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Mental health aid headed to Minnesota soldiers

ST. PAUL - Soldiers returning from overseas have a new weapon to fight mental health problems they may encounter while settling into civilian life.

The Minnesota National Guard will take part in a pilot program to "embed" mental health counselors in 22 armories around the state, mostly in the Twin Cities area and western Minnesota, officials said Wednesday.

Minnesota is doing a good job assisting 2,600 National Guard troops who recently returned from the Iraq war and other overseas deployments, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. The state has a well-developed reintegration program for soldiers and their families, but the governor said that more should be done.

"We want to make sure that the full continuum of services are available to the members of the military," Pawlenty said.

The program will focus on members of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division.

It is directed by TriWest Healthcare Alliance of Phoenix, which administers health insurance to soldiers and their families in 21 states. Specialists are affiliated with Lakeland Mental Health Clinic, Sioux Trails Mental Health Clinic and Lutheran Social Services clinics.

TriWest Vice President Scott Celley said Minnesota was the only state selected for the pilot program, though similar services are offered on a smaller scale in California.

The armories were selected after a surgeon and psychologist identified units that were under the most duress during their Iraq deployments or that suffered the highest number of casualties, National Guard Chaplain John Morris said. It is possible the pilot program, which does not cost soldiers, will expand to other areas of Minnesota.

Armories selected for the program include Cottage Grove, Jackson, Luverne, New Ulm, Pipestone, Redwood Falls, Alexandria, Bemidji, Crookston, Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Moorhead, Thief River Falls and Wadena.

Counselors will be available at the armories when the units train, which generally occurs on weekends, and at events for soldiers and their families.

Some soldiers are reluctant to seek counseling for mental health issues, but they may be more willing to step forward if they frequently see a specialist at their armory and get to know the professional.

"We hope to destigmatize asking for help," Morris said.

A "bond of trust" can be established between soldier and specialist by embedding mental health experts in the units, said National Guard Adj. Gen. Larry Shellito, a former Alexandria Technical College president.

Most troops returning from war deployment return to civilian life well, but some face lingering mental health problems. Military leaders said young soldiers who are not married have been shown to suffer from depression, while married troops may encounter marital struggles.

"Twenty-two months of separation doesn't enhance most relationships," Morris said.