University of Wisconsin-Stout

June 16, 2010

Lt. Col. Cynthia Rasmussen, wearing fatigues, paced back and forth Wednesday at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Even after her 90-minute time slot ran out, she still was talking about how difficult it can be for some veterans to return to civilian life.

The nearly 300 attendees at the 26th annual National Rural Institute on Alcohol and Drug Abuse hardly stirred as Rasmussen told painful stories and explained why veterans are different and why they sometimes struggle.

“The military is a culture within itself. No one comes back unchanged,” said Rasmussen, psychological director, combat stress officer and sexual assault response coordinator for the U.S. Army. She works for the 88th Regional Support Command out of Fort Snelling, Minn.

More than 3,000 Wisconsin National Guard members recently have returned from Iraq.

Rasmussen gave one example of a veteran whose wife thought he was having an affair because he never came home from work at the same time. The military teaches its members not to be predictable to prevent enemy attacks. The veteran, out of habit, had been taking a variety of ways home from work.

Many veterans have difficulty communicating when they return from war, saying that after their military regimentation “social chatter is a waste of time.” However, lack of communication can lead to isolation, Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen showed a caricature of an angry cat. It was the image one family showed to a female veteran, telling her “that’s what she’s been like for the last year.”

The conference drew counselors, medical students, drug therapists, drug court personnel, judges, parole officers and attorneys from 46 states.

Rasmussen gave attendees tips on how to deal with the myriad of problems veterans can experience, including drug and alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans struggle with the same types of problems as veterans of previous wars, Rasmussen said.

She said some service members get used to an adrenaline rush from completing a military mission. When they come home, they miss that experience. She heard of one veteran who committed suicide because he told his family that he was bored and lacked direction.

Donald Greengrass, a substance abuse counselor at a Ho Chunk Nation outreach center in La Crosse, was impressed with Rasmussen’s speech and wanted a copy after she was done. He has a niece serving in Iraq. “I want to make sure I’m doing the right things for her to help her reintegrate into civilian life,” Greengrass said.

Rasmussen has heard stories about veterans who show up many hours before their VA appointments and just sit in the waiting room. “It’s the only place where they can feel like themselves,” she said.

The conference, at UW-Stout’s Memorial Student Center, began Sunday and ends Thursday.

About 265 veterans are enrolled at UW-Stout, which recently established a council to help veterans make the transition from service to the university.