Sacramento area Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) presented a panel of experts to help local families cope with returning veterans struggling with a barrage of challenges: post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, substance abuse, divorce and a desolate job market.
And as many as 70 percent of the women and 40 percent of the men have been sexually abused in the military, said Carolyn Fink, a licensed clinic social worker with the Soldiers Project, Sacramento. “We have 18 veteran suicides a day nationwide, and that doesn’t count active military,” Fink said.
“The war will continue even after it’s ended for those scarred by their experience,” said Fred Guzman of Pathway Home, a residential care facility for 40 veterans in Napa. “The general public doesn’t understand that they may look OK, but their brains have been changed,” said Guzman. “One in three come back with some kind of social or psychological problem.”
They often feel they have two families – the family they left in the United States and their combat family, Guzman said. “Facing life and death is the hardest thing you’ll ever face; there’s nothing like it.”
Fink, who sees 8-12 veterans a week, said National Guard troops and reservists don’t qualify for medical benefits “if you’re not a wounded warrior.”
They often return to children who don’t know them, unstable families and loved ones walking on eggshells because they don’t know how to read their minds and moods, Fink said.
The veterans are often “very disillusioned about the world they live in and the service they provided to the country,” Fink said. “They realize there’s evil in the world, and they might see it in the mirror. And they suffer from a crisis of faith: ‘Whose God do I talk to? Whose God did all this s—?’ ”
The beefed-up GI Bill that pays for college “is a great thing, but too many are not ready,” paralyzed by fear, Fink said.
Some find it too hard to readjust to loved ones who’ve also been changed by the war. They prefer to return to their combat unit where they know what’s expected.
The experts met with several families who described how the wars have affected them.
Laurie Loving, a Davis peace activist who helped organize the event, said she was terrified when her son got married, enlisted at 19 and was deployed to Mosul in war-torn northern Iraq in August 2005.
“It took me 13 months to get my blood pressure down, I gained 40 pounds and went on disability retirement,” Loving said.
Many get married too young, unprepared for long separations and the stress of war – a prescription for heartbreak, Loving said. “My son and at least half the nine men in his unit either divorced or their girlfriends broke up with them during the year they were deployed in Iraq.”
Loving’s son, a team leader and a sergeant, was prepared to re-enlist until she bribed him with $13,000 tax-free – more than double the army’s re-enlistment bonus, she said. He’s since graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.
Loving was in position to help her son financially, but others parents can’t.
Many young people, approached by recruiters in high school, enlist because they feel they have no other economic options.
Terry and Jamie Meador of Roseville said that’s why their son Mike, 21, enlisted. “He was making $9 an hour at Starbucks, and when all of your non-collegiate jobs disappear, he felt this was a viable option,” said Jamie, wiping away tears. “He’s been in Afghanistan for five months. We don’t support the war, we support the soldiers.”
Zoreh Whitaker, who opened her home to the military families Sunday, said she’s seen families destroyed by returning veterans who’ve been charged with rape, kidnapping and other crimes.
Whitaker said her son Christopher served two tours in Iraq and now trains military medics. “He’s nervous, his leg’s constantly tapping,” said Whitaker, “but he likes the military, he likes the brotherhood. I’m a pacifist; I don’t want somebody to knock on my door.”
Vacaville’s Patrick Sheehan and his ex-wife Cindy got that knock in 2004 after their son, who entered the service as a chaplain, was killed in action in Iraq.
“I know exactly where he is; I won’t have to worry any more,” he said. “We need to bring them home now and take care of them when they get here. They deserve to be helped – they’re not charity.”