WAR COMES HOME - DAY 2 - Main bar - Reintegration: Soldiers changed by war
War Comes Home - story on reintegration.
Note to editors: The real voices in this story are intended to be a representation of any soldier. The soldier featured in this story is a native of Springfield, but a resident of Wauconda.
Find here: Main Bar for Day 2; suggested photo is any local "coming home" photo. See budget for more details on how to use it.
When Major Frank Bart was preparing to return to Illinois from Iraq in May, he wasn't sure exactly what to expect.
The Springfield native had gone through redeployment in 2000 after a National Guard assignment in Kuwait, but this time was different. In 2000, Bart was single. This time, the Wauconda resident left behind a wife and 3-year-old daughter when he was sent to the Middle East.
"Coming back home was more difficult than I thought," Bart said. "I actually stayed in touch with my wife and child pretty regularly when I was gone. If I didn't call on the telephone, then I would send e-mails or I would try to get on the video e-mail. But that just doesn't take the place of actually being here and taking care of the day-to-day activities that you have to deal with."
Recognizing the tough transition, the Illinois National Guard is beefing up efforts to help Army and Air Guard soldiers readjust to civilian life, a process it calls reintegration. Instead of a three-month break from the guard - common to troops after overseas duty - soldiers are now back at it 30 days after returning. Not to drill, but to discuss family and financial issues, benefits and anything else that returning military personnel face. Attendance is mandatory.
"One thing we are seeing is that 90 days is too much time not to have contact with them," said Stacey Rieger, deputy director of public affairs for the Illinois National Guard. "We want to make sure if soldiers or their families needed something, if they are having difficulty adjusting in any way, we can help."
"We cannot expect our soldiers to deploy and not be changed by war," said 2nd Lt. Justin Anweiler, reintegration project officer for the Illinois National Guard. "Every soldier who has been deployed has combat stress. Reintegration is stressful. Spouses have been apart for a year. It takes time and a lot of hard work for them to reach a new normal."
So far, only a handful of Illinois Guard soldiers have gone through the reintegration program. However, about 500 Illinois troops are scheduled to return this fall and winter, and all of them will be going through the program.
Bart was an operations officer and advisor with Joint Forces Headquarters Forward 14, stationed about 80 miles south of Baghdad. As troops were preparing to return home, they were briefed about what to expect once they arrived.
"They say be prepared for things to be different," Bart said.
For instance, a spouse who has had to run a household single-handedly for a year may have become territorial.
"They are worried about you coming in and taking over everything and changing everything," Bart said. "On the converse, your spouse may have changed a lot of things while you were gone, and you come back and you are not happy with the changes because you weren't involved in it."
"Your wife has gotten accustomed to dealing with everything on her own," Bart said. "For you to come back is a big change for her. That type of cooperation, that type of understanding takes time."
And children have aged a year since the soldier left home.
"They say be prepared for your children to act differently," Bart said. "The things they liked before you left aren't necessarily the things they're going to like now. Some of the games and fun times you did when you left are not something they are going to take to now."
The soldier, too, who perhaps became used to a position of authority in the military, returns to a life where that authority isn't automatic.
It was all part of the briefing, Bart said. But "it doesn't necessarily ring true until you are faced with it."
And faced with it he was.
"The issues when I came back – my wife was upset." Bart said. "She was afraid that I'm going to try to take over everything that she's doing. That never bodes well for seeing eye-to-eye."
His daughter, now 4 years old, changed, too.
"When I came back, she informed me that she wasn't my baby girl anymore, but that's OK because she'll always be my little girl," Bart said. "When I used to leave her I would still do things like give her raspberries on her belly and stuff like that. Now when I come back, it annoys her. She doesn't want the slobber on her."
Like many soldiers, Bart thought only a few returnees experienced changes at home.
"You don't think this is a uniform problem that everyone is facing, even though we've been told to expect this," he said.
That feeling changed when he began the reintegration program. Spouses are invited to attend the sessions, which Bart likened to group therapy.
"It was helpful for me to see that all of the other couples in our team were going through the same exact issues my wife and I were," Bart said. "It put her at ease to see the other spouses' fears and concerns were identical."
Anweiler said that is a common reaction.
"They're surprised that what they are feeling is not out of the ordinary," Anweiler said.
Initially, the group meets and goes over information about family issues, finances, employment and other topics. After that, individual soldiers can meet with experts in particular areas to get more detailed information or assistance.
Among the issues tackled are programs available to veterans, education aid, housing assistance and medical aid.
"We know it is overwhelming to try to learn all of the resources and benefits that are out there," Rieger said.
It can be so daunting that many veterans do not take advantage of the programs created to help them. The Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs is specifically charged with helping veterans and their families secure the benefits to which they are entitled. But even Veteran Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth hesitated when asked if Illinois veterans are availing themselves of the services that are available.
"Not as much as ... I wish they realized they should just come to a DVA office first because they will get signed up for everything," Duckworth said. "There's a real confusion between where they should go."
The Department of Veterans Affairs operates 51 offices across the state, staffed by 74 service officers certified not only to help a veteran apply for state programs, but also assist them in obtaining aid through federal veterans' programs.
"It's a one-stop shop," Duckworth said.
"What happens is when people come back from a war theater or even their duty, they don't want anything to do with military stuff," said Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, an Army veteran herself. "They kind of go back to civilian life and they don't contact us as a state on their status as a war veteran when they get out. We have a hard time connecting with them."