- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

HOLYOKE, Mass. (AP) - For many returning soldiers, lifesaving instincts learned in war zones can complicate life at home: constant vigilance, agitation in confined places, bolting from loud noises and other behaviors that police might misinterpret.

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 the unique behaviors of troubled combat veterans.

Soldier On, a western Massachusetts service organization known until recently as United Veterans of America, joined other veterans advocates, mental health professionals and prosecutors to initiate training for police, dispatchers and other emergency workers.

They say recently returned combat veterans who are suicidal might take risks such as extreme speeding or become involved in domestic disputes. It’s part of a post-combat culture shock that can be isolating and hard to explain.

“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 program’s organizers say they have no firm statistics on how many troubled combat veterans have clashed with police while readjusting to civilian life. The training is not a response to a spate of such incidents locally, organizers say, but is intended to help prevent them.

Few programs teach emergency responders how to differentiate combat veterans from other people they encounter with psychological problems, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

“How you handle a potentially violent situation is going to be the same regardless of the population, since our officers go into it not knowing what’s gotten the person worked up,” said Audrey Honig, chairwoman of psychological services for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“It’s asking a lot of too few officers to be able to quickly differentiate someone who’s an Iraq veteran, or who has bipolar disorder, or who’s schizophrenic, or who’s just having a really bad day,” said Miss Honig, who is also chief psychologist for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Veterans advocates worry that encounters between troubled combat veterans and police, medics or other front-line emergency responders could increase as wartime deployments end. They also worry that many soldiers, afraid of the stigma of seeking counseling, are returning to civilian life with a host of unresolved problems.

The training program includes advice for police, firefighters and others on how to recognize when erratic or defiant behavior stems from untreated trauma, lingering survival instincts or hidden brain injuries.

In some cases, police say, differentiating troubled former soldiers from non-veterans with psychological disorders can be as simple as striking up a chat to determine whether the person is a veteran.

Many police officers are veterans, too, and the trainers say those conversations can build a sense of camaraderie and cooperation that may encourage veterans to let down their guard and share what is troubling them.

In cases when a person is out of control, trainers suggest talking with family members directly, trying to pinpoint exactly what set off the person and, if appropriate, arranging counseling over slipping on the handcuffs.

Other subtle clues that officers can detect: military-related stickers on cars during traffic stops, wartime pictures in the home when responding to domestic disputes, a close-cropped military haircut.

The problem, veterans advocates say, is that some combat soldiers’ behaviors at home may make no sense to police, medics and other strangers.

Diving to the ground at the sound of a muffler backfiring could revive memories of ambush, while an unintentional jostling by a stranger could spur panic by reawakening fears of suicide bombers.

The professionals’ advice: Give troubled veterans ample space without touching, unless necessary; recognize that their agitation might stem from flashbacks or a fear of the officer’s weapon; realize 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 professionals say the lessons of Vietnam resonate today. Some veterans of that war attributed their later conflicts with police to post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition first recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980.

One year later, a federal government survey of 1,000 veterans who saw combat in Vietnam found that nearly one in four had been arrested sometime after returning home.

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.

Miss Honig said specialized training could help officers refer troubled veterans to the right services, but only after the crisis is averted.

“Good people skills,” she said, “is really going to be the order of the day for dealing with any populations with special problems.”

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