Adjusting to home

Heather Mangan

Heather Mangan

July 4, 2004, changed James A. Gregg’s life forever.

Gregg, 23, was in the pursuit of a woman, but her eyes were on another, Jerrod Fallis. According to a source cited by the Associated Press, Gregg jealousy spun his tires to kick gravel that hit the beloved Grand Am of Jerrod’s brother, James Fallis.

James responded by punching Gregg in the face. Gregg left, but come back sometime later – but not empty handed. In an act Gregg testified as defense, he shot James five times as the victim was running away. The Harrold resident then got into his car and drove to a remote area a long the Missouri River. When authorities found him, he turned the gun on himself. The authorities wrestled the gun away from him and six months later, Gregg was charged with second-degree murder.

The shooting occurred on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, where such acts aren’t uncommon. But this shooting was much different because Gregg had returned from active duty in Iraq four months earlier.

Although it’s not his reason for the murder of James, Gregg, a member of the 200th National Guard Engineer Company out of Pierre, says his duty in Iraq is what prompted him to attempt suicide. How Gregg’s deployment really affected him is yet to be seen, but it raises many questions on what precautions loved ones need to take when their soldier comes home.

The Facts

The U.S. military is more concerned with mental health than ever before, says Debra Johnson, a counselor for Student Health and Counseling Services. She says that previous wars and the damage caused by them has encouraged the military to take mental health seriously.

Soldiers returning from deployment have been in harsh conditions, says Johnson, and have seen things most civilians can’t understand.

“The trauma that occurred in their deployment will impact their adjustment to home,” she says.

Those traumas can cause serious mental health issues. Many factors contribute to a soldier’s mental health, such as the homecoming environment, history of depression or mental health issues, history of traumas before the war, loss of a friend or unit member, the level of danger to their own life and the extent to which they witnessed death and destruction.

“It also has to do with the coping skills that person has developed,” Johnson says.

These factors can cause depression, anxiety, alcohol and chemical abuse and an increased risk for suicide. Johnson says soldiers are also very vulnerable to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to, PTSD is defined as development of characteristics symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stress that may invovle actual, threaten or witnessed death or serious injury to one’s self, another person, a family member or another close associate.

Some mental health problems arise in soldiers three to six months after deployment, Johnson says. Problems could also arise much later, like two years after returning home.

Johnson says that 70 percent of all soldiers returning home from active duty will deal with some type of traumatic stress and 20 percent will evolve in to PTSD. Current research shows that 15 to 16 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq develop PTSD while 10 percent of soldiers returning from Afghanistan develop the mental health condition. However, only 20 percent of those get help.

What Loved Ones Can Do

When welcoming soldiers home, it is important to let them adjust to life at their own pace.

“They are not in the military every day and that takes some getting used to,” says John Holter, an adjunct professor of military science.

Johnson says to be careful not to overwhelm soldiers by bombarding them with questions or visits from friends and family. Some soliders may want to throw themselves into their work while others will want to just withdraw themselves, but Johnson says there should be a balance.

She says creating a welcoming environment can help ease the adjustment. She also says not to expect the soldiers to pick up right where they left off. Let them ease back into their lives and their roles as parents, spouses and students.

It’s okay to talk to soldiers about their experience, but be careful how you do so, she says.

“I would ask them about their experience, again, not bombarding them with questions,” Johnson says.

Loved ones should pay attention to certain warning signs in their soldiers. Signs to watch out are for changes in eating and sleeping patterns, mood shifts and increased irritability, lack of sleep, nightmares, lack of motivation and changes in relationships.

“The most important thing is that soldiers need to know the symptoms of stress,” she says.

She also says to pay attention to the alcohol and drug habits of returning soldiers. She says it is very easy for them to turn to chemicals to deal with their emotions.

“It’s an easy and somewhat acceptable way in our society,” Johnson says.

Maintaining relationships can be difficult because the solider has been away for so long and so much has happened in that time.

“It’s a life-changing experience and both people need to recognize that,” Johnson says.

Communication is the key to preserving relationships.

“Always with relationships, communication is important,” Johnson says.

Unfortunately, some relationships will not last, she says; it’s just a part of war.

Sophomore nursing major Laura Sapp says that the deployment of her older brother Jeff actually strengthened their relationship.

“We used to get fight a lot, but (now) we get along well,” she says.

However, some of Jeff’s other relationships deteriorated, such as ones with friends from college, Sapp says. She says his brother matured during his deployment and grew away those friends.

Johnson says to be leery about trying to help soldiers too much.

“You don’t need to take on their problems because you have your own,” she says.

What Soldiers Can Do

Although the soldier was the one in active duty, the loved ones have also had difficulties during deployment. Johnson says soldiers need to understand that a lot has happened while they were gone.

“Those left behind have gone through their special trauma as well, and that needs to be recognized,” she says.

They need to remember that their spouses have been in charge for a while and have been accustomed to the routine, so it won’t be easy to jump back into their duties right away. The soldier should talk to their spouse and ease into his or her former duties.

For soldiers who have children, Johnson says to watch the language. If a spouse had told the children “Daddy is at work” when the solider was deployed, children may assume that “Daddy is going to work” means their father will gone for a long period of time.

She also says it’s better to explain to the children what happened a few years later than right away when the solider gets home. She says children can “respond in a positive matter after time and further explanation.”

Joanne Berg, a member of the 200th Engineer Company out of Pierre who returned home last March, says the hardest part of coming home “was getting back into the swing of things and not worry about what you have to do and what you want to do.”

For her, it was nice to for a month and then get back to work. She says it’s easier when you go to a job that you enjoy and makes you excited to go to work.

It was hard for Berg to rebuild relationships, because she wanted to pull away. She says that now she has worked with her family and friends and has reestablished those relationships.

Berg says that returning soldiers shouldn’t set high expectations when they return.

“Keep an open mind and don’t have a lot of high expectation. You can’t expect to jump right in,” she says. “We came home thinking everything is going to be normal, but it’s not.”

Where to Get Help

It can be difficult to tell soldiers to get help, if they don’t believe they need help. The best way to encourage someone to seek professional help is by talking to them.

“If you talk to them about it, approach them in a way that is non-confrontational,” Johnson says.

Loved ones should gradually bring up the subject without being overbearing or demanding. Timing is also crucial.

“Get them at a time when you think they are going give the most honest answers,” Johnson says.

She also says it might also help to offer to go along with them.

But it’s important remember that not all soldiers are going to have problems.

“Please know that now everybody that comes home will need to go talk to a professional,” Johnson says.

There are several places soldiers can get help, if they decided to do so. Holter says that National Guard provides services like counseling and ministry to soldiers and their loved ones. He says the military can help people find help if they are looking for it. Soldiers can also visit the veteran’s clinic. SDSU’s Student Health and Counseling Services can help soldiers and their loved ones or point them in a direction of someone who can.

But soldiers don’t need necessarily need professional help to overcome the stress of war. They can lean on their friends and family, as well as other soldiers and veterans. Holter says soldiers become each other’s family, so it is natural that they look to each other for help when they are home.

“You build some really strong friendships and enduring relationships,” he says.

However, that bond can be harmful, Johnson says.

“With (National Guard) units, when they go back for their monthly drills, it would be a possible trigger for emotions,” she says.

Dealing with someone who has recently returned from active duty can be frustrating and difficult. But it’s important to take action when a problem arises before it gets out of hand and is too late. Remember, that not all soldiers are going to have problems, but some will, and it will be easier to deal with those problems if they are taken care of in an appropriate and timely matter.

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