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Sept. 25, 2012

MSU-led projects to help war veterans

A pair of projects totaling $1.5 million and led by a Michigan State University professor will help Michigan National Guard members and their families in the often stressful transition from battlefield to civilian life.

With the first initiative, funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Defense, Adrian Blow and colleagues will study resiliency in military families, working directly with National Guard veterans and their spouses and parents.

With the second, Blow will lead an effort to train as many as 1,000 mental health counselors to work with military families. The project is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Detroit-based Ethel and James Flinn Foundation.

Some 19,000 service members from the Michigan National Guard have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and many deal with the challenges of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, unemployment, marital strife and alcoholism. Suicide also is on the rise in the military.

“Reintegrating back into civilian society can be more challenging on many accounts than the actual deployment itself,” said Blow, MSU associate professor and a family and marriage therapist.

Blow will lead the resiliency study with Lisa Gorman, who received her doctorate degree from MSU and is now a program director at the Michigan Public Health Institute. The two researchers have worked with the Michigan National Guard for more than five years to help civilian soldiers and their families with the transition process. That includes running group sessions, giving talks at reintegration events and helping write the National Guard’s reintegration manual.

Blow also was one of the co-developers of the Buddy-to-Buddy Volunteer Veteran Program, which trains veterans to provide peer support. The program is run by the University of Michigan.

Blow said the programs are beneficial, but what’s missing is a long-term look at how families deal with post-war stressors. With the resiliency study, Blow and Gorman will survey more than 600 members of a National Guard infantry unit that just returned from a year’s deployment in Afghanistan, as well as spouses and parents. Two more surveys will be given, after one and two years. In addition, in-depth interviews will be conducted with 40 families during the three-year life of the study.

The project is expected to help the military improve reintegration efforts and prevention and treatment programs.

While the news media has focused heavily on the mental health concerns of service members following deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq, that is only part of the story, Gorman said. Most National Guard service members and their families, she explained, are doing well despite 12 months of separation, multiple deployments, high levels of combat exposure and living in local communities with limited military support compared to their active duty counterparts.

“If we can identify common themes among those who flourish during extremely stressful times, we believe the project can inform prevention and intervention programs in ways that promote wellness for service members and their families,” Gorman said.

Blow’s second project, called Star Behavioral Health Providers, is designed to train licensed counselors in Michigan in working with the military, and then to connect veterans and their families with these providers by an online registry.

Clinicians will receive training on war-related issues ranging from traumatic brain injury to substance abuse to suicidal thoughts.

The program, which was implemented successfully in Indiana, will initially target Metro Detroit and then be expanded statewide, with a special focus on the Upper Peninsula which has a large number of National Guard veterans.

Blow has worked with civilian soldiers who have been deployed as many as six times. Some were unable to find work when they returned. Others developed marital problems while they were at war. Others had difficulty adapting to roles performed by the spouse during deployment.

“The soldier may think, ‘I’m coming home and getting a break,’ but the spouse may be thinking the same thing – ‘It’s time for me to get a break,’” Blow said.

But most families have pulled together and persevered through the difficult times – lessons that can help inform future reintegration efforts.

“It can take about a year, but the majority of families work through the stress of reintegration,” Blow said. “Most of the cases are about strength and resilience, about families dealing with big transitions and, sometimes, traumatic events.”

Co-investigators on the resiliency study include Hiram Fitzgerald and Ryan Bowles from MSU, Michelle Kees and Marcia Valenstein from the University of Michigan and Angela Huebner from Virginia Tech University.