Montana Guard troops to receive 2nd screening

Associated Press

HELENA – Montana National Guard soldiers will receive an additional mental-health screening after returning home from combat, U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester said Tuesday.

The additional testing was recommended by a state task force created after the March 2007 suicide of Spc. Chris Dana of Helena, who shot himself 16 months after he returned home from serving in Iraq. His family said he had become depressed and withdrawn and the Guard gave him a less-than-honorable discharge when he could no longer report for drills.

"The Montana National Guard has used this tragedy to create a program that should be implemented across the country," said Matt Kuntz, Dana's stepbrother. "I was always just really afraid that we were going to lose Chris and that no one would realize the system was broken. They did realize it and fixed it. That means a lot."

Current National Guard policy requires troops to undergo a post-deployment health assessment between 90 and 180 days after a soldier returns home. The Montana task force recommended soldiers be monitored more often and for a longer period of time.

The National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., approved the additional screening for Montana, which will be given in the second year of a soldier's return, the senators said.

Col. Jeff Ireland, director of manpower and personnel for the Montana National Guard, said the additional assessment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health issues will be given to about 900 Army National Guard troops who have returned home since June 2005 – two years before the task force made its recommendations. He was unsure how many Air National Guard troops would be affected.

The screening is expected to begin next month.

"Our military deserves the best health care services, period," Baucus said in a statement. "Jon and I want to help prevent tragedies like Specialist Dana's from ever happening again, and the additional screening will help do that."

Montana is believed to be the only state in the country conducting the additional screening.

"I believe we'll be looked at very closely to see how effective this is," Ireland said.