C&P "Back f/ Iraq, Basic Training n Resuming Life"
May 31, 2004
THE WAR AT HOME
For Soldiers Back From Iraq, Basic Training in Resuming Life
By MONICA DAVEY
FORT RILEY, Kan. - Lt. Col. Dan McClure struts up and down the auditorium in his camouflage fatigues, every bit the drill sergeant he was for years: tormenting any poor soul whose cellphone dares to ring, anyone with the unfortunate rank of lieutenant, anyone blond.
At other incongruous moments on this morning, the gruff officer turns gentle, sounding oddly like Oprah.
Colonel McClure, now an Army chaplain, is here to warn the hundreds of soldiers before him who had returned five days earlier from Iraq, their uniforms still mildewed from the months away, that whatever they think right now, coming home may not be as easy as it seems. After the first embraces with cameras clicking, the homecoming parties, life may get complicated in unimagined ways.
You may find yourself driving your tiny Honda too fast down the center of a Kansas highway, the way you did with your Humvee in Iraq, he tells them. You may get claustrophobic at Wal-Mart, or shaky when a car backfires or a bright light flashes. While you crave sex, your wife may crave conversation. And you will surely get "dumb question No. 3" from those who never set a boot in Iraq: Did you shoot anyone over there?
Colonel McClure, who did two combat tours in Vietnam, shares his own crass retort: "I don't know. I never went to look." But as laughter seeps through the rows, he turns sensitive again. Never answer the shooting question, he advises, because it will only prompt another: How did it feel?
"Don't let them get to that follow-up question," he warns the soldiers, now silent. "That one hurts."
At Fort Riley, this is the last stop before home for soldiers returning from Iraq. Mandatory "debriefs" like this one, to be conducted for thousands of soldiers in training rooms and auditoriums at bases across the country, are a novelty for the United States military. The sessions were begun in response to a spate of deaths at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2002, when four soldiers were charged with killing their wives in unrelated cases. The sessions reflect the realization that for soldiers and their families, the burdens and sacrifices of deployment go far beyond fighting overseas and waiting at home.
As these re-entry sessions show, coping with war is a long-term struggle, a way of life, falling hardest on a sliver of American society: the men, women and children of the military class, hundreds of thousands of them, many clustered in and around bases like Fort Riley.
As Colonel McClure speaks, jet-lagged soldiers shift in their seats and struggle to stay awake. So much talk of emotions, relationships, flashbacks and suicide signals seems to leave some in this crew-cut crowd, mostly men, looking blank. They want to go home.
Instead, they are counseled to take their spouses on dates, to buy ice cream and go on outings to Chuck E. Cheese's with their children, to come home with unexpected bouquets (corsages work, too), and to talk with their mates, but without telling "all of what you saw over there."
"Ladies need affection," Colonel McClure announces. "Take a lesson, gentlemen. Learn an adjective or two. That's conversation."
It used to be that soldiers cleaned their weapons and left for a long vacation almost as soon as they got back from a war zone. But misery can follow them home. Post-traumatic stress has left its mark on generations of veterans. This is why soldiers returning from Iraq must now undergo 10 days of counseling on something that most of them think will be the easiest job of all: going home.
"No matter who you are, or how happy you are to have him home, or how many times you've been through this, all of this is a big adjustment for anyone," said First Sgt. Colleen Shanklin, a reservist whose husband, Curtis, returned a few weeks back.
His e-mail messages from Iraq, she said on a recent afternoon, were more forthcoming than his words are now. At first he sat glued to CNN, in what Sergeant Shanklin, 43, described as "his silent mode."
Army officials admit that they have no way to gauge yet how these new veterans and their families will cope with life after Iraq. Many returning soldiers say they feel perfectly fine: relieved, happy and impatient with all the touchy-feely advice. But that's today. For some, the long-term problems - marital problems, isolation, depression - have just not set in yet.
"It's a little early for us to make any really concrete assessments right now," said John F. Reynolds, a retired colonel who helps manage the now-mandatory Deployment Cycle Support program, which more than 176,000 soldiers have gone through since last May.
There are isolated indications of trouble. Eight soldiers who survived Iraq committed suicide back home, said Martha Rudd, an Army spokeswoman. For example, in March, three weeks after Chief Warrant Officer William Howell returned to Fort Carson, Colo., he shot himself dead. At Fort Campbell, Ky., Specialist Jeremy Seeley, newly back from Iraq, apparently poisoned himself in a motel room, his family said. Also in March, Sgt. James K. Pitts, recently back to Fort Lewis, Wash., from Iraq, was charged in April with murder, accused of drowning his wife in a bathtub.
The Miles Foundation, a nonprofit group in Connecticut that deals with abuse in the military, says that the number of reports it receives about domestic violence and sexual abuse has soared since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. Before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the agency got about 75 calls from military families reporting abuse each month; now, it receives 150 calls a week.
