Training officers about issues facing combat veterans

The First Responder Initiative is designed to provide education to the first responder and law enforcement community about the unique needs of returning combat veterans


There are numerous ways in which public safety professionals in general — and law enforcement personnel in particular — come into contact with combat veterans who have been affected by Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and other issues putting them at risk. In some cases, those interactions are calls for service. In others, the veteran is among the ranks out on patrol. In both instances, the veteran may not fully understand how he or she may need — or have access to — help, and the officers coming into contact with them may not know how they may provide assistance. 

Recognizing this need, Liz Ianelli developed the First Responder Initiative, a program designed to provide education to the first responder and law enforcement community about the unique needs of returning combat veterans. Since its inception in 2009 more than 5,000 LEOs, new recruits, emergency agencies, school campus security, colleges, and medical professionals on local, state, and national levels have been provided the training. Information presented includes:

•    Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (debunking common misconceptions)
•    Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
•    Reintegration challenges back into civilian life/school/the workplace/police departments etc.
•    Suicide and suicide prevention 
•    Distinct driving patterns
•    Common scenarios of LEO/FR interactions in the field with combat veterans
•    Pain management and substance abuse
•    How to offer assistance, and what real time resources are available and how to access them
•    In no way are departments asked to change any of their safety protocols

Helping Departments Help Veterans
At the heart of the First Responder Initiative is the belief that police agencies should be taking a proactive approach to accessing appropriate training and information about returning veterans, and learn skills and have plans in place to assist. 

“It could be one of their own, or a member of the community,” Ianelli explained. “Not every combat veteran comes back with PTSD or TBI. But combat does not discriminate who it affects and to what degree. It is a very individualized outcome. Often veterans have reported back to me that they joined law enforcement as a post-military career because it just felt like the place they wanted to be back as part of a team — a uniform, a purpose, brother and sisterhood as they miss battle buddies. Frankly some feel they do not fit into civilian life at all, and often they mention they would rather just go back to Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Ianelli continued, “For combat veterans returning to law enforcement — or beginning a law enforcement career —there is never just one challenge. There are many. After serving in combat, their reintegration is multi-faceted. It involves trying to re-enter into civilian life, their family life at home, their brothers and sisters in blue, all of which do not progress at the same pace or in some cases do not go as planned. There are so many moving parts. LEO or not, the transition is easier for some, harder for others.”

Ianelli points out that she never says there are solutions — she emphasizes that there are options. These many include seeking treatment and/or finding a more-structured reintegration back into the department. 

“PTSD and TBI are invisible wounds, and often LEOs suffer quietly in fear they will be deemed unfit for duty, or weak, or you name it. In my opinion it is the agency’s duty to be educated and committed to making sure that combat veterans in law enforcement are made aware of in-house and outside support in place to help them.”

What Others Are Saying
Based in White Plains, New York, the program provides both in-house in-services for area departments, and works directly with the Westchester Police Academy to provide training to new recruits, and to supervisors of various departments throughout the county. In fact, the Westchester Police Academy has remained one of the strongest supporters of the program and is the first academy to offer the training as a regular part of new recruit training.

Commissioner David Chong of the City of White Plains Department of Public Safety said, “The training and resource that Liz Ianelli of the Veterans Administration provides is a necessary and a vital tool in our efforts as a police department to help returning veterans with myriad issues. It not only enlightens our first responders of potential issues — and how they can or may mitigate them — but it also provides an avenue of outreach that is sorely missing for combat veterans.”

Ianelli explained that she had recently been contacted by a local law enforcement agency to assist with a combat veteran who had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and who was at the station pending release. Ianelli went to the station, spoke with the veteran, and was able to arrange for a seamless transition to a local veterans hospital. 

“It is my understanding that he is doing well, and if it had not been for the actions of that department, I would have no way to know what may have happened otherwise. A simple phone call to ask for assistance may very well have changed the life of that one veteran. The detective who assisted in this case told me, ‘I felt he served his country and the least we could do was try to get him the help he earned and deserved!  I don't know his current status but I feel we were able get him on the right path’,” Ianelli said. 

Ianelli emphasized that she is available to the law enforcement community across the country to assist by either providing information, or by getting them connected with the right people in their area who can help. Like the White Plains Vet Center, all Vet Centers nationwide are dedicated to working with combat veterans in their communities. Vet Centers maintain non-traditional appointment schedules, after normal business hours, to accommodate the schedules of Veterans and their family members.

In addition to contacting Ianelli directly via email, police agencies can contact the National Veterans Crisis line at 1-800-273-8255.

“Every time I teach,” Ianelli concluded, “I look at it as a chance to save a life, or to change one. You just never know.”

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