the fall of 2001, Milwaukee resident Herbert Raasch was a college
student studying criminal justice. Then came Sept. 11, and his life
was forever transformed.
Inspired by the
heroism of police officers and firefighters, he joined the Wisconsin
Army National Guard. In March 2003, three months after Saddam Hussein
was captured, he was deployed to Iraq for 18 months. For some of that
time he lived in one of Husseinís palaces.
you were doing so many things that you didnít really think about it,
but at night you would lie on your cot and have to think Ďwow,í"
Raasch says. "(Hussein) was the reason that we were here and I
was living in his house. I couldnít believe I was an actual part of
Raasch, 34, went
on to earn an Army Commendation Medal for valor and had plans for a
career in the service. When he returned to Milwaukee, though, he
experienced what so many veterans do: the shock of returning to
civilian society. While soldiers are away, society moves forward.
Children get older, neighborhoods change. Memories are made ó and
ways, I feel like Iím still transitioning," Raasch says.
"While you were away, someone had to be in charge and take care
of the kids; you canít just assume the role you used to have right
a Wauwatosa resident who served two tours of duty in Iraq, vividly
remembers how it was difficult to relate to co-workers in his job as
an industrial engineer. "People were so worried about little,
petty things," he says. "I made it 11 months, but then I
realized that I was different from my co-workers and not cut out for
the corporate world."
As the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan continue, a number of serious and heartbreaking
issues have emerged with veterans. In late 2011, the United States
Department of Defenseís American Forces Press Service reported that
from 2005 to 2010 service members took their own lives at a rate of
about one every 36 hours. While only 1 percent of Americans have
served during the two wars, former service members represent about 20
percent of suicides in the United States.
Why is the rate
of suicide so much higher than in previous wars? The increase has been
attributed to a number of factors, including post-traumatic stress
disorder, traumatic brain injury, multiple deployments and economic
there is still a stigma attached to getting help for mental health
issues," says Gina Kangas, the suicide prevention coordinator at
Milwaukee VA Medical Center and a licensed clinical social worker.
"Veterans and soldiers may be perceived as being weak, so may
avoid seeking treatment."
in medical treatment have contributed to higher survivability,"
says Dr. M. Christina Hove, a clinical psychologist who works at the
VA in trauma recovery services. "As a result, a higher proportion
of veterans are returning with complicated physical and psychological
military leaders and the VA have all faced heavy criticism for this
agonizing trend. The Pentagon established a Defensive Suicide
Prevention Office last year and the VA has established a suicide hot
Of course, for
any program to work, veterans or their loved ones have to be willing
to seek help. Breaking down the warrior mentality that serves the
veteran so well in the military is an issue that remains at the
forefront, regardless of the problemís severity. Whether it is
seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder or coming into the VA
for employment help or a general question, the key is understanding it
is OK to ask for help.
resident Reginald Adams speaks from experience. He served in Germany
from 1985 to 1988, but six years later he was homeless and addicted to
drugs. He received help from VA services and now works for the VA as a
medical supply specialist. "A lot of veterans have no clue that
they can come to the VA for just about any issue they have," he
says. "The biggest thing is not being afraid to ask for help. It
doesnít make you less of a man to say I canít do it on my
Darcie Greuel, a
VA nurse who served in Afghanistan and works on the Iraq and
Afghanistan outreach team, says she stresses to veterans that it is OK
to experience issues with the transition to civilian life. In fact, it
is normal. "Veterans are on edge 24-7 in a combat zone. To come
down from that and be a normal person or student can be
difficult," she says.
return, they may appear fine on the outside ó but, on the inside, an
internal war is still raging. "Our veterans have experienced
extraordinarily intense and uncommon situations while they were
deployed," Hove says. "We (need) to try to understand with a
sense of empathy and open-mindedness."
understand better than anyone what itís like to go to war and come
back, group therapy can often be particularly effectively. "There
is (naturally) going to be a clash between living a military life in
combat zone and being effective in the civilian world," says Dr.
Catherine Coppolillo, a clinical psychologist on the Afghanistan and
Iraq outreach team at the VA. "Normalizing what they are going
through is huge. When they can sit in a group and realize ĎIím not
alone with this,í it can be really powerful Ö to facilitate
connections with others who have shared these intense and unique life
This is one of
the hallmarks of Vets Journey Home, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that
offers weekend programs for veterans to talk with other veterans and
civilians about their service ó and begin to heal lingering
emotional wounds. "Our groups are small and each person gets as
much time as they need," says Patricia Clason, co-founder of Vets
There are a
number of other effective programs that provide therapy for veterans.
One that Raasch has enjoyed, in particular, is a guitar class offered
by UW-Milwaukee senior lecturer Bev Belfer in a partnership between
Guitar for Vets and the Peck School of the Arts. Veterans who attend
six classes receive their own guitar, gig bag, tuner and method book.
It is not
uncommon for the students in the class to give the veterans a round of
applause for their service. Belferís brother, Daryl J. Eigen, was
awarded three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam and recently
authored "A Hellish Place of Angels: Con Thien: One Manís
watching the way many of the veterans have an inner peace when
strumming the guitar. "They develop their skills, and playing the
guitar just takes them away from everything else," she says.
"Itís a beautiful thing."
often young and put their education or professional careers on hold to
serve. The Vow to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 provides unemployed veterans
with up to one year of additional benefits to qualify for jobs in
high-demand sectors and provides disabled veterans with additional VA
Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment benefits.
the VA works directly with employers to find and promote jobs for
veterans. One specific program, Compensated Work Therapy, has
contractual partnerships with a number of area employers, including
the VA has a close relationship with a local and innovative property
rehab and management company, Property Vets, which is committed to
hiring military veterans as contractors and laborers. Founder Sue
Loomans hopes to expand the concept to other markets. "I saw
veteran underemployment as a big issue and so is distressed property
and foreclosures," she says. "We try to put these two
problems together with one solution. Vets make great employees and
team members. They have teamwork and camaraderie, and theyíre
dedicated to producing great results."
Carlin went to
the VA looking for help finding part-time work in construction with a
schedule that did not interfere with his classes at UW-Milwaukee.
Property Vets proved to be the perfect fit. "The VA really worked
with me to meet this tough request," he says.
a Sheboygan resident who first joined the military in 1981, also has
been impressed with breath of services and responsiveness of the VA.
He says the VA has improved markedly in recent years. "Everything
still looks the same at the VA, but itís not," says Roelse, a
member of the Wounded Warrior Project. "You can really tell the
difference in the people over the years. I have not had one bad
experience. These are stellar people taking care of you."
In 2010, Roelse
sustained multiple concussions, major body trauma and lost partial
vision in his right eye from three rocket attacks in Afghanistan.
Since then, heís needed four surgeries and has to battle through
constant physical pain. But one would never know Roelse is suffering.
Even when the pain forces him to grimace, Roelse smiles through it.
"Iíve had it better than some and worse than others," he
says. "I just feel fortunate that I was able to come home."
As for Raasch,
even as he goes about his daily business, his service is never far
from his mind. "Every time I see a flag in the air it reminds me
that I was part of something big, something substantial," he
says. "It was an honor to be over there for my country. I served
with such great men and women in the military. I think about it all
for Raasch ó and all veterans ó continues.