The Returning Military Veteran
Is Your Organization Ready?
By Jeff Hink
A young, highly regarded officer and decorated veteran returns home from deployment overseas, excited to rejoin family members at home and serve again with fellow officers. He could hardly wait to rekindle relationships and get back to the community he loved. However, upon his return, other employees seemed uneasy around him, unsure if he had changed. The agency never had sent one if its own off to war. Unfortunately, the officer’s transition back to life at home did not go as smoothly as he had hoped.
Many law enforcement officers nobly serve their country not only at home but also abroad. As they come back from combat, their agencies will have challenges to address. To this end, these departments must adequately prepare for the eventual return of reservist personnel from deployment and have reacclimation measures in place that will benefit the employees, their families, fellow officers, and the community. An effective plan can help accomplish this goal.
As of November 2008, more than 120,000 members of the National Guard and military reserves have been activated as part of recent war efforts.1 Public safety professionals represent roughly 10 percent of these reservists.2 Not only have deployments involved a higher proportion of the armed forces but they have lasted longer; further, soldiers commonly are redeployed and have infrequent breaks between deployments.3
At the same time, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen historically lower casualty rates of the killed or wounded than in earlier prolonged wars, such as those in Vietnam and Korea.4 However, a different type of casualty has begun to emerge—invisible wounds, such as mental health issues and cognitive impairments resulting from deployment experiences.
Upward of 35 percent of returning troops may experience mental health issues, such as major depression and generalized anxiety, and seek help for such problems through military programs.5 Common factors leading to increased psychological stress in soldiers include encountering roadside bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and suicide bombers;6 handling human remains; killing an enemy; seeing fellow soldiers and friends dead or injured; and experiencing helplessness (e.g., an inability to stop violent situations).7 Unlike physical wounds of war, these conditions—although they affect mood, thoughts, and behavior—usually remain invisible to other service personnel, family members, and society in general; they often go unrecognized and unacknowledged.8 Further, more than 26 percent of troops who have served in combat may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety condition that can develop after direct or indirect exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which someone inflicted or threatened grave bodily harm.
In 2006, 99 Army soldiers committed suicide, the highest rate in 26 years.9 Key factors, such as failed relationships, legal and financial trouble, and job stress, motivated the victims to end their lives. Research conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that more than one-half of the veterans who committed suicide after returning home from the war consisted of National Guard or reserve members. One member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs said, “I know members of our Guard and Reserves oftentimes don’t think of themselves as veterans, they see themselves as going back to their same jobs; they sort of disassociate themselves with the VA system.”10
Within the next five years, service members and reservists who have helped defend their country against terrorism abroad will complete their tours of duty and return home to their communities, families, and jobs. Because a segment of these individuals may experience mental health issues, such as PTSD, they could find it difficult to assimilate back into society. In addition, a portion possibly may come to the attention of law enforcement because of domestic violence or other criminal activity, homelessness, or substance abuse.
Law enforcement executives must prepare for the eventual return of deployed personnel back to the communities they serve. Proper preparation will equip the agency with the tools and resources necessary to ensure that these veterans are welcomed and reacclimated to their agency with open arms and that other personnel know what to expect during the transition period. Fortunately, programs and services exist at some agencies that can serve as models.
Each of the highlighted examples has proven successful for the organizations that have created them. The size of the agency and the number of personnel deployed should dictate the appropriate reservist reacclimation program. Law enforcement executives should realize the role such programs will have in maintaining healthy agencies.
“Proper preparation will equip the agency with the tools and resources necessary to ensure that these veterans are welcomed and reacclimated...”
Military Liaison Program
Created in 2003, the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Military Liaison Program (MLP) strives to offer a central point of contact to handle the many concerns and inquiries from deployed officers’ families. The MLP has evolved to include assisting personnel before, during, and after their military leave with any of their needs, including benefits, promotions, and transfers. The department also has instituted a reintegration program to provide returning personnel retraining, physical and mental health assessments, and background checks.11 About 500 of LAPD’s 9,500 officers have been deployed to the war effort and have engaged the MLP since its inception. “The goal of the program is to ensure the veteran remains part of the LAPD family during their deployment and to look out for their mental health.”12 Two full-time military liaison officers (MLO) staff the program at a cost, including salaries, benefits, and other overhead, of about $300,000 per year.13
Military Activation Committee
In 2001, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) implemented a Military Activation Committee (MAC) to address the needs of reservists called to active duty.14 Since 2002, the agency has seen about 500 of its 10,000 sworn personnel deployed.
