When Veterans Come Home
Special To The Jewish Week

Much of the public thinks of a soldier’s return home as a joyous time for the veteran and his or her family, but the reality can be more complicated, said Jacob Remo, the commander of a Jewish War Veterans post near Boston and a member of JWV’s Health Initiatives Committee.

The transition from war to peace is often difficult as roles change within the family, as the soldier returns to work or looks for a new job and as civilian life begins anew, Remo said, adding that all members of the family feel the stress.

It’s to help address just such scenarios that the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, a network of 15 hospitals and other facilities, recently launched the Florence and Robert A. Rosen Family Wellness Center. The center, inaugurated at North Shore-LIJ’s corporate headquarters in Great Neck, L.I., will offer behavioral health treatment at no cost to military veterans, law enforcement officers and their families.

Officials of North Shore-LIJ, an agency of UJA-Federation of New York, describe the program as groundbreaking, providing family-focused services that are available nowhere else. The services will include individual, group and marital counseling; mental health workshops and referrals. The workshops will take place at military and law enforcement installations and within the North Shore-LIJ Health System.

"It’s impossible to describe the tremendous emotional and physical burdens faced by our law enforcement and military personal and their families, on a daily basis," said Rear Admiral Robert Rosen, a North Shore-LIJ trustee who co-founded and partially funded the program. "It’s unfair to ask these people to guard and protect us and then" — once they return — "not to guard and protect them when they need it."

Rosen is the commanding officer of the New York Naval Militia, the sister organization of the National Guard, and the naval aide to the governor. A resident of Rhinebeck, N.Y., he is also a Yeshiva of Flatbush graduate who, he said proudly, speaks fluent Hebrew.

"I’ve always felt, as a Jew, that it’s my responsibility to take care of human life," Rosen said, suggesting that his Judaism has influenced both his career and his charitable work. "It’s part of our culture, a part of our tradition."

That thought was echoed by Rabbi William Kloner, a senior chaplain in the New York Naval Militia, who attended the center’s inaugural event.

The center’s opening, nearly a month before Memorial Day, comes as the Iraq war enters its fifth year and as concern grows over how the conflict has affected its veterans, both physically and mentally.

The war has produced increasing numbers of amputations and traumatic brain injuries, a consequence of both the advances in battlefield medicine, which has saved soldiers who would have died in previous conflicts, and the booby-trap explosions so common in Iraq. Rather than sustaining the simple bullet or fragment wounds more common in past conflicts, many of those injured in Iraq are returning to the States with wounds so severe that they face a lifelong struggle to cope.

In the area of mental health, military researchers estimate that 12 to 20 percent of Iraq war veterans are showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a condition that can emerge weeks, months or years after they have returned. The symptoms include nightmares, high anxiety and emotional numbness. Short of post-traumatic stress, many veterans are experiencing other strains in their lives — a problem now being exacerbated by longer and more frequent deployments, experts say.

Any type of deployment can be stressful, even if it’s outside of a war zone, said Rabbi Harold Robinson, director of the Jewish Chaplains Council, part of the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America. The deployment can be traumatic "if my daughter had a bat mitzvah and I wasn’t there or if my wife had a biopsy and I wasn’t there."

"A good 30 percent of the soldiers from Iraq are bringing back some kind of emotional problems, many of which can be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress," said Remo, who, in addition to his involvement with JWV, is a social worker with the Veterans Administration.

Remo, whose job involves treating soldiers with PTSD, explained that people respond to trauma in different ways, some less severely, some more severely, "but everyone is impacted in some way."

While there are no figures on how many local veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress, a spokeswoman at North Shore-LIJ said 4,000 soldiers from New York State have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since those conflicts began — all potential clients of the Rosen Center. New York City has 350,000 veterans, Long Island has 200,000 veterans, and the area has close to 400,000 law-enforcement personnel, she added.

Dr. Sandra Kaplan, the Long Island psychiatrist who directs the center, said the program has served about 200 people in the past few weeks, mostly through educational workshops on local bases in the area. The workshops have focused on such issues as the impact of deployment on military families and the stress involved in reunification, as well as stress management.

The center plans to work closely with the Veterans Administration, whose services to the children, spouses and parents of veterans are limited, Kaplan said.

Robinson welcomed news of the center’s creation, saying that soldiers exposed to trauma are better served by talking to professionals "who understand their world." He estimated that between 600 and 700 Jewish veterans have served in Iraq, which he referred to as Operation Iraqi Freedom, its official name.

The center is also likely to be listed with JWV’s Health Initiatives Committee, which works to inform the organization’s members of resources in the community and, if needed, to help them access those resources, Remo said.

Rosen, meanwhile, said his greatest hope is that the center "becomes an example to others to step forward" and offer similar help.