Conference aims to help war veterans adjust to society

Iraq War veteran Jose "Raf" Mesta doesn't know any of the details in the shooting death of a fellow Iraq veteran by police in Eagle Point late Friday night.

Nor is the former Marine Corps sergeant judging those involved in the death of Adam Elsman Wehinger, 34, of Eagle Point.

"But I was very upset," Mesta said. "It's unfortunate that it happened at all. We're hoping this conference will help prevent other incidents like this."

He was referring to "Professionals Serving Veterans," an all-day event scheduled for May 14 at Southern Oregon University being organized by the Oregon Department of Human Resources' local diversity team, which includes Mesta. Some 300 professionals who work with veterans, including police departments and mental health experts, as well as employment and marriage counselors, already have signed up.

"If the conference had happened a week ago, maybe the outcome would have been different," said Rosemary Jernigan, branch manager for the department's diversity team.

"This is all about the resources in the community working together," she added. "And our community has a lot of resources to help veterans."

Keynote speakers will include clinical psychologist Lynn Van Male with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who will focus on the violence risk of returning veterans, and Vietnam combat veteran Gary Miller, a history professor and interim director of the international programs at SOU who will compare the experiences of Vietnam War veterans and those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Eagle Point High School graduate Mesta, who will head up a panel of veterans during the conference, was on his second tour in Iraq when he suffered a back injury caused by an improvised explosive device in 2005. He is still coping with post traumatic stress disorder, an affliction that Wehinger's friends and relatives say he also had.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 30 to 40 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer some level of PTSD.

Wehinger, the son of Ralph Elsman Wehinger, an Eagle Point chiropractor and founder of a wildlife recovery center who died in 2002 at age 48 of cancer, had joined the Marine Corps in the mid-1990s for four years, then signed up for the Army and served in Iraq at the beginning of the war.

"When he came home from Iraq, he was a broken man," said Jim Krois of Williams, his former father-in-law. "The Army declared everything was pre-existing and they discharged him."

He received help from the VA, friends and family but continued to struggle with PTSD and alcoholism, Krois said, noting that Wehinger's wife divorced him at the end of 2004.

"It's sad it ended this way," Krois said.

Mesta, who returned in 2005, said he continues to deal with PTSD issues daily.

"I wouldn't have been able to cope without counseling and the help of friends who are veterans," he said. "I didn't receive any help without me seeking it. Luckily, I had friends who had been in the service before I was. They were able to direct me to where I needed to be.

"There really wasn't anything like this conference which definitely would have been helpful before I came back," he added.

Four panel discussions scheduled for the conference will cover employment opportunities, schools and training, veterans services, and physical and mental health services.

"We have a substantial number of vets, including women vets, who will be speaking about what they had gone through," Jernigan said, noting the goal is to help all those involved with the veterans' community to understand the issues facing different veterans.

But it also will be a reminder to employers that men and women who were in the military have tremendous skills, she said.

The conference was intentionally scheduled after local Oregon Army National Guard citizen soldiers — about 600 from southwestern Oregon — returned from a deployment to Iraq. The timing of the conference was intended to ensure the issues would be fresh in participants' mind when the Guard members returned. They returned late in April.

Every conference participant will receive a booklet of resources containing contact numbers and e-mail addresses, Jernigan said, including those who made presentations.

"If they have further questions, they can contact them directly," she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Share This Story