Veteran discusses reintegration process

Col. Basil LeBlanc spoke Friday about the problems facing returning U.S. soldiers.

For some, a patriotic display means simply sticking a plastic, magnetic yellow ribbon on the bumper of their car. But Basil LeBlanc says patriotism should be a lot more.

LeBlanc, State Surgeon and Minnesota National Guard Colonel, spoke on campus Friday about the problems facing veterans as they reintegrate into society following war.

LeBlanc, a military veteran of 20 years who has served two tours of duty in Iraq and Kosovo, said the mindset of a soldier changes dramatically after going to war.

“It’s very hard to turn off the combat experience because you have to live it 24 hours a day,” he said. “Those skills that help keep you alive in combat often times do not translate very well into civilian life.”

LeBlanc said even the most mundane tasks – like sitting in heavy traffic, walking into a room, and adjusting to an old job – can take on a new significance after a tour of duty.

“Soldiers are going through all sorts of adjustments when they come home,” he said. “Nobody returns home normal. They all return to a new normal.”

LeBlanc said the war in Iraq differs from other conflicts in many ways.

There are between eight and 10 injured solders for every killed solder in the country. In Vietnam, that number was two to one. For soldiers who go to a trauma facility in the country, 96 percent have a chance of leaving alive, LeBlanc said.

“If there are any silver linings to war, it’s that we typically make major advances to trauma care,” he said. “And this war has been no exception.”

LeBlanc’s visit was the eighth installment of the Harvard Street Forum, a series of speeches sponsored by several University health departments. The program is two and a half years old.

Nancy Baker, professor of family medicine and community health, helped put on the event. She said LeBlanc’s experience makes him an authority on helping the community welcome back veterans.

“We’re just beginning to see some of the after-effects of the war,” she said. “To the extent that we can come together and hear lessons from others about what we can do, will just help us be more compassionate, and more aware of how strong of an issue it is.”

LeBlanc said there are many things regular people can do to help welcome veterans back from the war, like asking questions and, more importantly, listening to what soldiers say.

“Just being aware, and take the time just to ask,” he said, “not in a drive-by shooting type of way – ask and listen.”

The army is also working to ease the reintegration process, LeBlanc said, by offering psychiatric screenings to soldiers before and after going to war.

Ken Winters, professor of psychiatry, said mental issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, can develop following a tour of duty.

Winters said the syndrome can have big impacts on the daily lives of those who suffer from it.

“One of their challenges is to try to minimize that stress impacting on their everyday function,” he said. “It can be a significant detriment; it can be a significant barrier to normal everyday functioning.”

LaBlanc said the one thing the community can do to help veterans readjust is to simply appreciate what they have done.

“Thank your veterans,” he said. “You don’t have to agree with the war and you don’t have to agree with foreign policy, but these are your soldiers.”