- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

More than 1,000 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan received a warm homecoming at Prince George’s County Stadium in Bowie during the third annual Welcome Home, sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Washington Medical Center in mid-June.

The program provides veterans and their loved ones with access to a variety of services, including medical care and employment assistance, in a friendly environment. This experience was designed to help reunited families renew their bonds.

“Every VA Medical Center has a directive to provide a Welcome Home on an annual basis,” said Jean Langbein, Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom program manager at the Washington Medical Center. “People all over the nation were doing welcome-homes for the veterans, and we decided to do a major ‘Welcome Home’ to incorporate the families.”

Families are essential to helping veterans return to home life, and families also need support as they adjust to having their loved one home after combat, said Miss Langbein.

The first formal Welcome Home was sponsored by Washington Medical Center in 2007 and was staged in the Medical Center parking lot. It was so successful that VA Secretary James B. Peake issued a directive to all medical centers across the nation to hold a formal event each year. Each center tailors its event to its community, Miss Langbein said, but the purpose is the same - to create an atmosphere for families to get to know each other again while making needed services available to returning service members.

During the Welcome Home event, medical center personnel will schedule returning veterans for their first primary care medical appointment. Many returning veterans have difficulty readjusting to life with their families or find it hard to admit they need help, especially in dealing with ‘invisible injuries’ such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“The focus is on getting the information out there,” Miss Langbein said. “Our biggest hope is that they come in and see the primary care provider.”

One measure of the program’s success is the need for a new venue. This year’s event drew over 1,172 veterans, excluding the family members who also attended.

“Due to an increased need for services, we knew we had to go off-site,” Assistant Medical Center Director Paula Gorman said.

Prince George’s County Stadium, home of the Bowie Baysox, was deemed by organizers to be an ideal location. “Baysox Stadium,” as the arena is informally known, is conducive to a family atmosphere, said Mrs. Gorman. One of the needs of the medical center is to protect the privacy of veterans, which is vitally important when reluctant veterans are trying to wrestle with issues like PTSD.

“Personal suites allowed for personal services like pastoral care,” Mrs. Gorman said.

As a result of moving the event to the new location, organizers were able to save a great deal of money and labor. The stadium provided the food service, which eliminated the need for the VA to supply food and recruit volunteer cooks and servers.

“The Baysox even provided some tickets for families to go to a game,” Miss Langbein said.

The VA partners with numerous organizations to stage Welcome Home. Some sponsors for the 2009 event were private entities like Corporate Sports, the accounting firm Deloitte, and WUSA Channel 9. The American Legion and Auxiliaries of both Virginia and Maryland, the Virginia Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 2222 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Departments of Labor from Maryland, Virginia, and the District, and the District’s Department of Employment Services were among the service organizations and governmental departments on hand to provide direction to returning warriors. This assistance is designed to help them begin the often difficult transition to civilian life.

One new area being targeted this year is driving safety. In combat, soldiers learn to drive erratically; this has led to an increase in accidents involving combat veterans, said Miss Langbein. After dodging improvised explosive devices and ambushes, these men and women may need help learning to not over-correct when someone abruptly changes lanes in front of them in heavy traffic.

The Washington Medical Center plans to continue holding future Welcome Home events at Baysox Stadium. The stadium provides large areas, private suites, food service and a friendly atmosphere, said Mrs. Gorman. She thinks it is the best place for the VA and community to help veterans and their families begin the adjustment to a more “normal” life: Next year, organizers plan to select a date that will coincide with a Baysox game in order to give families yet another activity to experience together, said Mrs. Gorman.

“The VA recognizes that the community plays an important part in getting vets back into the community,” Miss Langbein said.

Nathanael T. Miller is a Navy photojournalist living in Bowie.

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