Coming home from battle has never been easy. At least now it appears the Armed Forces are trying to cushion the landing.
This NYTimes Reporter has done a fair job for the duration.
September 12, 2003
Returning From Iraq War Not So Simple for Soldiers
By STEVEN LEE MYERS
ORT STEWART, Ga., Sept. 9 — Susan W. Wilder paced the auditorium here like a motivational speaker and asked the new veterans of the war in Iraq what pleased them most now that they were, at last, home.
The soldiers arrayed neatly before her — the first sergeant saw to that — answered as they had months ago when, in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq and later in the swelter of Baghdad, they had let their thoughts drift achingly toward home.
“Beer,” several shouted cheerfully. “Sex,” others answered. It was hard to say, amid the laughter, which they had missed most.
The joking subsided, though, as Mrs. Wilder, herself a soldier’s wife, asked what bothered them most now that they were home.
“Less tolerant of stupid people,” Staff Sgt. Matthew E. Jordan of the First Brigade, Third Infantry Division, said bitterly. “Stupid people doing stupid things.”
There was a murmur of assent.
For the soldiers of the First Brigade, accompanied by this reporter during their surge into Baghdad in the messy aftermath in June and again now that they have returned, coming home has been a far more complicated, even conflicted, experience than it seemed it would be back in Iraq when they thought of little else.
They have returned to wives and girlfriends, husbands and boyfriends, and to new babies born while they were overseas. They have returned to families who lived in fear of the news and could not stop following it. They have returned to face emotions they expected and others they did not.
Sergeant Jordan, whose scouts fought in some of the First Brigade’s fiercest clashes, seethed with anger at the lurid curiosity of those who would never know what he now knew.
“The first thing he asked me was, `Did you kill anyone?’ ” he said after the gathering in the auditorium, referring to someone he asked not be identified. “Then it was, `How did it feel?’ What kind of stupid thing is that to ask?”
The trajectory of the Third Infantry Division’s experience has closely followed that of the nation and of the war itself: fear and uncertainty at the outset in March, relief and jubilation at the swift victory in April, then fear and uncertainty again as the troops remained in Baghdad in the chaotic, deadly aftermath.
In the summer, morale plummeted as the division’s departure was ordered, then postponed, ordered and postponed again. It became an issue with reverberations from Baghdad to Georgia to Washington. Soldiers, including some who spoke to The New York Times, were admonished for voicing their frustrations publicly, and told not to talk again.
Now they are home, but homecoming is not simple and frustrations remain. Cpl. Keith D. Dries went out with friends in Savannah and discovered, as he put it, “I can’t stand crowds.” Capt. James R. Lockridge, an easy-mannered combat engineer, said he found it hard to communicate with his wife.
Some, like Sgt. Mark N. Redmond, returned with debilitating injuries — cracked vertebras, in his case, from a blast in the battle for Kifl, a village on the Euphrates River. Still others — as many as 5 percent of the division, officials here said — have sought counseling for symptoms of combat stress or other problems with readjustment.
There is a lot of pain to digest. The division has planted a row of eastern redbud trees along one side of the parade field at Fort Stewart — one for each of those who did not return home. The trees will bloom each spring, when most of the soldiers died.
The division lost 38 soldiers; 4 more from other units that fought with the division also died. The First Brigade lost 19, the last of them, Sgt. Michael T. Crockett, on July 14, when guerrillas fired a rocket-propelled grenade into his Humvee on the road from the airport outside Baghdad.
“It’s not easy,” Staff Sgt. Jennifer M. Raichle, an intelligence analyst, said as she drank beer with two other soldiers in her house in Hinesville the other night. “We have no patience for anybody.”
Her parents, from Enterprise, Ala., redecorated her house in Hinesville and planted a “Welcome Home” sign in her yard, but she postponed a trip home now that the troops have been given leave.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I love my family to death and I appreciate what they’ve done, but you just need time to be away from people.”
The Army knows that. Having trained the soldiers to fight, it is now undertaking its greatest effort ever to ease their return to “civilian” life.
Even before they left Iraq, the division’s soldiers had been screened for symptoms of combat stress, and those with signs of it were referred to the division’s psychologists for further evaluation. They have also been required to attend sessions like one the other day in which they were encouraged to air their feelings after months of keeping them in check.
The images were jarring. Bess K. Stone, who works for Fort Stewart’s Army Community Service, an organization that provides assistance to soldiers and their families during deployments, led hundreds of battle-wearied soldiers of the brigade’s Second Battalion, Seventh Infantry, through a similar discussion last week on the difference between the sheer physical gratification of sexual relations, and more complex emotional intimacy.
“Your expectations and your spouse’s expectations regarding your sexual relations are different,” she told them. “They are going to want to re-establish intimate relations.”
