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Admiral Mullen urges leadership to address unmet needs of returning combat veterans, families

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called on America’s foundations and philanthropists to actively reach out in service of the nation’s veterans this week, saying time is of the essence.

“Outside my window at night, I can look on the streets of Washington and see my peers from Vietnam who are homeless and who are sleeping on the streets at night,” Mullen said. “We did not do a good job of addressing the problems of those veterans from Vietnam.”

Admiral Mike Mullen

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said time is of the essence for reaching out to veterans returning from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports substantial mental health and adjustment difficulties among servicemen and women returning from combat deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Problems with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and alcohol misuse are common, particularly among National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers.

The admiral said that more than a million veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have returned to communities across America.

According to NIMH, screening efforts to identify mental health concerns in the months following return from combat suggest that up to 42% of National Guard and Army Reserve troops require mental health treatment, but that fewer than 10% actually get care. The report also said 14-21% of redeployed soldiers express concerns about interpersonal conflict , highlighting the potential impact of war on the well-being of family members, as well as friends and employers.

PAIRS Foundation, a nonprofit based in Weston, Florida, last year partnered with Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia and Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta to develop a model program to strengthen attachment and bonding for couples impacted by combat deployment. Preliminary research on the weekend retreats showed significant benefits for the couples. The Veterans Administration recognized the collaboration as “Best Practice in Marriage Enrichment.”

Ron Craddock, Chief of Chaplains at Charlie Norwood, said the weekend retreats are changing the lives of returning combat veterans and their spouses.

Dr. Mitchell Tepper of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine is conducting research on the program. “PAIRS systematically works toward developing participants’ emotional literacy, including the capacity for vulnerability and empathy that is often impaired after combat deployment. We have seen remarkable results through tears and testimony from the veterans and spouses who participate,” Dr. Tepper said.

Seth Eisenberg, President of PAIRS Foundation, said reaching out to individuals and couples impacted by combat deployment is a national priority that public and private foundations are working to address.

“The Department of Defense and VA are investing heavily in clinical services and treatment research to help address the unmet needs of returning combat veterans,” Eisenberg said. “Community-based initiatives that strengthen marriages, families, and emphasize successful reintegration into civilian life are critically important to addressing behavioral adjustment challenges of returning veterans and their families.”

Next month, Eisenberg said PAIRS Foundation will expand services to veterans through a four-day professional certification training in collaboration with the VA San Diego Healthcare System. “We’re hopeful expanded programs will incorporate systematic evaluations to measure the impact of outreach efforts, educational, and clinical services on mental and behavioral health outcomes so effective, best practices can be replicated nationwide,” Eisenberg said.

“Time is of the essence,” Mullen said in his address to philanthropists this week, calling veterans “an American treasure.”

They go off to war without questioning the decision, the admiral said, yet “come back as changed people.” Their families, he added, also are “changed in ways they could not have imagined.” Mullen said military leaders are just beginning to understand today’s veterans’ common-signature injuries, such as post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, and amputations.

“Yet to these families, their dreams haven’t changed one bit,” Mullen said. “They want to raise their families, they want to go to school; they want to own a piece of the rock.”

The PAIRS training at the VA San Diego Healthcare System will take place June 1-4 in San Diego. Registration is open to chaplains, social workers and behavioral health specialists serving active duty, guard, and veterans. Further information is available online or by contacting Lauren DelGandio at PAIRS Foundation,  (877) 724-7748 x802.

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