On Thursday and Friday of last week, the National Guard teamed up with the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) to co-host the third annual “Operation Immersion,” a two-day, overnight mission for workers from behavioral health service providers throughout Rhode Island and surrounding states.
The idea behind the “immersion” is to give providers insight into military life to better prepare them to work with National Guard men and women who have served in the military during wartime.
Fifty-seven volunteer employees trained with the Guard at Camp Fogarty at 2841 South County Trail in East Greenwich in order to experience parts of military life, including receiving platoon assignments, marching drills, “rise and shine,” roll call, physical training, military vehicle convoy training via a simulator, and “Taps” before at the end of the night.
“We partnered with them because, as citizen soldiers, we often receive care in our own communities,” said SSG Stephanie Riotte, who runs the Substance Abuse Prevention Treatment and Outreach Program for the Guard. “Many of the providers have an interest because they belong to the Access to Recovery grant, which BHDDH manages under the direction of Craig Stenning.”
Access to Recovery is a program funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as a presidential initiative that provides vouchers to clients to pay for substance abuse treatment and recovery support services.
Stenning, the director of BHDDH, said he was excited about the event. He came to the camp on Thursday to witness the kickoff.
“We developed a wonderful relationship with the National Guard over the last several years,” he said. “The fact that we have this many people to volunteer to understand what life is like for returning soldiers exceeded my expectations, to the point where we’re scheduling a second round of this in the spring.”
Stenning said the Guard has been open to the idea and agrees there is a need to collaborate. He said the difference between the National Guard and the other branches of the military is that, when Guard soldiers return home, they immediately go back to the community and not to a military base. They return directly to families they haven’t seen in a while. The economic situation is often different from before they left and they have trouble finding employment.
He said Rhode Island has the second highest per capita deployment rate of the country’s 54 states and territories. As a result, there is a higher incidence of mental health issues.
“We want to help with that problem,” he said. “It’s important for BHDDH and other behavioral health service providers to better understand some of the issues military personnel face in order to more effectively meet their needs."
Major General Kevin McBride, the Adjutant General of Rhode Island of the Rhode Island National Guard, agrees.
“It is critically important that the community-based mental health providers recognize the specific manifestations of deployment-related problems,” he said in a press release. “We are thankful to BHDDH for recognizing this need and addressing it in a creative and meaningful way.”
The participants also received training in substance abuse disorders specific to the returning soldier; military culture; and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other issues unique to soldiers. Servicemen and women shared stories about deployment, while military family members talked about experiences before, during and after the deployment.
Beth Cooke and Maggie Olivier, probation officers for the Department of Corrections, said they were eager to join the program. They shared their feelings about what they would like to gain.
“I hope, by living their experiences, I’ll have a better understanding of what they are going through and what life as a soldier is like,” said Cooke.
Olivier echoed her sentiments and said, “It will be good to get this extra education.”
Jim Gillen, the Providence Center Director of the Anchor Recovery Community Center in Pawtucket, who is also involved with the Rhode Island Rally for Recovery, agreed that the program will provide him with more knowledge of returning soldiers.
“We have no idea what goes on and I’m curious and eager to learn more about it,” Gillen said. “I’m understanding more and more about the problems the returning soldiers are facing. We’re trying to focus more on their needs and we’re not taking it lightly.”
Larry Threadgill, a recovery coach at Anchor Community Center, said, “I came here to find out what the National Guard is all about and the problems soldiers go through. I want to learn the best approach to help returning soldiers.”
For more information about the program, contact Brenda Amodei by phone at 401-462-1747 or by e-mail at BAmodei@bhddh.ri.gov, or call Corinna Roy at 401-462-0455 or via e-mail at CRoy@bhddh.ri.gov.