By RANDY GRIFFITH
Rocky Myers of Somerset said he has trouble keeping in touch with buddies from his Ligonier-based National Guard unit.
Since returning from active duty in Iraq, some of the soldiers have found themselves traveling great distances for military health services, Myers said.
"My guys are all split up, going to different meetings and different programs," Myers said at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown Living/Learning Center. "They need to have things done closer to home instead of traveling to Philadelphia all the time."
Myers joined other members of the Somerset County's military family support group at a seminar focused on identifying and meeting the needs of returning service personnel.
Presentations by a blue-ribbon panel of military support experts highlighted "Welcoming Returning Service Members: Developing a Community Response" on Wednesday.
"We got together different segments of the community to address the needs of the returning servicemen in a comprehensive manner," said Tom Caulfield, regional director of Veteran Community Initiatives.
"Our goal is to make a seamless transition."
The programs focused on specific medical issues faced by injured and traumatized veterans.
Gov. Ed Rendell was unable to attend, but sent Secretary of Education Jerry Zahorchak to outline recent state initiatives to assist veterans.
Keynote speaker was Maj. Gen. Kenneth Farmer Jr., commanding general North Atlantic Medical Command and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"We came together and said, 'What do we need to do to understand and take care of these veterans,' " Farmer said. "They were exposed to an intense environment where they were constantly under the threat of injury and death. Living in that environment and coming back to Main Street U.S.A. - how do you deal with that?"
The psychological impact often is compounded by serious physical injuries, Farmer said, noting that the success of body armor has led to more amputation and serious injuries to extremities in Iraq than past wars.
"These folks survived wounds that would have been fatal in prior conflicts," said Lt. Col. Paul Pasquina, amputee program medical director at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Their quality of life requires society's commitment to lifetime care, he added.
The role of Veterans Administration medical programs is being redefined to meet those needs, Pasquina said.
Awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder has been a mixed blessing, said Dr. Charles Engle, assistant chairman of psychiatry at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. "It's very important to understand that mental health goes far beyond post-traumatic stress disorder," he said.
Dr. Steven Scott, Veterans Administration medical director of the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center, said most of the wounded have multiple injuries.
He said a growing focus is on blast injuries that can cause unseen brain trauma. Blast injuries' symptoms often are indistinguishable from post-traumatic stress disorder, Scott said.
Dr. Patrick Gray of Windber found the seminar helpful.
"I have been privileged and honored to take care of a lot of our young soldiers," Gray said. "I want to help our guys out as much as I can. I need to know what to refer back to Walter Reed."