Counseling sessions part of coming home for soldiers

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(Host) Another sixty members of the Vermont National Guard touched down today in Mississippi after nearly a year in Iraq.

They joined a group of fifty that arrived over the weekend.

The rest of the four hundred members of Task Force Saber will likely fly in on Tuesday.

VPR’s Steve Zind is at Camp Shelby. He explains what the troops are doing before they make the next leg of their journey back to Vermont.

(Barracks sounds)

(Zind) The Vermonters’ barracks at Camp Shelby were quiet Monday. Between doing paperwork, turning in equipment and getting medical checkups, soldiers had time to catch a nap or venture out into the 95 degree heat to shop at the PX or go to the mess hall.

There were also debriefing sessions to attend.

In the morning, guardsmen gathered in a large group to hear about the benefits and services available to them as Iraq war veterans.

Then, later in the day they were called into smaller groups – just 20 or 30 – to talk with counselors about the difficulties some of them would have adjusting to civilian life. Colonel John Coffin is one of the counselors.

(Coffin) “There’s always the question as to whether they need this or not, but this is the kind of thing the Army does to take care of the souls of its soldier’s we’ve put in harm’s way and this group has been put in harm’s way as much as any of our groups.”

(Zind) Coffin says the counseling sessions are structured. They involve asking the soldiers three questions. Question number one, they have to answer. The other two are optional.

First, the soldiers are asked to talk about what they did in Iraq.

Then, they’re encouraged to discuss their first thoughts and feelings on arriving back in the U.S.

Finally, counselors ask them to describe the most difficult situation they faced.

Coffin says the exercise is designed to help soldiers go beyond thinking about their experiences to exploring their emotional responses to what they witnessed.

(Coffin) “Some will have feelings; some won’t. Some will still be thinking about their brothers still back in theater thinking, they’ll be thinking about the losses that they took. We found that at the plane two days ago.”

(Zind) Coffin says Vermont is the only state to send a team of counselors to Mississippi to work with returning guard members.

He says some soldiers are resistant to the idea of counseling. Some experience a delayed emotional reaction to the war. He tells every returning soldier to make four visits to a vet center to talk to a counselor, even if they might not think they need it.

David Swan of Chazy, N.Y., is among the Vermont guardsmen just back from Iraq. Swan says he feels all right, but he thinks it makes sense for the returning soldiers to talk to counselors.

(Swan) “You just can’t do a year in combat and then expect to come home after seeing so many traumatic events, life altering events that are not normal to everyday life to not be scarred someway.”

(Zind) Vermont Guard officials say once all the soldiers in Task Force Saber are debriefed, they’ll fly home to Vermont to join their families.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.

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