Turning grief into action
June 26, 2008
Sergeant 1st Class Vince Jacques dangled upside down with his legs trapped under the dashboard of the Humvee in which he'd been riding. The vehicle was a mangled mess after running over an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
Jacques' gunner, Pfc. Ben Ring, was seriously wounded. His driver, Pfc. Kenny Leisten, was dead.
But on that fateful day, July 28, 2004, despite his own injuries, Jacques had only one thing on his mind, his Soldiers, "his boys," he said.
Jacques survived the blast, but his injuries prevented him from returning to Iraq with his unit, the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry.
"Knowing they were over there, and I wasn't, was really hard," said Jacques.
Back home in Oregon, Col. Scott McCrae (Ret.) was also struggling. His son, 1st Lt. Erik McCrae, also a member of the 2nd Bn., 162nd Inf., had died in Iraq only weeks before in an IED attack that resulted in the largest loss of life the Oregon National Guard had experienced in a single day since World War II.
"He was the kind of person you would have loved to have as a son," said his father.
In eastern Oregon, another National Guard Soldier from McCrae's battalion was also coping with loss. Sgt. Luke Wilson had lost his leg to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq. After getting out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Wilson said he felt as though his life had no meaning.
"I pretty much hid in my garage for the first two or three months after I got home, working on my jeep," he said. There was no place out there looking to hire a one-legged man to kick in doors and pull triggers."
A mission emerged out of the depths of despair. By joining the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team these men came together to ensure that all of Oregon's servicemembers would be taken care of upon their return from war.
Oregon Guard officials recognize that nearly 37 percent of the state's returning veterans are under- or unemployed, and 90 percent want college education and job training for their families. The ORNG Reintegration Team works with federal, state, local and civilian agencies, and refers servicemembers to resources where they can receive assistance with any need they may have.
"We are a highly networked 'help desk,' acting as 'traffic cops' to direct Soldiers and Airmen to the right place," said McCrae. Among those places is the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs, where veterans' service officers can help them apply for benefits.
"I'm very impressed with the character and commitment of the Soldiers working for the Oregon Guard Reintegration Team," said Jim Willis, director of the ODVA. "By working together, we can make a difference in the lives of our veterans and their families on a daily basis.
Jacques said he wants to reach those who might otherwise slip through the cracks.
"I want to talk to the 'Joes,' down to the lowest private," said Jacques. "When I was in Iraq, the guys were the best I'd ever seen. We know they can handle a lot of responsibility. We also need to provide them with the tools they need to be successful here at home," said Jacques.
Jobs, counseling and education are among the tools the ORNG Reintegration Team helps put into the hands of returning veterans. Formed in February 2005, the team organizes military job and benefit fairs, makes daily phone calls, and is committed to never saying no to someone who needs help, Jacques said.
"We have never turned anyone away," said Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Maas, who leads the ORNG's Career Transition Assistance Program, an integral part of the ORNG Reintegration Team, located in Salem, Ore. Team, located in Salem, Ore.
Nine states are currently involved in reintegration issues for returning servicemembers. Oregon is the only state that combines its reintegration efforts with the Jobs Program and the Career Transition Assistance Program.
McCrae said he keeps his focus on McCrae said he keeps his focus on helping veterans get back to a normal, healthy life.
"We want to fix physical problems, mental-health problems, family problems, and financial issues, so wounded Soldiers can be productive members of the community and stable, well-adjusted members of their units," he said.
For Soldiers like Spc. Patrick Silva, help meant a referral to be treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Army statistics indicate the condition affects up to one in five soldiers returning from Iraq.
"It's nice that the Army is finally recognizing that PTSD is not something you can just get over, overnight," Silva said.
When a servicemember calls the ORNG Reintegration Team someone always answers the phone - the call center is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"The phone calls don't always come between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.; some of them come at 1 a.m., with someone at the other end saying, 'Here is where I am and here is what is happening to me.' And we have to respond," said Maas.
Maas said servicemembers can connect with the ORNG Reintegration Team in a way they may not be able to connect to other organizations, because they'll be talking to someone who knows what the Soldier is going through.
"We had a situation in Portland, a stand-off with one of our servicemembers. The police could not seem to get through to him. But Jacques, with the help of local law- enforcement officials, walked up to the guy and said, 'hand me that weapon, you and I are going to leave here together, and we're going to get you some help.' And that's what happened," said Maas.
"The individual came into the office the other day, and he's cleaned up and back on his feet," added Maas.
First Sgt. Ray Lewallen (Ret.), NCOIC of the ORNG Reintegration Team and a Vietnam veteran, drove four hours in the middle of the night to resolve another police stand-off involving a different Soldier.
"The guys on the team have personally intervened in 15 suicide attempts," said McCrae. "If we can prevent one Soldier from taking his life, that's a great deal. You can't put a price on that."
McCrae said he believes suicide is not a sudden decision, but a desperate act that occurs when many aspects of a person's life fall apart.
"Our goal is to break that chain somewhere along the cycle and not allow it to get to the point where someone is hopeless, debilitated and dysfunctional," he said.
A steady job, said Maas, can make a huge difference in the quality of life a Soldier and his family can enjoy.
Nearly three years since its implementation, the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team continues to evolve. Each member has a story and purpose, their resolve forged from the fires of battle in Iraq.
"I love my job," said Wilson. "Every day I get up and help veterans and Soldiers."
For Wilson, Jacques and McCrae, who lost limbs or loved ones in Iraq, the Reintegration Team not only provides a chance to help, it's also a chance to heal.
"Working for the Reintegration team has been a form of therapy for me," said Wilson. "It has helped me a lot."