The four-day reintegration program developed by the MAC includes a welcome from the unit commander, updates on department policy and procedure, a meeting with a department psychologist, firearms qualification, and a tactical refresher course.15 Each unit within the LASD staffs one of the department’s 80 MLOs who assist their unit commander, troubleshoot issues, and provide advice and counseling to returning veterans. The LASD also has established a “Vets for Vets” peer support program to provide long-term mentorship, guidance, and assistance. “If you are paying attention to the veterans and communicating, you stand a better chance of achieving success.”16 “Training and dialogue are key attributes of the program so that other department personnel don’t think that the returning veterans have been off on a paid vacation.”17
The Santa Monica Experience
For small and moderate-size agencies, other alternatives exist. For instance, the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) has had six of its 200 officers deployed since the beginning of the Gulf War in 2001. The agency created an informal program to address returning veterans. According to the SMPD deputy chief of police, these employees generally have a celebrity-like status with coworkers during the first few days of their return to work,18 which has helped ease their transition process.19 The deputy chief would like to see the program become formalized in the future: “It should become transparent and move beyond our current administration. Some veterans may need more or less time to reacclimate. Formalizing the program will allow that to occur.”20 SMPD’s seven- to 10-day reacclimation period includes a welcome-home meeting between the returning officer and members of the command staff, a department orientation, a technology update, and the opportunity for the employee to temporarily work with a partner officer. Employees typically are back on their own within one month of their return to the agency. “We have been able to completely submerge our returning employees back into the police culture without any negative repercussions.”
One SMPD officer who also serves as a U.S. Marine Corps major is preparing for his third military deployment to Iraq since his hire. He noted that returning veterans being well received by their agency has an immense value and helps underscore officers’ belief that their military service is morally right. The support and friendly atmosphere the SMPD offered him upon his return from two previous deployments definitely aided his transition process.21
Law enforcement organizations, especially those that may hire or currently employ military reservists, should consider a formalized plan to provide veterans and their families the assistance and support they need and to facilitate the smooth transition of the employee to and from the department. Such a program also can help personnel better understand the situation. Further, it could open lines of communication between the agency and representatives from the various branches of the military. Four important attributes of this plan are:
- the creation of an MLO position within the organization;
- the provision of education to department personnel about the pre- and post-deployment process;
- outreach to deployed employees and their families; and
- the implementation of a standardized reacclimation process for returning personnel.
The LAPD and the LASD have achieved enormous success in developing and implementing the MLO position in their agencies. This greatly helps these departments to maintain awareness of and keep close contact with deployed personnel. The size of the organization and the number of personnel experiencing military deployments can determine if the position is a full-time or ancillary role. Smaller agencies may consider employing a civilian in a full- or part-time capacity, depending on the needs of the organization and its budgetary constraints.
Departments should choose a rational, mature, highly respected individual to fill this position—ideally, a veteran familiar with military protocol and procedure. The MLO will facilitate communication between the deployed employee and the organization. The person will assist, counsel, and mentor the reservist before, during, and after deployment. The MLO also may function as the liaison between the agency and representatives from the various branches of the armed forces.
“Law enforcement organizations... should... provide veterans and their family the assistance and support they need...”
Educating department personnel about what they should expect before, during, and after deployment and about PTSD will reduce misconceptions and give employees a broad understanding of agency protocols; the issue of PTSD in the military; and how the condition affects veterans, friends, and family members. The training should introduce department members to the warning signs of PTSD and the available treatment options and also reduce the possibility that employees will fear or avoid returning veterans.
Organizations can reach out in a number of ways. For example, agencies should consider providing time for their reservists to prepare for military activation.22 A department-sponsored celebration just prior to employees’ departure can help reassure them that the agency looks forward to their return to work. During the deployment, designated members of the department, such as the MLO, should maintain close contact with the deployed veterans’ family members to identify needs that the agency can assist with. Through traditional mail and more modern means, the department can maintain communication with the deployed officers to, for instance, provide agency news and updates. Another department-sponsored celebration upon the employees’ return to work will highlight their value and importance to the organization. According to one officer, the environment veterans return to plays an important part in how they will view their military service in the future, as well as their psychological ability to readjust to the workplace.23
Most important, agencies must develop and implement a reacclimation program. Because more than one in four returning veterans will experience PTSD or other mental health issues, a portion of returning law enforcement veterans may fall into this category. The overall purpose of the reacclimation process is to provide a transparent procedure and clear expectations to veterans as to what will occur when they return to work.
The LASD’s four-day reintegration plan represents an excellent example of what agencies can do to ensure that returning reservists receive the essential information and training necessary to equip them for their return to duty and to limit agency liability. The program provides the opportunity for employees to consult with the personnel department regarding payroll and benefit needs; review department policies and procedures, including updates that may have occurred during their absence; participate in firearms qualification exercises; obtain tactical training; and become reacquainted with the unit commander and assigned MLO. Further, as a key component of the LASD’s reintegration plan, veterans consult a department psychologist, not as a fitness-for-duty examination, but to provide an opportunity for employees to learn about mental health services available to them and their families and to inform them of some of the common reactions they may experience in the coming months.
Returning law enforcement veterans have served the nation honorably and heroicly. Their agencies should proactively take care of their needs on a consistent basis before and during their deployment and upon their return to their families and their departments. Agencies should ensure they have appropriate support in place to make military service all it can be for the veteran and the department. Doing so will improve the health and welfare of the law enforcement organization and will better prepare the agency for instances that call for U.S. military action.