|Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team helps returning soldiers
Story by Kim Lippert, Public Affairs Specialist, Oregon Military Department
"My boys. How are my boys?"
"They're fine Sergeant Jacques. They're fine."
"Make sure my boys go before me. Get them on the bird first."
"Okay, Sergeant Jacques."
(Devil's Sandbox, by John Brunning)
His humvee had been blown to pieces, a mangled mess shattered by an improvised explosive device. His driver, Pfc. Kenny Leisten was dead. Sgt. 1st Class Vince Jacques dangled upside down with his legs trapped under the dashboard. His gunner, Pfc. Ben Ring was seriously wounded. But on that fateful day, July 28, 2004 in Iraq, despite his own injuries, Jacques had only one thing on his mind; his soldiers, "his boys".
"Everyone's on. They're waiting for you." (Devil's Sandbox)
Miraculously, Jacques survived the blast. But his injuries prevented him from returning to Iraq with his unit, the 2nd Battalion 162nd Infantry. In the days and months that followed Jacques admits it was tough.
"Knowing they were over there and I wasn't was really hard," said Jacques.
Back home in Oregon, Col. (Ret.) Scott McCrae was also struggling. His son, 1st Lt. Erik McCrae, also a member of 2nd Bn. 162nd Inf., had died in Iraq only weeks before, in an IED attack that resulted in the largest loss of life the Oregon National Guard had faced in a single day since World War II.
"He was the kind of person you would have loved to have as a son," said McCrae.
In Eastern Oregon, another Oregon National Guard soldier from the 2-162 Inf. Bn. was also coping with immense loss. Sgt. Luke Wilson had lost his leg to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq. After getting out of Walter Reed Medical Center, Wilson said he felt aimless.
"I pretty much hid in my garage for the first two to three months after I got home, working on my jeep," said Wilson. "There was no place out there looking to hire a one-legged man to kick-in doors and pull triggers."
Out of the depths of despair emerged a mission. These men, united by separate twists of fate, would come together to ensure that their "boys", and all of Oregon's service members, are taken care of when they return home from war. In February 2005 the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team was formed.
"We do a great job of getting our soldiers out the door, we train them to be a warrior and after they've been gone for 18 months or more, we send them back into the community and say, ‘have a great life,'" said McCrae.
The Oregon National Guard recognizes that nearly 37 percent of its returning veterans are under or unemployed and 90 percent want college education and job training for their families. The ORNG Reintegration Team works with federal, state, local and civilian agencies and refers service members to resources where they can receive assistance with any need they may have.
"We are in effect, a highly networked "help desk" where we act as "traffic cops" to direct soldiers and airmen to the right place," said McCrae.
One resource the ORNG Reintegration Team refers soldiers and airmen to is the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs, where veteran service officers can help them apply for benefits.
"I'm very impressed with the character and commitment of all of the soldiers working for the Oregon Guard Reintegration Team," said Jim Willis, Director of the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs. "By working together we can make a difference in the lives of our veterans and their families on a daily basis."
Jacques said he wants to reach those who might otherwise slip through the cracks.
"I want to talk to the Joes down to the lowest private," said Jacques.
"When I was over there, the guys were the best I'd ever seen, we know they can handle a lot of responsibility. We need to provide them with tools to be successful here at home as well," said Jacques.
Jobs, counseling, education, are just a few of the tools the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team helps put in the hands of returning veterans. The team provides military job and benefit fairs, daily phone calls, and a commitment to never say no to someone who needs help.
"We have never turned anyone away," said Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Maas, who leads the ORNG's Career Transition Assistance Program in Salem, an integral part of the ORNG Reintegration Team.
Currently, there are nine states involved in reintegration issues for returning service members. Oregon is the only state that combines it's reintegration efforts with the Jobs Program and the Career Transition Assistance Program.
Col. McCrae said he keeps his focus on helping veterans get back to a normal, healthy life.
"We want to fix physical problems, mental health problems, family problems, and financial issues so they can be a productive member of the community and a stable well adjusted member of their unit," said McCrae.
For some soldiers, like Specialist Patrick Silva, help meant a referral for treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to statistics from the Army, the condition affects up to one in five soldiers returning from Iraq.
"When I came back from Iraq I had PTSD, it's nice they are finally recognizing that this is not something you can just get over, overnight," said Silva, of 1st Battalion 186th Inf.
When a service member calls the ORNG Reintegration Team someone always answers the phone, it is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"The phone calls don't always come at 8:00 to 4:30, some of them come at 1:47 a.m. ‘oh by the way here is where I am and here is what is happening to me', and we have to respond," said Maas.
Maas said service members can connect with the ORNG Reintegration Team in a way others may not be able to, because they are talking to someone who knows exactly what they are going through.
"We had a situation in Portland, a stand-off with one of our service members. The police could not seem to get through to him. But Sergeant Jacques, with the help of local law enforcement, walked up to the guy and said, ‘hand me that (weapon), you and I are going to leave here together and we're going to get you some help', and they did," said Maas
"The individual came into the office the other day, and he's cleaned up and back on his feet," added Maas.
First Sgt. (Ret.) Ray Lewallen, Non Commissioned Officer in Charge of the ORNG Reintegration Team, and a Vietnam veteran, drove four hours in the middle of the night to resolve another police stand-off involving a different soldier.
"The guys on the team have personally intervened on 15 suicides," said McCrae. "If we can prevent one soldier from taking their lives that's a great deal, you can't put a price on that."
McCrae said he believes suicide is not a sudden decision but a desperate act that occurs when many aspects of a person's life fall apart.
"Our goal is to break that chain somewhere along the cycle and not allow it to get to the point where they are hopeless, debilitated and dysfunctional," said McCrae.
A steady job, said Maas, can make a huge difference in the quality of life a soldier and their family can enjoy.
"I got a phone call on a Saturday night from a woman who said, ‘Sgt. Maas you don't know me but you got my husband a job at Swift Trucking. He never had the money to take me shopping, but now we are at the mall and I'm buying a new dress and we're getting new clothes for the kids,'" said Maas.
Nearly three years since its implementation, the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team continues to evolve. Each member has a story and purpose, their resolve forged from the fires of battle in Iraq.
"I love my job," said Wilson. "Every day I get up and help veterans and soldiers."
For Wilson, Jacques, and McCrae who lost limbs or loved ones in Iraq, the Reintegration Team not only provides a chance to help, it's also a chance to heal.
"Working for the Reintegration team has been a form of therapy for me," said Wilson "It has helped me a lot."
Oregon National Guard Public Affairs Office
Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Maas
Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team