Rhode Island veterans, administrators speak on "The War on Terror: Coming Home"

Mike Ritz, director of Leadership Rhode Island, asked the question while delivering his opening remarks at a recent RIC forum about returning war veterans.

What are Rhode Island veterans coming home to?

Some of those answers include mental illness, homelessness, and family problems.

John DiRaimo, Rochelle Fortin, Jennifer Lambert and Sue Storti were on the the first panel at the Publick Occurrences forum, discussing the issue of mental illness.
These three issues were discussed by 10 expert panelists at ‘The War on Terror: Coming Home,” the last of three Publick Occurrences events – a series of forums presented by the Providence Journal in partnership with RIC and Leadership Rhode Island to educate and inform the public about current issues in the state – held in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall on Nov. 7.

Mental health difficulties are one of the most significant issues that veterans experience, said Jennifer Lambert, acting chief of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) clinic, and coordinator of the returning veterans program at the Veterans Administration Medical Center (VA) for more than 10 years.

A recent study found that the number of people seeking care for mental health issues at the VA increases each year, said Lambert, but only 12 percent of people receiving help are from recent conflicts.

“That means that 88 percent of veterans are from other wars who are still suffering 30, 40, 50, 60 years later,” she said, which in her opinion, may also contribute to the recent increase in veteran suicides.

Though veterans make up only about one percent of the United States population, 20 percent of all suicides in the country are veteran suicides. According to one VA study, a veteran commits suicide once every 80 minutes, and those currently in service commit suicide once every 36 minutes, Lambert said.

Two factors that can be preventative against suicide are senses of purpose and belonging, “two things people really struggle with when they come home,” Lambert said.

View the photo gallery from the forum

Rhode Island’s high unemployment rates contribute to these feelings of uselessness. Veterans who obtain jobs after deployment feel their positions are not as meaningful as ones they held overseas, Lambert said, and adding these feelings to symptoms of PTSD, financial issues, homelessness or chronic pain can be a deadly combination.

"The loving, kind man that I loved, returned a shell. There were times when I would look into his eyes and think that his soul was gone. There was a stark emptiness."
-Sue Storti
John DiRaimo, former sergeant in the Rhode Island National Guard and a veteran of the war in Iraq, illustrated several mental health problems he faced after being honorably discharged in 2006.

When DiRaimo came home from Cuba, he and several friends sought treatment from the VA but faced excessive red tape – paperwork and other procedures that needed to be completed in order for them to get help – discouraging DiRaimo and causing him to stay away from the VA for some time.

Sue Storti – another panelist, also DiRaimo’s friend and a behavioral-health researcher and counselor – noted subtle changes in his behavior when he returned home for the first time, but more serious changes were apparent when he returned from Iraq, she said.

“The loving, kind man that I loved, returned a shell,” she said, stating that DiRaimo was often distant, angry and edgy. “There were times when I would look into his eyes and think that his soul was gone. There was a stark emptiness.”

DiRaimo’s constant companion became a loaded gun, which he often brought to bed. His desire to “chase the adrenaline train” gave him the chance to challenge both his courage and strength. There were times of uncertainty for his safety, and unexpected triggers often caused uncontrollable outbursts, said Storti.

After extensive coaxing, DiRaimo began to get regular treatment at the VA, and continues to attend meetings and see a PTSD doctor there once a week.

Amy Gladding, Thomas O'Toole and Erik Wallin talked about homelessness and returning veterans.
Veterans returning from war can’t simply “get over” their problems, he said, and many units end up alone or binge drink to ease the pain. Civilians should recognize these problems and be both compassionate and supportive, DiRaimo added.

The VA has given DiRaimo the chance to be understood and to heal. Now, DiRaimo advocates for more help and more room to be provided for the rapidly growing institution.

“If I didn’t have this support … I wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “I’m very thankful that I have a friend, and that I have support at the VA.”

Rochelle Fortin, program director at the VA for the last 23 years, says that with the high number of service men and women returning home from overseas, the VA is prepared to provide care and education for these veterans and their families.

“Each veteran has an opportunity to attend weekly drop-in case management classes in order to share struggles, challenges, ideas and strategies to help cope with readjustment,” she said, allowing veterans to share their feelings in a non-judgmental, open environment, and has attracted many new people to the program.

