Returning troops to get follow-up assessments

By James Bradshaw Assistant Editor
May 1, 2005 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, at least not the mental wounds of combat duty that can bubble to the surface months after the initial relief of leaving a combat zone.

Realizing that, the Department of Defense (DoD) has expanded mental health evaluations for troops returning from Iraq and other hot spots to include follow-up assessments two to four months after leaving a combat zone.

William Winkenwerder Jr., M.D., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, announced the expansion in late January and said the program will be fully in place by early spring.

“This new initiative is designed to assist service members who have returned from areas of combat operations to ensure their health and well being,” Winkenwerder is quoted in a DoD press release. “The thrust is to bring them in and ask, ‘How are you doing?’ ‘How is your family doing?’ ‘Are you having stress or adjustment issues?’ ‘How can we help you?’ ”

Lt. Col. Paul Bliese, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Unit-Europe in Heidelberg, Germany, told the Army News Service his research unit screened returning troops in Italy first at reintegration and again at 120 days and found that more soldiers needed help after they had been home for a while.

“They spent a year in Iraq, they’re back, they’re alive, there’s a huge celebration. Then, three months into it, life intervenes. All of a sudden, they’re having to deal with going to work every day and having to deal with the responsibilities of being a parent, spouse and a soldier,” Bliese said.

Winkenwerder said the assessments will consider the overall health of the returning service members, with emphasis on mental health and readjustment. Only a small percentage of individuals report problems immediately following deployment, he said.

“In some cases, service members may have concerns, but, understandably, want to go home. Some two to three months later or more (they) may experience health issues and adjustment problems but may be reluctant or not know how to seek help.

“We have the capacity and the desire to manage these issues proactively. And, it is the right thing for us to do. With this new disciplined and caring process we intend to remove stigma and reach those needing support. Importantly, we also will be implementing this program for members of the Reserves and Guard, and expect that through our partnership with the VA, and our own Tricare program, we will be able to provide the services.”

The Tricare program provides troops returning from active duty health care for themselves and their families for 180 days after deactivation and the opportunity to purchase individual or family coverage for longer periods if desired.

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