Veterans Group Links Sarah Palin to Problems in Alaska National Guard

10-14-08, 11:54 am

A preliminary report released earlier this month by Veterans for America (VFA) held Gov. Sarah Palin in no small part responsible for enormous difficulties faced by Alaska National Guard members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the report, 'the post-deployment needs of Alaska National Guard members and their families remain largely unmet.'

The report described the Alaska National Guard's leadership as having 'an inadequate understanding of the full range of post-combat issues facing those who served abroad from the Alaska Guard.' The report noted that this short-coming resulted directly from 'inadequate leadership' on the part of the Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin.

The preliminary report, based on interviews with military families and veterans of the Guard, indicated that access to Veterans' health care facilities is the most pressing problem Guard members and veterans face. One-fourth of Alaska Guard members live in rural areas that are at least 60 miles from nearest veterans health care centers. Travel expenses from the most isolated areas can reach close to $1,500 for a single hospital visit.

Military families with deployed members lost access to public assistance, such as Medicaid, because of the temporary boost in income the service member in their family saw, the VFA report showed. For the family members of deployed troops, shifting to the Department of Defense's Tricare system meant losing access to adequate care, because there are few Tricare providers in rural areas.

Even the families of Guard members living in urban areas were forced to turn to food banks and other sources of public assistance to make ends meet as their family members deployed overseas. The VFA report states that the Food Bank of Alaska in Anchorage saw a growth of 400 percent of military families who rely on it for services.

As to post-combat medical screenings, Alaska Guard members shared in military-wide problems related to mental health care, but specific problems like lack of substantial post-deployment health data, lack of anonymity in mental health counseling, and the shortage of Tricare health providers in rural areas combined to impose especially difficult conditions for returning Alaska Guard members.

Guard members told VFA that they faced long wait times to see health care specialists, and some aviators expressed a fear of seeking counseling because they were told they would be grounded if they did so.

Some interviewed by VFA for the report suggested that Alaska National Guard leadership resisted improved mental health screenings for returning Guard members. Warrior Transition Units, designed to help service members transition to civilian life, seemed unable or unwilling to spend much effort assisting returning Alaska Guard members, the VFA's preliminary findings showed.

Mental health screenings are needed desperately, reported VFA. As an example of the severity of the issue, it cited disproportionate numbers of suicides, domestic violence, divorce, and other family problems experienced by members of the 3rd battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment, since its return form Iraq in October 2007.

In addition to these post-deployment problems, many returning Guard members found that the jobs they held before deploying overseas were no longer available on their return or that they were pushed to the bottom of the list 'for upcoming union jobs.'

Interviewees for the report also told VFA that essentially no outreach programs exist for returning women Guard members.

The report recommended that because of this situation and the condition of the Guard, the US should not deploy the Alaska Guard overseas until 'the situation is remedied.'

The report called on Gov. Sarah Palin, who officially heads the Alaska National Guard, to make health care services available in rural areas throughout the state. Palin should order that mental health screenings should be mandatory. She should also make an immediate assessment of the needs of families of deployed Guard members to ensure that the thousands of family members are adequately cared for. The report also called for more 'dwell time' between deployments to help soldiers heal physically and mentally.