WASHINGTON – A unit of more than 3,100 National Guard members, most of them from Oregon, had escorted at least 6,000 convoys through Iraq during a yearlong deployment, sustaining 12 improvised explosive device attacks.
But when they came home in the spring of 2010, the Army unceremoniously rushed them through the demobilization process at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to make room for full-time troops, according to documents and interviews. Those who complained were told to “suck it up” and threatened with disciplinary action.
Outraged, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) demanded an investigation. The Army had systematically overturned medical decisions by doctors to push the guardsmen through quickly, improperly forcing their release from active-duty status without medical care entitled to them by law, he told Army brass in a letter.
Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army‘s surgeon general, sent a letter of apology in response, and Wyden’s campaign led to a series of reforms in the post-deployment procedure. The demobilization process was lengthened from five to 14 days to ensure adequate examination and care. Also, guard members can no longer be discharged without their commanding officer’s approval, for the first time guaranteeing them an advocate in the process, a Wyden staff member said.
After visiting Fort Lewis, Wyden and his staff said that reforms had been made. This list, in a staff report, shows some of the changes that have been made by the Army to address Wyden's concerns.
But Wyden said the treatment of the guard at Joint Base Lewis-McChord was emblematic of a bigger problem – a fundamental disparity in post-deployment treatment and support provided to the active-duty military and that given to the military’s reserve component.
“Active-duty and guard folks are serving in the same foxhole,” Wyden said. “If you’re serving in the same foxhole, you ought to be able to come back to the same sort of benefits.”
In 2009, Wyden had introduced “Soft Landing” legislation that he said would ease the transition of reserve component troops, giving them and their families more time – and more resources – on their way home so they wouldn’t be so suddenly thrust back into civilian life after long combat tours.
Such reforms are needed, Wyden said, “because the period when somebody might be holding a gun in Afghanistan and fighting the enemy and holding their child in Coos Bay, Oregon, is just too abrupt.”
Over the past decade, many guard and reserve members have suffered from debilitating stress, PTSD and other mental health problems. A 2007 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 42 percent of reserves returned from overseas deployments with self-reported psychological health concerns, double the active-duty rate.
Wyden, however, has had trouble finding a co-sponsor for his legislation. Even after whittling down his proposal in late November to merely require the Pentagon to study his proposal, he couldn’t find enough support to add it to the Senate’s defense authorization bill, which passed Dec. 1.
The National Guard Association of the United States has lobbied for the past decade to get Congress to address the unique challenges faced by reserve component troops, especially upon their return from Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Congress has been tardy since day one,” said Pete Duffy, the association’s deputy legislative director. “They have fought us tooth and nail.”
In another recent attempt to provide reservists improved care, Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced legislation to require that mental health professionals be embedded at drill weekends for reserve components. An amendment was included in the House-approved version of the defense authorization bill, but Murray was unable to add it to the Senate defense bill.
“The realization in Washington of the problem has been slow in coming,” said Murray spokesman Matt McAlvanah. “There has been a lag in addressing the National Guard’s need for care equitable to that of those serving in active duty.”
Murray’s measure is intended to help mental health counselors build trust with reservists who often don’t seek care on their own. The process would also avoid placing additional travel burdens for reserve component members, who often live far from mental health professionals and military instillations.
“That would be revolutionary if that was actually adopted, because it would be the first instance the Department of Defense would be required to provide mental health care, or any medical care, except for service-connected injuries, during these dwell periods (between deployments),” Duffy said.
TriWest, a military-contracted health care network, paid for a similar program for the California and Montana National Guards, said Reserve Officers Association legislative director Capt. Marshall Hanson.
Murray’s proposal to take the program nationwide met significant resistance from the Pentagon, according to Duffy and McAlvanah. Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said the Pentagon’s policy is not to comment on pending legislation. But a Defense Department position paper said that the program was unnecessary and would be difficult to staff given the nationwide shortage of mental health professionals.
Support for the reserve component has risen somewhat in Congress. Last fall the 84-member Senate National Guard Caucus and its co-chairs, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), pushed through the Senate a provision that would add the commander of the National Guard Bureau to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, despite the joint chiefs’ opposition.
Also, the 2010 defense authorization act included a requirement for all soldiers to receive one pre-deployment and three post deployment one-on-one mental health assessments with a professional. But that hasn’t happened yet for the Army National Guard and Reserves due to logistical problems, according to a Defense Department report.
Two years earlier, Congress made the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, begun in Minnesota, a federally funded requirement for the guard nationwide. The program, widely regarded as important and effective, has provided soldiers with a support network, counseling services and mental health referrals. But enforcing attendance among far-flung troops resistant to seeking help has proven to be difficult.
Wyden’s “Soft Landing” bill originally would have allowed National Guard and reserve soldiers to remain on active duty while receiving pay, family counseling and mental health care for 90 days after returning from deployment. After concerns about the expense, Wyden shortened it to 45 days in 2010.
Wyden said he will continue to push for improved services for the guard and reserves. Although state innovation should continue to be encouraged, he said, more federal leadership is needed.
“I’m not going to rest until we see that the kind of improvements that we’re starting to see in our part of the country,” he said. “That situation up at Fort Lewis was a real wakeup call and they made some significant changes.”