Soldiers, being soldiers, irreverently call them the “don’t beat your wife” briefings, but the sessions are the sobering outgrowth of a wave of murders and suicides last year involving soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., after their return from the war in Afghanistan. There were four murders and three suicides, all involving special operations forces who had been in Afghanistan.
Mrs. Wilder, the local director of Army Community Service, said the purpose was to reassure soldiers that the strains they were experiencing — from paying bills to re-establishing relationships with spouses and children — are not unusual. Wives attended similar sessions here before the soldiers returned.
For the soldiers of the Third Infantry Division, the Army has also set up a 24-hour hot line, like one established at Fort Bragg, that soldiers can call when they feel overwhelmed.
Certainly, the welcome to the soldiers can seem overwhelming. All around Fort Stewart and in Hinesville, Pembroke and other small cities in the piney woods near the post there are flags, yellow ribbons and banners welcoming the division’s troops.
President Bush is expected here on Friday. Sgt. Kenneth N. Bortz, an infantryman with the Second Battalion, received a key to his hometown, St. Mary’s, Ga. The local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America sent a delegation to greet each group of returning soldiers, the last of whom arrived on Thursday night last week.
“One of the things our organization pledged when it was formed 25 years ago was that no generation of soldiers would be abandoned by the previous generation, as we were,” Wayne Watkins, one of the Vietnam veterans, said as he waited for one of the last flights.
The First Brigade’s soldiers — the last of the division’s 18,000 troops to return — spent the last week attending briefings and awards ceremonies, undergoing medical tests and preparing for leave, which began for most on Friday.
Even though it is over for them, the war remains vivid, the news still close. “There are three things you experienced in Iraq that will be with you forever,” Lt. Col. Gary P. Mauck, a reservist who has served as the Fort Stewart chaplain during the war, told the soldiers at each of the counseling sessions. “The sights, the sounds and the smells.”
The United Nations headquarters in Baghdad that was destroyed by a car bomb was just down the road from the First Brigade camp near Olympic Stadium. The police academy attacked last week was across the street.
“We left right in time,” Capt. Darrin E. Theriault, commander of Headquarters Company, told the brigade commander, Col. William F. Grimsley, two days after the latest attack. Colonel Grimsley said it was difficult to follow the news from Iraq. “It’s still too close,” he said.
For all the questions that have been raised about the president’s rationale for the war and the Pentagon’s strategy for winning it, most of the brigade’s troops said they felt a sense of purpose and of mission, though as Captain Lockridge put it, it is “a mission still being accomplished.”
What lasting effects the war had on the First Brigade’s soldiers — on re-enlistment rates, which have slumped, on broken bodies and on battered psyches — remains to be seen.
Sergeant Bortz said fighting in Iraq made him rethink a career in the Army.
“I feel good for what I did, but out there, that’s when you really think about what you want,” he said on Friday. “And in Baghdad, I knew the Army wasn’t for me.”
Sgt. Jamie A. Betancourt, also in the Second Battalion, plans to get out when his enlistment is up in May for a simple reason. “There’s nowhere else I can go in the Army,” he said, “that’s not going back over there.”
Others have no choice.
In June, when the brigade’s soldiers were living in steaming squalor at the Iraqi Interior Ministry, known among troops as Hotel Hell, Staff Sgt. Ray B. Robinson complained about staying on in Baghdad without a clear purpose.
The brigade had turned over its responsibilities for security but remained in reserve, still vulnerable to attacks, but not aggressively pursuing the attackers.
He compared the situation to the carnival game of shooting ducks. “I was the duck,” he said.
On July 8, his squad had been assigned to patrol Route 8, the highway to and from the airport west of Baghdad. He spotted an orange-and-white taxi across the highway and two Iraqis walking away from it. He lurched his Humvee to the left, drove onto the median strip and ran over a mine.
The force of the blast blew him through the windshield. “Fox said I was dead,” he said of initial television reports, but — he woke in the mine’s crater, both his feet shattered, his legs torn by shrapnel, his face and arm scorched, his left eardrum broken.
He has endured two operations and faces more. The doctors saved his feet, but he is not likely to walk normally again. After 16 years in the Army and the National Guard, his career is over.
Sitting in a hospital bed installed in his house on a neat cul-de-sac here at Fort Stewart, with his wife and three children coming in and out, he remains strikingly unembittered. “The disappointment is over,” he said. “I’ve just got to deal with what I got.”
For Sergeant Robinson’s unit, Company A of the Second Battalion, Seventh Infantry, the war exacted a heavy toll. Five of the unit’s soldiers died, four of them in a taxi bombing on the highway into Najaf on March 29.
“We can’t lose,” he said. “We can’t lose this. It’ll all have been a waste. We’ve got five trees out there. If we pull out now, I got blown up for nothing.”
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company