May 21, 2008, Lewistown, MT – Montana’s National Guard expanded its PTSD outreach efforts this week, hosting a series of 20 public meetings in armories across the state.
As part of its effort to familiarize the public — and veterans in particular — with post-traumatic stress disorder, it played a video produced at Fort Harrison entitled “Picking Up the Pieces.” That had Tiffany Kolar wiping her eyes.
“It raised a lot of questions for me,” Kolar said after Monday night’s meeting. “I have a brother who served with the Idaho National Guard and who later committed suicide. Now I’m learning a lot about what must have been happening.”
Kolar’s husband is currently serving his second tour of duty in Iraq, and she and her mother-in-law need to understand the danger signs, she said.
“There were some things we didn’t recognize the last time he came home, so we want to be better informed this time,” said Darlene Kolar, his mother.
Only a handful of people showed up for the meeting here, but the Guard’s personnel officer, Col. Jeff Ireland, said he was happy for any attention.
“If these meeting are able to help even one person, for all the time and effort we’ve expended, it’s been worth it,” Ireland said.
The Guard has sent out personal invitations and videos to 2,000 behavioral health care specialists in Montana, as well as to all the veterans’ organizations, he said. Next on the list is a mass mailing to all ministers and religious leaders in the state, he added.
The meetings are the result of the suicide of Spec. Chris Dana of Helena, who shot himself in March 2007 after returning from combat with the 163rd Infantry. He was not able to handle weekend guard drills, and was given a less-than-honorable discharge as a result.
As a direct result, Ireland said, Montana is now providing longer mental health assessments after return from combat, strengthening its family support units, creating crisis readiness teams to investigate abnormal behavior, requiring a personal investigation by the adjutant general before any soldier is discharged less than honorably, and producing and promoting its own video.
“The Montana National Guard is leading the nation in this regard,” Ireland said. “We’re doing things that no other state is doing, and we’re considered a national model.”
The video is powerful, with two soldiers talking about their emotional problems, with a counselor discussing danger signs and with Dana’s stepbrother, Matt Kuntz, admitting that he let the floundering soldier down by not intervening more strongly to get him help.
“We needed a powerful video to be able to reach out and tell our soldiers that we’re trying to help them, not punish them for coming home from combat with an (emotional) wound,” Ireland said.
Major John Allen, a chaplain who serves as minister of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Great Falls, reinforced the message.
“We wanted to educate people about PTSD and destigmatize it so people can seek help instead of avoiding it,” Allen said.
For that reason, the public meetings are open to all vets, not just former members of the National Guard, and the family readiness units will help families from any branch of the service, he said.
After the formal presentation, Mike Waite of Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg’s staff asked about the danger signs of PTSD, including a vet’s need to live dangerously and have a weapon within reach.
“Soldiers who admitted to PTSD after Vietnam couldn’t be promoted, so none of them ever admitted to it,” said John Foster, a retired counselor. “I hope all that has changed.”
“Yes, it has changed,” responded Ireland. “But the military culture changes slowly, so it’s important to keep pushing that change.”
And Michael Stuehm said he currently treats about 30 vets with PTSD at the South Central Montana Regional Mental Health Center in Lewistown. Any additional resources available to him are welcome, he said.
“It’s great that the National Guard is reaching out to these vets,” Stuehm said. “When I came back from Vietnam, there was nothing, so we’ve come a long way.”