Most of all, the moods of new veterans may be changeable. As more soldiers are sent to Iraq for repeat tours, the stress grows more complicated. Experts on veterans' issues say public attitudes also affect how well soldiers and their families cope with resuming ordinary lives. In recent weeks, with mounting rebel insurgencies, a growing scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, and the beheading of an American in Iraq, the polls have shown support for President Bush's policy slipping.
"The soldiers all want to know if there's support from home," Dr. John H. Rennick, a psychiatrist and a major in the Army Reserve, said. "That was part of what happened to them coming home from Vietnam. There was such a division of opinion and waning support after a while - a sense of futility took over among some people."
In the small Kansas towns that surround and depend on Fort Riley, support shows no signs of sinking. As stateside bases go, Fort Riley is typical: home to 11,000 soldiers in infantry, mechanics, maintenance and medical units and a training ground for National Guard and Reserve units from around the Midwest. About 3,700 soldiers from the base are in Iraq; an additional 4,000 have returned from there. Thirty-seven soldiers have died there, nearly all since President Bush declared major combat over in May 2003.
The thousands of homecomings so far have been simple and joyous. Officials at Fort Riley's hospital have predicted a glut of babies in the fall.
Nearly every fast-food joint, military uniform store and pawnshop along Washington Street in Junction City, south of the base, has a welcome home sign, and car bumpers are plastered with "Support Our Troops" magnets. Soldiers here tell of having strangers buy their dinners at Cracker Barrel.
But in private, some people acknowledge that their relationships have changed. Spouses say soldiers are quiet, aloof. Soldiers find spouses clingy or too independent after so much time on their own. Children seem different; the youngest do not even recognize their parents. For the predeployment newlyweds - one Fort Riley couple met on the Internet and married a week before he left - coming home can be truly strange.
Sgt. Maj. Curtis Shanklin, Colleen's husband, said he came home to find that his wife had an array of new friends and that his daughter, Courtney, was no longer a little girl. At 15, she drives. She grew four inches; now she is taller than he is.
"She has friends, and I'm second to them all of the sudden," Sergeant Major Shanklin, 44, said of his daughter. "She's not Daddy's little girl anymore. She doesn't talk to me unless she wants to go to the mall."
He does not plan to go away again, he said: After 26 years in the military, he will retire by early next year. He has heard that his unit may go back to Iraq in February.
These days, Sergeant Major Shanklin seems to keep dropping by Courtney's high school.
"Every day," Courtney says, her eyes rolling.
"But your dad is cool, right?" Sergeant Major Shanklin asks.
Sergeant Shanklin has had visits from some of his younger soldiers. Some complain that their children disobey them. Others struggle with anger at how their wives spent money while they were gone.
The far more serious problems - combat flashbacks, panic attacks - cannot be solved with flowers or dates, Colonel McClure, the chaplain, acknowledges. Talking helps, he tells the soldiers. Call your buddies, he says, but if symptoms persist, call a doctor.
Like most soldiers here, Sgt. Jeremy Kerr, 26, says he is fine. He is happy to be safely home, watching afternoon cartoons with his young daughter, Alexus, and son, Jacoby.
Sergeant Kerr says he is not getting counseling. He does not need it, he says. He says he has a deep faith in God, a Christian wife and a strongly supportive church.
Still, when he drives, he says, he finds himself scanning the roads, imagining bombs in bags of trash and potholes. Sometimes he studies Junction City rooftops for snipers. And he often wakes from dreams with the rattling boom of an explosion right beside him.
"My whole head will be ringing and buzzing like the real thing, and then I wake up," he said.
But this, he said, is an improvement. Sergeant Kerr came home to Junction City in February after an improvised bomb went off next to him in Iraq, sending shrapnel into his legs and leaving scars like lunar craters. The two Fort Riley soldiers beside him died.
For a week, he said, the image of a colleague with no legs and his face ripped apart haunted him. He could not sleep.
He and his wife, Felicia, admit that they struggled to get along at first. He was in a wheelchair then, and Felicia had to tend to his every need. He could not go to the bathroom alone.
"He was kind of getting on my nerves, to tell the truth," Ms. Kerr said. "I had kind of gotten things set up around here, and I wasn't ready to do that, too."
"It drove me crazy, too," Sergeant Kerr said. "I felt worthless."
Christa Dannenberg, 20, had never lived alone until her husband, Staff Sgt. Robert Dannenberg, went to Iraq in March 2003, six months after they married. She had moved from her parents' home into his. Everything got so quiet when he left.
By the time he returned last July, Ms. Dannenberg had learned to handle the checkbook, to wake up in bed alone, to make friends. At first, she said, it was odd to have him back. "I had to initiate every conversation," Ms. Dannenberg said. "It was like he wasn't there. He wouldn't talk."
But they pushed through that, they said. They laugh about it now. "It was hard to deal with," she said.
Sergeant Dannenberg, 23, said he had not even noticed his own silence; it was all a blur. "I guess I just thought she had a lot to tell me," he said. "You get that way in the desert."
He said he hoped he and his wife would get to spend a full year together now, something they have yet to do as a couple.
Not long ago, Sergeant Dannenberg and 700 other soldiers were ordered to return to Iraq.