Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski told a group of soldiers yesterday that the government must do more to help returning troops by increasing mental health funding and cutting bureaucracy in existing programs.
During a meeting at the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore, both officials heard accounts from about a dozen members of the Maryland National Guard who had emotional and financial problems after returning from deployment overseas.
About 1,500 members of the Guard are expected to return to Maryland in the next six months, a wave that is likely to strain state-funded integration programs. Last year, 1,300 members of the Army National Guard and 350 Air National Guard members from Maryland were deployed, according to the governor's office.
"When they come back home, just like they stood by America, America has to stand by them," said Mikulski, who vowed to seek an additional $45 million for integration programs nationwide. "We've got to help these guardsmen."
Maryland's proposed budget includes $3.5 million for behavioral health programs that would include troops who live in areas where there are now no programs and $800,000 for an integration program that would help veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related illnesses.
"We can't wait for the federal government to figure this out," O'Malley said. "As the state of Maryland we need to step up. ... The fact of the matter is that when these men and women come back out of combat from having served the rest of us, they deserve our help."
O'Malley said Maryland must increase its efforts but offered few specifics about what could be done. The state faces a difficult budget year, and revenue could drop further if the economy continues to falter.
Many of the National Guard members who attended the meeting yesterday said they did not begin noticing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder until months after they returned home. Sometimes they had difficulty getting care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, they said.
Sgt. Leana Stewart told the officials that returning troops have difficulty receiving care if they cannot prove that their illnesses are combat-related. Stewart also had to pay to move her young children back home -- she moved them to live with their grandmother before deploying -- which is a cost that the military picks up for active soldiers but not for reservists, she said.
"Our commanders' hands are tied as to what they can do," she said. "They can only do so much, and I will tell you that they do a lot."