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School-Based Effort in Florida Aids Gulf Veterans, Families

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Education, counseling, and veterans' groups in Florida have formed a statewide counseling network to assist returning veterans of the Persian Gulf war and their families.

The school-based project, Operation Open House, will provide counseling and referral services for families that are reuniting after a separation caused by the deployment of troops for Operation Desert Storm.

"The homecoming will not be smooth for everyone," said Pat Tornillo, president of the Florida Education Association/United, which is helping to organize the network.

"Many returning Americans will need more than a pat on the back and a parade down Main Street," he said in announcing the project this month.

Operation Open House, which is expected to be operational within a month, is thought to be the first such statewide network established to assist military families with members returning from the Gulf. More than 30,000 Floridians were deployed to the Middle East during the crisis, the project's organizers said.

School districts located on or near military bases around the country, meanwhile, have independently begun to counsel reuniting families.

For example, officials of the Killeen Independent School District in Texas, near Fort Hood, said their efforts at counseling students with parents at war had evolved into sessions for families reuniting after the conflict.

Students asked that Killeen's support groups remain in operation, said Bob Massey, a district spokesman.

"The questions have shifted to 'How do I relate to my mom or my dad when they come back?"' he said.

Legislation pending in the Congress would allocate federal financial assistance for educational and support services for military families affected by the Gulf deployments.

Lawmakers late last week were considering a wide-ranging package of special benefits and services for Gulf veterans and their families.

Pressures of Reunion

Schools across the country have counseled students with parents stationed in the Gulf since the deployments began last August. (See Education Week, Jan. 16, 1991.)

But some psychologists say more stress may be created when families reunite after such a separation.

With one or both parents deployed, the roles of remaining family members change dramatically, said Charles Figley, a professor of psychology with the Marriage and Family Therapy Center at Florida State University, one of the groups in the Operation Open House network.

Children become closer to the parent they have daily contact with and may demand more freedom from the parent they have been apart from, Mr. Figley said. At the same time, he added, the parent remaining behind has likely assumed the role of the other during his or her absence.

"Some of the spouses don't share all the difficulty that they've gone through in the absence of the other," he said. "In the process [of reuniting], they will be dumping all this on the trooper when he or she returns," a situation that can raise tensions for spouses and children alike.

The Florida network will be located in selected schools, where a staff liaison will coordinate counseling services. Those schools will publicize the services in the communities for which they are responsible.

Officials do not expect the project to cost districts additional dollars, and they plan to solicit the federal government for assistance.

In addition to the fea/United and the fsu therapy center, other groups involved include: the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Association of School Administrators, the Florida School Counselors Association, the state department of veterans' affairs, and the American Legion.

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