annual conference on combat operational stress control; and the Army's Battlemind Program is geared at helping soldiers to prepare, mentally, before they deploy.

This Returning Warrior Workshop we've been listening to was originally targeted at Navy reservists, but soon active duty sailors wanted to come too. All together, the Navy will host a couple of dozen Returning Warrior weekends this year all over the country. Rear Admiral Albert Garcia says the program is helping people.

Rear Admiral ALBERT GARCIA (U.S. Navy): I measure it based on the feedback I hear from the families. So, for me it's been a largely overwhelming success.

KELLY: Admiral Garcia concedes there's no precise way to measure that success, but the Navy is clearly committed. With cuts in the overall defense budget looming, funding for this program is secure, which brings us back to the ballroom in Texas and the end of a long weekend.

This is an awards ceremony. It's the final event, last chance to honor the troops and their families before they go back home and back to their daily lives. Or in some cases, go back to war - another tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Austin.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Mary Louise has another report on how returning soldiers are dealing with battle stress, and you can find that on our Web site, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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