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Jeff Roberts of Bemidji, with two sons in the Minnesota Army National Guard, said community support was great while local members were deployed, but the veterans still need that support to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. He spoke Tuesday night at a Beltralmi County Republican-sponsored event in honor of Veterans Day. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Remembering vets after they return home

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

The Bemidji community's support of its National Guard members serving an extended 16-month tour in Iraq was great, says Jeff Roberts, father of two sons who served.

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But that support soon left after the soldiers returned to their lives and families -- a time when it's needed most, he said.

Roberts presented a family perspective Tuesday night at a Beltrami County Republican-sponsored observance of Veterans Day, which is today.

"It truly amazing how many people were involved in soldier and family activities in this community," Roberts said Tuesday night. "Our soldiers felt a unity of strength and purpose holding them up."

There seemed to be more support because they were National Guard -- "home-town, home-grown" citizen soldiers who held jobs in the community -- rather than regular Army stationed elsewhere, he said.

"In our community, the people went out of their way to support these deployments, money was raised, packages were sent and support was evident everywhere," Roberts said. "But once the troops returned, this feel-good effort was pretty much over."

At that point, "soldiers were pretty much left to sink or swim on their own, not ever really adjusting to society," he said. "Some expected them to return the same as they left. Well, they didn't. It doesn't work that way. Some had problems -- they want to drink too much, some lost their marriages, some lost jobs and careers, some lost more.

"They were the last to realize they were the ones with problems," Roberts said.

It includes a suicide, he said, pausing to read an account written by his son, Gregory Roberts, and published in Sunday's Star Tribune Opinion Exchange section.

"... I expected things to magically be better when I came home," the son wrote. "I figured a month or two to get back in the groove of civilian life at most. I was wrong.

"It took me six months before I realized I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. It took another year before I saw that if I didn't get help I would follow the rabbit down the hole and there would be no wonderland at the bottom.."

He told coping with a suicide among the returning soldiers. The man "taught me that the casualties do not stop when you've left the war zone," Greg Roberts wrote. "That friends are a veteran's only lifeline. That it is OK to admit you can't handle the hurt alone."

That's why it's so important to recognize veterans for the sacrifices they made serving this country -- on Veterans Day and every day -- said Jeff Roberts.

"As a nation, we owe it to our soldiers to take care of them," he said. "We are involved in a long-term conflict ...(the effects) can and will last a lifetime."

The community needs to look out for its veterans, to know problems and symptoms.

"We've got to be watchful as people," he said. "Watchful as friends and neighbors. We've got to be pro-active if we see something. We've got to be involved if we can be. We've got to help a vet, and show support and appreciation."

Simple may be best, he said.

"Simple eye contact and a softly said thank you will leave a positive and lasting impression," Roberts said. "They can be anywhere -- they can be old, they can be young, they can be male, they can be female, they can mothers and daughters, and sons and fathers."

Kath Molitor, who organized the program, said she wanted parents of soldiers to speak, and Roberts agreed. She tried to have soldiers who had been deployed to Iraq to speak, but found none willing.

"I tried to find a soldier who returned from Iraq to speak," she said. "But every solider who returned from Iraq would not speak. They couldn't do it -- not yet."

Kerry Moen, a four-year U.S. Navy veteran, said she was the first female in her family to enter military service. She found most fulfilling serving on the color guard at the Pearl Harbor Base in Hawaii.

Moen said she feels queasy when people thank her for her service. "I get the feeling when I talk to other vets that they often feel the same way, that they were just doing their jobs."

But the pride and emotion comes when talking to a family member of a vet, she said, and of the magnitude of the ordinary.

Moen at Pearl Harbor funeral ceremonies was the one in the color guard to present the U.S. flag to the deceased's family. "After being on the receiving end of that situation, when my grandfather's flag was presented to me, I really saw how that event was truly extraordinary."

Moen said that "many veterans continue daily to make sacrifices as they quietly go about their daily duties with no expectations for any extraordinary praise. Many still fight battles daily; for some, it's every time they look into a mirror. Others feel it in pain from some injury. Still more feel it in the form of a mental illness like post-traumatic stress disorder.

"For these veterans their sacrifices continue," she said.

About 100 people came to Northern Town Hall to honor veterans, as well as partake in soup, bread and desserts to which they could vote for their favorites. Videos were shown and patriotic music played.

bswenson@bemidjipioneer.com

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