From Grief To Action
July 7, 2008
On July 28, 2004, the world changed for SFC Vince Jacques. After the Humvee he was in hit an IED, he found himself dangling upside down. His legs were trapped underneath the dashboard and the vehicle was a twisted mass of metal. The gunner in the vehicle, PFC Ben Ring was seriously injured and the driver, PFC Kenny Leisten was dead. The first thing on SFC Jacques mind was “his boys.” SFC Jacques survived the blast, but the severity of 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,” he said.
Back home in Oregon, another Soldier was struggling. 1LT Eric McCrae, son of Col. Scott McCrae (retired), who was also a member of 2nd Battalion, 162 Infantry, had died in Iraq only a few short weeks before an IED attack caused the largest loss of life for the Oregon National Guard. Col. McCrae was having a tough time of it.
“He was the kind of person you would have loved to have as a son,” said Col. McCrae.
In another part of Oregon, another National Guard Soldier from the same unit was struggling wiht loss. Sgt. Luke Wilson had lost his leg to an RPG in Iraq. Wilson said that after he got out of Walter Reed and back home, he felt like 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 dorrs and pull triggers.”
These three men, were able to turn their dispair into a mission of hope. All three joined the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team. They came together to ensure that any Oregon servicemember would be taken care of, once they returned from war. According to Oregon Guard officials, almost 17% of the states returning veterans are under or unemployed, and 90% want college education and job training for their families. The ORNG Reintegration Team works closely with federal, state and local civilian agencies and refers servicemembers to resources where they can receive assistance with any need that might arise.
“We are a highly networked, ‘help desk,’ acting as traffic cops to direct Soldiers and Airmen to the right place, said McCrae. Among these 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.”
SFC Jacques has set a goal for himself. That goal is to reach those servicemembers who might otherwise slip through the cracks. He feels that he can obtain that goal.
“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,” he continued.
The reintegration team has resources to help returning Soldiers locate jobs, counseling and education. The Retintegration Team was formed in February 2005 and they have organized military job fairs, benefits fairs as well as other things that are available to returning Troops. They’re on the phone constantly and are committed to never saying No to someone who needs help. They’ll find a way to help somehow.
“We have never turned anyone away,” said SFC Phillip Maas, who leads the ORNG’s Career Transition Assistance Program.
Currently there are 9 states that are involved in reintegration issues for returning servicemembers. Oregon is the only state that has combined their reintegration efforts with the Jobs Program and the Career Transition Assistance Program. According to Col. McCrae, his focus stays on helping veterans get back to living a normal and healthy lifestyle. For some Soldiers, that means being referred to treatment for PTSD. Current Army statistics show that 1 in 5 returning Soldiers are suffering from some level of PTSD. The ORNG Reintegration Team’s call center is manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, so no matter what day or time of the day a returning Soldier calls, there will be someone there to answer his or her call.
“The phone calls don’t always come between 8am and 4:30pm; some of them come at 1am, 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,” Maas said. “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,” Maas said. “The individual came into the office the other day, and he’s cleaned up and back on his feet,” added Maas.
According to McCrae, the guys on the team have personally intervened in 15 suicide attempts and helped to prevent the Soldiers from taking their lives. As Col. McCrae said, “You can’t put a price on a life.” The goal is that the team will be able to help to break the chain and not allow the returning Soldiers to get to the point where they feel hopeless, helpless, debilitated and dysfunctional. Sometimes, just helping them to find a steady job can make a huge difference.
It sounds like the men and women working in the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team are doing wonderful things to help their fellow Soldiers, as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s what it’s all about …. making a difference in the lives of others. It’s an amazingly good feeling to know that you can and have made a difference.