FARMINGTON — War changes people.

American service members returning home from overseas conflicts are forced to deal with “the new normal,” often accompanied by depression, anxiety, sleepless nights and thoughts of suicide.

That’s according to Anne Freund, Saturday morning’s keynote speaker for an all-day conference for veterans, family members and community providers at the University of Maine at Farmington.

“The effects of war eventually catches up with everybody, one way or the other,” said Freund, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Taming The Fire Within: Life after War.”

Mom, Dad and the folks at home are told a returning veteran suffers symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; but Freund says she calls a service member’s behavior something different.

“Calling it a disorder sounds like something is broken or a mental illness,” Freund told an assembly gathered in UMF’s Lincoln Auditorium. “I call it close-combat reaction. These are natural reactions that everybody has when they go to war and come back again, but nobody talks about it.”

Freund said she wrote her book to tell returning veterans they are not alone. The pages and photographs provide stories about what others are thinking and feeling so veterans and their families and friends can help one another.

Freund said survival skills learned in combat can come in life-or-death circumstances and become part of normal life. She said military culture demands a “mission accomplished” state of mind, not a setting in which men and women in uniform sit around and talk about their feelings.

When the veteran returns, the responses to those demands no longer are appropriate behavior, she said.

Saturday’s conference, “Bringing Worlds Together,” was sponsored by the Tri-Valley United Way, Americorps Vista and Tri-County Mental Health Services. Throughout the day Saturday, 18 workshops and tables for exhibitors were available in the UMF student center.

Conference organizers included Michael Smilek, of Farmington, father of 28-year-old Justin Crowley-Smilek, a former Army Ranger who was shot and killed by a Farmington police officer in November.

Crowley-Smilek’s relatives and friends said he suffered from combat stress and physical injuries from service in Afghanistan.

Maine Attorney General William J. Schneider ruled in May that the shooting was justified because the police officer believed he was threatened with imminent deadly force and that it was necessary for him to use deadly force to protect himself. Crowley-Smilek was armed with a large knife and confronted the police officer in a threatening manner, Schneider noted in his report.

“I think it’s monumental,” Michael Smilek said of the event Saturday. “I think that this is fantastic; it’s long overdue. I’d like to see it continued every now and then.”

Jerry DeWitt, a Vista volunteer and retired soldier who helped organize the conference, said the board was aware of the Crowley-Smilek incident and invited Michael Smilek to be on the planning committee from the beginning.

“We want to give an opportunity to veterans, their family members and professionals to have a better understanding about the issues that are affecting veterans in today’s military,” DeWitt said. “We had 155 people registered, and I think it’s a good turnout.

“I’m hoping that we can open up a dialog between the veterans and the service providers to keep something like (the Crowley-Smilek incident) from happening again.”

Sgt. 1st Class Bethanie Mazzaro, of the Maine Army National Guard, said she served one tour in Afghanistan and has been on active duty for nearly 20 years. She said her recruiting and retention office in Augusta also is offering what she calls resilience training for new recruits.

“We prepare them administratively, physically and mentally to go to basic training and be successful,” Mazzaro said. “The mental health part of that is we teach them a block of instructions on resilience training. It’s the coping skills that we all have, but it’s recognizing behaviors and recognizing within yourself so you can have a good attitude and think positive for the emotional part that happens later.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

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