February 4, 2008, Holyoke, Mass. — For many returning soldiers, lifesaving combat instincts can complicate life at home: constant vigilance, agitation in confined places, bolting from loud noises and other behaviors that can be misinterpreted by police.
Concerned that some may wind up in the criminal justice system instead of counseling, some police and other emergency responders are learning how to recognize and cope with unique behaviors of troubled combat veterans.
“Our law enforcement community has really become the safety net. If they can get to the root of what’s happening with these guys, they’ll get helped instead of getting criminalized,” said John Downing, president of Soldier On, a western Massachusetts service organization known until recently as United Veterans of America.
His group and other veterans’ advocates, mental health experts and prosecutors recently launched a training program for police, dispatchers and other emergency workers. Organizers believe it is the first of its kind in the nation, and hope other regions copy it as more veterans come home from wartime deployments.
Authorities say it is not unusual to meet recently returned combat veterans who are suicidal, take risks such as extreme speeding or become part of domestic disputes. It’s part of a post-combat culture shock that can be isolating and hard to explain, some say.
“I went from seeing such horrific scenes every day to seeing people here getting their morning coffee, going about their business. I’d wonder, ‘Don’t they know what’s going on over there?'” said Jason Harder, a Massachusetts probation officer and U.S. Air Force veteran of the Iraq war, Gulf War and 1993 peacekeeping venture in Somalia.
The training focused on how to recognize when erratic or defiant behavior stems from untreated trauma, lingering survival instincts or hidden brain injuries.
Some of their behavior could make no sense to strangers: diving to the ground at the sound of a muffler backfiring could revive memories of being ambushed, while an unintentional jostling by a stranger could reawaken fears of suicide bombers.
“We recognize that when someone’s under stress and in a crisis mode, the last thing you want to do is deal with police. But we don’t know you’re in that mode when we initially meet you,” said David Guilbault, police chief in the 18,000-person town of Greenfield, Mass.
The experts advise police to stick with particular behaviors when meeting troubled veterans. That includes giving them ample space without touching them, unless necessary; recognizing their agitation might stem from flashbacks or a fear of the officer’s weapon; and realizing they are unaware of how strange their anxieties appear to others.
“Once a person has already entered the criminal justice system, we typically don’t know they’re a veteran who has seen combat unless it’s pointed out to us,” said Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, one of the training program’s creators.
“If first responders are educated in what to look for, there can be some early intervention and those veterans can get services they need before we even encounter them,” she said.
Mental health experts say the lessons of Vietnam resonate today. Some veterans of that war attributed their later conflicts with police to post-traumatic stress disorder, a syndrome first recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980.
One year later, a federal government survey of 1,000 combat veterans found that nearly one in four had been arrested after returning home, compared with 17 percent of other Vietnam-era veterans and 14 percent of non-veterans.
Some combat veterans from that era said sounds of helicopters, the smell of rice cooking and other seemingly simple triggers set them off.
“It takes awhile for these soldiers to stop seeing everything as maybe life-threatening,” said Darrell Benson, a western Massachusetts veterans’ case manager.