Soldiers Describe 'Emotional Roller Coaster' Upon Return From War
Psychological Toll on Battle-Hardened Vets Complicates Switch to Civilian Life
By DEAN REYNOLDS
CLOQUET, Minn., March 2, 2006 — - The crowd inside the National Guard Armory at the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport looks kind of bleary-eyed. The 20 or so Minnesota Guardsmen have just returned home from a year in Afghanistan. They arrived just the night before, and not all are eager to be here.
But they've come anyway, along with their spouses and parents. It's Day One of their reintegration program.
"Morning everybody," Chaplain Maj. John Morris says cheerily to the group. A few nod back. Others stare straight ahead, bracing for what will be two days of lectures, presentations and warnings.
In most of the country, the rule for National Guard members returning from war zones is to leave them alone for at least three months, while providing space and quiet time so they can reconnect with their families, their jobs, their communities. But here in Minnesota, the men and women back from war are expected to show up for these seminars immediately, and then return at 30-, 60- and 90-day intervals.
Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito is the father of the program, which works hard to address the emotional toll of returning from a war zone but also covers how to obtain federal benefits.
"We owe them," he said of the Guardsmen. "This country owes them to make sure that we can give them that box of tools to help them reintegrate and be successful." Leaving soldiers to their own devices for the first three months of their return, he believes, courts disaster.
"The ones that we just turn loose on society to fend for themselves," said Shellito, "those are the ones that I'm worried about because I don't know what support mechanisms they have."
Statistics indicate these battle-hardened veterans need all the help they can get. A groundbreaking study on the mental health of returning troops released this week indicates that fully one-third of those who served in Iraq during the first year of the war sought mental health services upon leaving the fighting. The war's succeeding years have been, if anything, more intense.
Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study opens a window on the enormous psychological and emotional toll the conflict has taken on the men and women who are doing the fighting.
Incidents of drug use, gambling, sleepless nights, spousal abuse, crying spells or flashbacks to the battlefield are all on the rise among returning troops.
At the Guard armory in Cloquet, not far from Duluth, Sgt. Jason Brekke spoke of a concern that befalls many a vet who's had to run the gantlet of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
Soldiers Speak of Paranoia, Loneliness
"My third day home," Brekke said in an interview, "I seen a bag on the side of the road and I about wanted to jump out of the car because instantly you're thinking roadside bomb."
Sgt. Joseph Seppa said loneliness was an issue. "You know, you're used to being around several hundred soldiers all the time and you come back and now all of a sudden you're alone. It's a little bit different. It's hard to loosen up and relax and actually realize that you're home."
Back at the armory in Minneapolis, a bullish Guard member in uniform clears his throat and speaks.
"What you're about to go into is no different than a combat zone," said Sgt. Ron "Keith" Huff. "I'm telling you it's harder and more dangerous here." Huff should know. He's been struggling with re-entry for more than a year since returning from Iraq.
"It's easier to admit that you were shot in the leg or that you were sick, you know, or that you had the flu than it is to say, 'You know, I'm not feeling well today. I'm a little depressed,'" Huff told the group of Guardsmen.
Since September, Huff has served as Exhibit A of the pitfalls soldiers can face. He describes, for example, how he became disoriented at a local hardware store and began threatening a teenage clerk, how he gets spooked by his wife who moves around their house too quietly for comfort, how he reacts when he sees anyone who may just look Middle Eastern.
"OK," he tells himself, "We're not in Iraq. [He] probably doesn't have a bomb strapped to him. He's probably not going to kill me -- today."
Huff has turned his harrowing experiences into a warning lecture that he delivers regularly to returning Guardsmen, like these in the airport armory.
"I don't know that the public understands," he said in an interview during a break in his presentation. "How can they? And I don't know that they want to know."
Huff is aided by Morris. Referring to the public, Morris said, "They don't understand that for most of us, the war is just starting [when we return]."
'A Big Emotional Roller Coaster'
Then, to the families in attendance, Morris warned, "I don't know if I can fully explain this to you, but this is not the same person that left a year ago or two years ago. As they flip back from warrior to citizen," Morris continued, "it's going to be a big, big, big emotional roller coaster."
Morris and Huff agreed that if it takes months of preparation to create a warrior out of a civilian, it should take months to turn a warrior back into a civilian. Because, as Morris explained, "We're going to take you out of the very intense environment of the military. We're going to return you to a civilian world that does not understand you and, in fact, has lost interest in where you were."
The assembled Guardsmen say they get it.
Asked if he expects to make a seamless transition to civilian life, Sgt. Rod Haworth said, "No absolutely not. It won't be for any of us."
Katie Overland's husband, Maj. John Overland, is in the group that returned from Afghanistan. She worries about the national mood as the war drags on. "They think the soldier comes home and it's over. But it's not over."
The Minnesota plan has another feature that sets it even further apart. Huff and Morris will make presentations to community leaders as well, to alert them to the potential problems returning veterans may pose to them and their towns.
"If we do a good job reintegrating our combat vets and helping their families," Morris said in an interview, "we're going to have a tremendous citizen here.
"But if we don't. If we repeat what we did in Vietnam and shun or, at worst, shame these veterans, we're going to drive people underground. They're going to manifest terrible problems."
Bruce Ahlgren, the mayor of Cloquet, attended the community briefing a few days ago and said it was an eye-opener.
"We just kind of think they come back and they're in a comfort zone again and everything's hunky-dory." That's clearly not the case, Ahlgren acknowledged. And the words of Morris still rang in his ears.
"Please be respectful and welcome us and show hospitality," he told the Cloquet city leaders, "until we get our feet on the ground."
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