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Coping when coming home

Program helps women vets deal with unique problems


by: CLIFF NEWELL - Making a common cause with the Returning Veterans Project are, from the left, Sarah Smith, Belle Landau and Erin Danielson.American military servicemen and servicewomen have but one life they can give for their country. And coming home is often only the beginning of their problems.

The stunningly high suicide rate is only the best known of the tragedies encountered by soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is also homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, prison, divorce, terrible injuries suffered in combat, post traumatic stress disorder and more. Their reward for giving so much has been, in too many cases, much suffering.

In the case of returning American servicewomen there is even more. Women now make up 15 percent of American military personnel, but change reflecting that new numerical reality is coming very slowly to the military culture. In Oregon, the Returning Veterans Project is a seven-year-old nonprofit organization that is offering free confidential counseling and health care services to veterans, and female vets should not hesitate to contact RVP.

“Only 30 percent of women veterans go to our national health care system for military people,” said Belle Landau, executive director for RVP. “It’s pretty rigged against them. A lot stay away. The problem of sexual assault is very big, and women service people suffer post traumatic stress disorder more from sexual assault than from combat. That leads to more alcoholism, substance abuse, and more divorce and homelessness.

“Veterans come back and find everything and everyone is different. They call the Veterans Administration but it’s 12 months before they hear from them. That is why the RVP is filling a big gap.”

“This is our turn to give back,” said Sarah Smith, RVP development coordinator. “We send some of our best and brightest from the ages of 18 to 24 to fight our wars. Our care providers respect that and they want to help. We served 230 veterans last year and 50 of them were women.”

Confidentiality is a key element in RVP’s treatment of returning vets, but it greatly helps RVP when a veteran steps forward with the boldness to talk about the need for care.

That is why Landau and Smith appreciate Erin Danielson so much.

A native of West Linn, Danielson served as a Marine Corps sergeant in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and she has recently been urging veterans to seek out RVP. Daniel has been largely successful in keeping her body and soul together, but she has faced difficulties that would daunt even a U.S. Marine.

“It was a great experience,” Danielson said of her service. “I would do it all over again.”

But now she is being candid about the “more difficult aspects” of her experience as a woman in the U.S. military.

“The Marine Corps is 7 percent female,” Danielson said. “We had a female commanding officer and she was fantastic, but her duties became limited. Her capacity was reduced. Women’s leadership in the Marines was undermined and limited.”

Danielson herself was adversely affected by this environment, and it was because of her friendship with a male Marine.

“He desperately wanted to go home due to family trouble,” Danielson said. “He was very worked up and he couldn’t focus on his work, but they refused his request. He became more desperate. He told the commanding officer, ‘The longer I stay here the greater risk I am to myself.’ What they did to him was terrible. They were trying to make everyone hostile toward him. They didn’t take his condition seriously. He had to stay in the Combat Operations Center for a month.”

Danielson was ordered to take away her friend’s weapon. But her sympathetic attitude toward him did not go over well with the officers at her base, and they took disciplinary action against her.

“I was given office hours,” Danielson said. “It was an off-the-books way to reprimand me. The chain of command was so messed up at this point. There was no one you could trust.”

Danielson has no regrets about her decision to not re-enlist with the Marines, but her return to Oregon was indeed traumatic. Everyone had changed, especially herself.

“When I came home my friends had dispersed to the winds,” she said. “I had to go back to my job and to a relationship that caused me huge problems. I was hyper-vigilant when I came back. I was always on guard. He said, ‘She’s just crazy.’ I felt sort of lost. No one asked me about what I had gone through. They just expected me to talk about it.”

Danielson lined up some couples therapy, but her boyfriend came to exactly one session.

Yet in this time of discouragement and loneliness, Danielson also found hope. She was able to obtain excellent counseling, and she was even able to find help right in her own home. Her mother is a good friend of Smith, and in October a successful RVP fundraiser was held in her family’s home. Danielson and several other veterans spoke at the event, and she is now an enthusiastic supporter of the group.

“I really believe in the project,” Danielson said. “I am so grateful for the help I’ve gotten. It is so wonderful that RVP is growing.”

The main thing the Returning Veterans Project asks of veterans is that they not be afraid to seek mental, physical or spiritual help. The organization offers the services of 142 health care providers, and several of them are based in West Linn.

Coming home can be like being trapped in a tunnel for military veterans. But Landau wants them to know there can be light at the end of it.

“You can heal and that is a really cool thing,” she said. “You can hold down a job. You can have a relationship.”

RVP is now on a fundraising drive with the goal of raising $42,000 by Dec. 31. The public is urged to help by donating to the Wall of Honor at http://returningveterans.org/.



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