Taking care of officer veterans

Corrections managers must make every effort to take care of our citizen soldiers returning from the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq

By Cherrie Greco

Correctional professionals are devoted to their homeland. They demonstrate loyalty by placing themselves in harm’s way every day, behind locked doors, high walls, and razor wire. They willingly support the mission of the organizations they serve by managing an anti-social, defiant population.

Some of these corrections staff are part of an even larger defense community. As citizen soldiers in the United States military, they are dedicated to maintaining readiness for the day when they are voluntarily deployed to foreign lands. Eventually, they will come back to their careers, and few civilian work supervisors are prepared to recognize the emotional toll of combat trauma in these employees after they return from battle.

According to the Department of Defense, more than 2 million U.S. troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since the tragedy of September 11. One in five returning warriors experiences some form of post traumatic stress syndrome. Of that number, only half are known to actually ask for help.

Correctional agencies, like thousands of other employers, are experiencing the return of their own deployed personnel. They must acknowledge the need to assist these men and women as they transition back to the correctional work environment, a setting known for its own unique type of stress and anxiety, whose effects can play out in a variety of ways. Exchanging one uniform for another, setting a new work schedule, and throwing an honorary pot luck are not enough.

While the Department of Veterans Affairs is stepping up efforts to assist with the behavioral health care needs of soldiers returning to civilian life, prison and jail administrators should ensure organization-sponsored services are made available in a convenient and inviting way, without any of the stigmas typically attached to mental health care.

Human resource departments can help by making mental-health referrals without delay, while protecting officers’ confidentiality.

HR departments should also reach out to the spouses of those who work in corrections, who may themselves experience stress associated with the long-term absence and return of their partners, and who can benefit from individual or group support.

Returning personnel may come back to facilities they no longer recognize. Severe budget cuts have touched all operational areas, facilities are being closed, and different approaches to offender management are being utilized. There may be a climate of uneasiness among staff facing unpaid furlough days and other issues related to career security.

Retraining is key for these returning military personnel, not only to refresh and update correctional knowledge, skills and abilities, but also to give them time to readjust during the transition process.
Military personnel are a good career fit for the corrections environment. They are disciplined, they understand and respect chain of command, they dress professionally, and they are mission-driven and flourish in an environment where esprit de corps keeps everyone motivated toward excellence. The behavioral healthcare needs of these personnel should not be overlooked. There is value in reinvesting in our returning soldiers, and systems benefit from the commitment and allegiance they bring home.

Transition Assistance Program (www.taonline.com); VetSuccess Program (www.vetsuccess.gov); Hire a hero (www.hireahero.org); Helmets to Hardhats (www.helmetstohardhats.com)

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