A conference aimed at preparing professionals to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan readjust to civilian life has been scheduled for May 14 at Southern Oregon University.

A conference aimed at preparing professionals to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan readjust to civilian life has been scheduled for May 14 at Southern Oregon University.

The all-day event, dubbed "Professionals Helping Veterans," will coincide with the return this spring of some 3,000 members of the Oregon Army National Guard who served with the 41st Infantry Combat Brigade. That includes 600 citizen-soldiers of the Guard's 1st Battalion of the 186th Infantry, headquartered in Ashland, which arrived in Iraq last July to provide security for convoys.

"We wanted to reach out to the professional community and let them know what services are available, so when the veteran and his family come in, everyone will have a better understanding how they can better serve them," explained Rosemary Jernigan, branch manager for the Oregon Department of Human Resources diversity team that's bringing the conference to SOU.

Working with her on the project is fellow department employee Jose "Raf" Mesta, a graduate of Eagle Point High School and a former Marine Corps sergeant. He was on his second tour in Iraq when he suffered a back injury caused by an IED in 2005.

Keynote speakers will include clinical psychologist Lynn Van Male with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Vietnam combat veteran Gary Miller, a history professor and interim director of the international programs at SOU.

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

"A lot of employers don't know how to handle problems that some vets face, like PTSD," Mesta said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. "There is a stigma out there. Some employers don't think they can hire a vet who has PTSD."

One of conference goals is to put to rest that issue for many employers, he said.

"It's important that employers understand that men and women who were in the military have tremendous skills," Jernigan said.

For instance, Mesta is an excellent employee, in part because his military training helps him take on new challenges, she said.

"He is one of our best employees because he has that base of being accountable, and of being a team player," Jernigan said.

Larry Slessler of The Job Council said more than a dozen veterans, including both men and women, will be participating in the panel discussions. Members of the panel cover the full span of armed conflicts from Vietnam through Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan, said Slessler, who was awarded a Bronze Star in Vietnam.

"They understand their field and they understand what it is to be a vet," he said.

"We specifically asked that women veterans be on the panels," Jernigan added. "They can express what truly is happening with women veterans. And that is different than what is happening to male veterans."

She said the conference was intentionally scheduled after the local Guard members returned home, which is expected to be in April and May.

"There is going to be a time period when the veterans come back when they first want to be with their families," she said. "They will need to decompress."

The conference will be fresh with the professionals when the veterans turn to them, she added.

"This is about the entire professional community coming together to help veterans," she said. "Our goal is to reach every person who serves veterans."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.