Minnesota Guard troops subject of war trauma study

A sign at the Minneapolis VA
A sign points the way to PTSD unit at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Jeremy Berndt stands outside an aircraft hanger at Volk Field in west central Wisconsin. He's just flown in on the last leg of a long trip that brought him from Iraq to the Midwest. He's still wearing his camouflage fatigues and just turned in his weapon. Berndt is looking forward to getting home to Buffalo, Minnesota where his wife Becky and their children Megan and Jack eagerly await his return.

Like most combat veterans Berndt is well aware some people have a difficult time readjusting. Those difficulties rise to a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they interfere with basic life functions at work and home. Veterans with PTSD often repeatedly relive stressful events from their past.

Berndt says he can't predict how his reintegration will go and whether he'll avoid problems with stress.

"I don't really know what's out there for us. Maybe, maybe not," says Berndt. "I just hope that it doesn't happen."

VA researchers interviewed Berndt and about 500 other Guard members about the state of their mental health just before they left for Iraq. Berndt says he'll talk with researchers again now that he's back.

"I think it's a good idea," Berndt says. "I'm glad that the VA has taken an interest in helping us out and if they can do anything to help us and help prevent it from a lot of people coming back."

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Lt. Col. Tim Kamenar
Lt. Col. Tim Kamenar of the Minnesota National Guard says the guard will use information from the PTSD study to improve training and reintegration programs.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

The Department of Defense thinks the research is a good idea too. It's funding the VA's post- Iraq interviews with the soldiers.

"We're so pleased that soldiers are coming home and are going to back with their families, " says Minneapolis VA psychologist and researcher Melissa Polusny.

Polusny is heading up the study which was initially funded by the Minnesota Medical Foundation.

"Our plan is to let these soldiers sort of settle in and then in a few months from now we'll be contacting those soldiers who gave us permission to contact them and we'll follow up with them," says Polusny.

In addition to her research work, Polusny counsels Iraq and Afghanistan war vets who are struggling with PTSD. She makes the point that the vast majority of soldiers do not have problems with PTSD. Statistics show 85 to 90 percent of returning troops do not bring home serious mental health problems like PTSD.

Melissa Polusny
Melissa A. Polusny, researcher and staff psychologist at the Minneapolis Veterans Administration is overseeing the PTSD study of Mn Guard troops.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"We're trying to understand what it is about a soldier who is successful in reintegrating and is resilient," Polusny says. "What are some of the things that help them to have that outcome?"

Her research may be of particular value because, unlike most all of the other PTSD studies, it is focused on National Guard troops not active-duty soldiers, Polusny says. The vast body of PTSD research is decades old, having come from Vietnam veterans.

If researchers can identify specific causes of PTSD, the Guard could use the information to bolster soldier resiliency with the hope of further reducing the percentages of soldiers with problems, according to Minnesota National Guard Lt. Col. Tim Kamenar. Kamenar says the research could lead to changes in training and in detecting early signs of PTSD.

"What I'm hoping we find is some of those factors leading to soldier resiliency which is a key part of their preparation," says Kamenar. "How they are preparing themselves both emotionally, intellectually, spiritually if you will. Are there some key factors that we need to start adding into a program or emphasizing more specifically."

The VA's Minnesota Army National Guard PTSD study began one and one half years ago. Researchers say they hope to have conclusions by the end of 2008.