“What started as a handful of veterans has grown into over 7,000 returning veterans enrolled at the Providence VA,” said Fortin. According to Lambert, however, only 46 percent of eligible veterans seek help here, while the other 54 percent don’t take advantage of these benefits.

Since 2006, the VA has increased its mental health staff by 50 percent, going from 14,000 to 21,000 counselors, and in 2008, the VA hired its first counselor focused specifically on families, which is how panelist Clarisse DiCandia – clinical psychologist and family therapist with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs – got her job.

The VA offers each veteran a case manager who navigates their care, and also has evening and night services to accommodate veterans’ schedules, Fortin said. A 24-hour crisis hotline has been implemented at the VA that has received 460,000 calls since its inception, claiming about 16,000 “saves,” added Lambert.

An audience survey, via iClicker technology, asked what the best way to provide help to returning veterans is. Forty-three percent voted “public understanding and a welcome home” over choices including job training, family counseling and a cash stipend.

Thomas O’Toole, director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs who has worked with the homeless for almost 20 years and authored more than 50 books and articles on the issue, says it is easy to see the project of combating veteran homelessness as a glass half-empty situation.

Despite an economy that seems to produce more homelessness than jobs, there has been progress, he said. For example, President Barack Obama has made ending veteran homelessness a national priority over the next five years, said panelist Erik Wallin, executive director of Operation Stand Down.

A non-profit, non-government affiliated organization, Operation Stand Down seeks to provide housing to homeless veterans, such as Amy Gladding, another panelist at the forum.

For Gladding, an Arabian linguist and Gulf War veteran, it was clear that her job skills did not easily translate into the business world.

Upon returning home, Gladding became part of the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program, designed to help veteran students avoid out-of-pocket tuition fees, but when she couldn’t pass her computer classes, she was dropped from the program, which had also been funding her housing.

A woman from Operation Stand Down contacted Gladding shortly thereafter.

“After three months of not knowing where I was going to sleep, from renting hotel rooms, to staying on friends’ sofas, to weather permitting, going down to the beach with a sleeping bag, I met with Operation Stand Down,” Gladding recalled, who provided her with an apartment that day.

The final panel, focusing on returning veterans and family issues, included Clarisse DiCandia, Kathy Sullivan and Brian Trapani.
Gladding began volunteering with Operation Stand Down in order to give back.

“I can’t be grateful enough,” she concluded. “I’m back on my feet.”

The second iClicker question asked audience members what the most significant cause of homelessness is, and 46 percent voted “lack of family and social support” over issues including economic problems, PTSD and substance abuse.

The final panel, which discussed the impact of returning veterans on their families, focused on the story of Lt. Col. Kathy Sullivan, married to John Sullivan, who is currently deployed in Afghanistan. Both are C-130 pilots in the Rhode Island National Guard, and have two teenage daughters.

Sullivan is one of approximately 3,000 traditional guardsmen and women in Rhode Island, meaning that her service in the National Guard is a part-time job that has become more intense and demanding since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Being part of a military family is complex in several ways, said Sullivan. When she or her husband are deployed, it’s hard to keep track of all the extra responsibilities.

“Some days it’s just a game of survival, the frustration comes from not being able to do it all,” she said. “It becomes overwhelming, especially if you’re the type of person that has a hard time asking for help.”

Lt. Col. Brian Trapani, director of the military personnel for the Rhode Island National Guard, says it is his responsibility to provide services and support to families.

The Family Assistance Center, which Trapani calls the National Guard’s “center of gravity,” is located on North Main Street in Providence. It has 25 full-time staff, including survivor and outreach consultants, behavior health consultants and suicide intervention officers, all full-time employees.

Whether veterans are having problems with their families, homelessness or mental illness, the panelists made it clear that veterans seek civilian compassion and support.

Karen Bordeleau, deputy executive editor at The Providence Journal and moderator of the forum, recognized the veterans several times, noting the courage and strength it takes to serve the country.

“Those of us who are journalists tell these stories,” said Bordeleau. “Those of you who are veterans, live these stories.”