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Counselors will be based at Guard armories

Associated Press

ST. PAUL — National Guard soldiers returning from war will have free access to mental health counselors based at their armories, bringing services closer to the troops that need them.

TriWest Healthcare Alliance, a provider under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense, will post mental health professionals at 22 armories around the state, primarily those with units that were under the most stress in Iraq.

TriWest vice president Scott Celley said the Minnesota pilot program will be the most comprehensive of those the company operates in 21 states. The licensed professionals will be at the armories when soldiers are, such as weekend drills.

The embedded counselors will do on-site consultations or provide referrals if necessary. They’ll be ready to assist soldiers who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, marital issues or chemical dependency.

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Lt. Col. John Morris, a National Guard chaplain, said the program assures that mental health services are available closer to Guard members’ homes. He said the counselors’ regular presence allows them to form better relationships with the units they serve.

"We hope by providing a familiar face from a local community we not only destigmatize seeking help but we also make help that much more accessible because people are more comfortable with people in their own community," Morris said, adding, "There’s no harm no foul seeking help, raising your hand."

The program adds to other services available to returning soldiers. In August, Minnesota launched a 24-hour hot line — 1-888-LINK-VET — for veterans and their family members who need immediate crisis intervention and psychological counseling.

In the past, some soldiers in rural areas could only speak to a counselor by phone. A face-to-face meeting would require the soldier to drive into a city.

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