Guard gets grant to assist returning combat soldiers (Burlington Free Press)

By Sam Hemingway

The Vermont National Guard is getting a $3 million grant to expand an outreach program that will help soldiers with brain injuries or mental health issues stemming from their time in the Middle East war zone.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced the award during a Monday news conference. He said the Vermont effort will serve as a pilot program for the country on how to reach out to soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

"This state will lead the effort, and what we do here will be an example and a model for other states," Sanders said.

The $3 million was included in a Defense Department appropriations bill signed by President Bush last week. Another $3 million outreach program grant was included in the bill for other states to share.

Vermont Adjutant General Michael Dubie, who attended the news conference, said the goal of the program is to get help as soon as possible to soldiers confronting mental issues as they integrate back into civilian life.

"What we're trying to do is get out early enough and intervene with the people who are having a difficult time," Dubie said. "The majority of our people are doing fine, but the statistics, particularly national studies, indicate that we're talking about the potential of hundreds of Vermonters who have served who may be having problems."

According to recent national studies, 38 percent of regular Army soldiers and 49 percent of Guard soldiers have been found to have psychological concerns as a result of the time in combat.

Sanders said some of those concerns develop later, after the euphoria of returning home has worn off and the effects of repeated exposure to things like improvised explosive devices becomes more evident.

Vermont National Guard Chaplain Jim McIntyre, who was at the news conference, said between 300 and 400 of the 2,662 Vermont soldiers returning from Middle East battlefield deployments have been steered toward help for emotional or brain injury issues.

Dubie said the reason the Vermont numbers are lower than the national average is probably because of a reticence among some soldiers to admit they have a problem and seek help.

"We're trying to (say) 'It's OK if you have issues; in some ways it's expected,'" Dubie said in an interview.

Dubie also disclosed at the news conference that he expects the Vermont National Guard will have a large re-deployment to the war zone at some point in the future.

"I think it's pretty obvious this is going to be a long war," he said. "We expect to go back in large numbers." He said later that such a deployment is not expected in 2008.

Dubie, responding to a reporter's question, said he believed the "surge" in Iraq, a temporary increase in U.S. forces ordered by Bush this year, has been successful.

Sanders, an opponent of the war, disagreed, saying that although casualties and violence had declined in Iraq, the surge's goal of bringing political stability to Iraq "does not seem to be happening."