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JPRA Helps Return Captives to Normal Life

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 22, 2003 – It's going to take more than returning Pfc. Jessica Lynch to the United States for her to get back to a normal life.

Much the same could be said about the seven prisoners of war - her five unit comrades and two pilots - rescued April 13.

After spending eight days in Iraqi captivity and a nearly equal amount of time recuperating at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Lynch returned to the United States on April 12.

However, while she continues her recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, it may take some time before she returns emotionally, emphasized Gary Percival, a psychologist with the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency.

The agency, a subordinate command of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, assists both recovered U.S. service members and other affected personnel through a comprehensive repatriation process.

The process includes physical and psychological care; debriefings; decompression time; and helps with family, organization and unit reunions. Media awareness training is also provided, as well as support for families, Col. Randy Moulton, JPRA commander, said.

For most detainees a key component of repatriation is dealing with the trauma that comes with being held against one's will - to get them "back into their jobs and back into society, back into their family," Percival said.

He said that Lynch, who has seen a JPRA psychologist during her recovery, will need support while reintegrating into society and regaining a sense of normalcy in her life.

"When you first come out of a captivity situation or an isolation event, you're probably going to have nightmares, sleep disturbances and some fear reactions," Percival said.

"This is a normal response to what has happened to you," he added, but it's treated "as normal people adjusting to an abnormal event."

JPRA also has cognizance over the training, doctrine, and inter-agency coordination that facilitate the recovery of military personnel and other personnel who are POWs or hostages.

The agency also handles peacetime governmental detainees, such as the Navy EP-3 crew held in China for 11 days in April 2001. The Navy reconnaissance aircraft and its 23-member crew was forced to land on China's Hainan Island after it survived a mid-air collision with a Chinese jet fighter.

When a service member is missing in action or is captured, the first act is to immediately report the incident and then locate the individual, said Moulton. He noted the agency also assists combatant commanders with supporting individuals in captivity.

Once the individual is located, recovery planning begins immediately to return the service member to safety. "That's where repatriation comes in," he added.

"The goal of repatriation is to ensure the successful reintegration of the service member both professionally and personally," Moulton explained.

Since her rescue, Lynch has been under the care of a specially trained mental health professional, called a SERE psychologist. That acronym (pronounced "seer") stands for survival, evasion, resistance and escape.

About 30 SERE psychologists in the military help recovering detainees through a three-phase repatriation process.

The initial receipt and recovery stage occurs when detainees are brought back into a safe area, according to Percival. There they are treated medically, and if healthy enough, debriefed about their captivity "to learn of time-sensitive information that will protect lives."

The second phase is focused on what's referred to as "decompression time." There detainees are given at least 72 hours "to put their lives together before they go out and face the world," he noted.

This phase gives them "time to come to grips with what has occurred and gives them a chance to tell someone what happened," he added.

Percival said the final phase is the most critical: when detainees are transferred home or to their home installation.

During this phase the detainee receives ongoing medical care and more debriefings. They also have the opportunity to meet with family and prepare for the possibility of political and public attention, including the media.

"Typically detainees don't know what to tell their family, or how to talk with them. The families may want to overwhelm them," he explained. "But you have to give them time to come to grips with what happened. They are a lot healthier in the long run if you give them that time to decompress."

Percival said that families, military commanders, the media and politicians should understand that detainees need time to readjust to life.

"Everybody wants to do what they think is best for the detainee, but what they think is the best is often times harmful," Percival explained.

He said that detainees should be allowed to make their own choices, to be able to "predict and control" what happens in their lives.

"If you think about someone who has been isolated - that has been in a situation where they have no ability to predict and control, where they have someone tell them when to go to the bathroom, when to eat, when to lie down, when to sleep -- sometimes well-wishers put them in that same position," he said.

Percival noted that Lynch may already be in that position. Her life is already being put under control, her future planned.

In Lynch's hometown of Palestine, W. Va., parades and celebrations are being anticipated. And reportedly she's been offered financial assistance to attend college, as well as a teaching job once she graduates. In addition, one network is already negotiating a television movie about her ordeal.

With her medical ongoing treatment and repatriation process, Lynch has had no public appearances to date. However, on April 17, Walter Reed issued a statement on her behalf. In it, she expressed well-wishers should send cards and letters in lieu of gifts and flowers to her in care of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 6900 Georgia Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C., 20307-5001.

How each detainee deals with the return home is an "individual process," what's best for him or her, Percival said.

JPRA's repatriation process provides support and follow-up up to a year, he noted. "We owe it to them."

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