Safe at Home, Ill at Ease

The biggest group of Washington soldiers who served in Iraq are starting to return, and it's not clear we're ready for them.

In the Seattle armory on a recent Saturday morning, several dozen spouses and parents of National Guard soldiers stationed in Iraq listen to a briefing by Guard and Veterans Affairs staff on what to expect when their loved ones return and how to deal with it. There's a recently returned soldier in the room, too, and he's exuding a serious intensity and nodding his head as such issues as scream-inducing nightmares and emotional numbness arise. He's in the room as a media handler, not a participant, but the discussion strikes such a painful chord that he raises his hand.

"It's kind of difficult for me sitting here listening to this," says 48-year-old Sgt. 1st Class Jack Martin, adding that he might have to leave. Martin served nine months in Iraq with the Guard's 81st Brigade Combat Team and returned early, shortly before Thanksgiving, because of back problems aggravated by war. "Every day for three months, we got mortared and rocketed," he relates, referring to attacks on his base near Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The experience has left him so jittery, he says, that when he heard someone humming upstairs in the armory, he thought an alarm was going off and nearly jumped out of his seat. Sleeplessness is a chronic problem. "Last night, I went to sleep at 5 o'clock," he says. "My alarm went off at 5:30."

Soldiers like Martin are beginning to come back from the war. Several Washington state units have completed their tours, including a 4,000-strong Army Stryker Brigade and two Guard units of a little over 100 soldiers each. The largest group of Guard returnees, the 3,200 Washington soldiers of the 81st Brigade, is arriving home now, in phases. Unlike earlier waves of returnees, the 81st Brigade—part of the "weekend warrior" force that the war has employed in unprecedented numbers—has witnessed some of the deadliest fighting in Iraq and has lost nine members.

Those already home are trying to process what they've experienced and re-enter society. Preliminary information suggests that these soldiers, encountering a kind of guerrilla, on-the-ground combat that American troops haven't seen since Vietnam, are having significant mental-health issues. Last July, a New England Journal of Medicine study sent a lightning bolt through the medical establishment in reporting that up to 17 percent of soldiers surveyed met the criteria for major depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In part because the soldiers surveyed were in Iraq before the insurgency grew more intense, that is widely considered to be too low a figure to describe the troops serving there now.

As federal, local, and private agencies gear up to receive these soldiers, everybody is trying to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam, when traumatized soldiers returned to a hostile or disinterested homeland and little government support. "We, as a country, screwed it up about as bad as it could be screwed up," says John Lee, deputy director of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. Today, in many ways, Washington is leading the way in services for Iraq veterans. At the same time, the scarcity of new funding for such services calls into question the government's ability to handle the influx of soldiers yet to arrive. "I don't think we're ready to deal with who's coming home," says U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, a former Navy psychiatrist.

Some soldiers now back home seem to be adjusting well. "I went out and played in the desert," is how 22-year-old Ben Nyquist talks about the 14 months he spent on active duty with a Seattle-based Reserve unit known as the 70th Regional Readiness Command. Uninvolved in direct combat, he came home in May and immediately resumed his part-time job as a barista in a Factoria Starbucks and his place at Bellevue Community College, studying computer engineering. "I picked up my life where it left off," he says.

Probably more typical is Michael Kunzelman, who served in Iraq for 15 months with the Guard's 1161st Transportation Company. Hauling supplies around Iraq, Kunzelman once had his truck blown three feet off the ground by a roadside bomb. His truck landed in one piece, and he just kept driving. For the most part, the 39-year-old Burien resident is functioning normally, having taken a new job upon his return for a company that rebuilds railroad tracks. But he has his moments, like on a business trip when he awoke in a motel at 3 in the morning, on the floor, with his blankets spread from one side of the room to the other. The weirdest thing, as he told his dad, was that he remembered nothing of the tortured night. "I know," said his dad, a Vietnam vet.

Many of these soldiers, coming from the Guard and Reserves, are older than those who fought in previous wars, so they are returning to lives in progress, lives that often include families. The stress placed on those families has been one hallmark of the war so far. "Extreme increase in divorces," reads a slide presented at the recent armory event.

"They're not the same people that left," says Sheila Kelly, who is married to a soldier in the 1161st. "They have this life we'll never know—they'll never talk about it." She says her husband is "just quiet and pulled back, like he's scared to open up. Even if things happen at work now, he doesn't talk about it much." Their three kids, ages 10, 12, and 18, notice it, too. "They kept asking what was wrong with Dad. Is he OK? All I can say is, 'Give Dad time.'"

For veterans looking for jobs, this can be a difficult time. Federal law protects the jobs of most guardsmen and reservists while they are at war. But soldiers who had jobs like seasonal farm work are not protected. Others quit their old jobs thinking they could easily find new ones upon their return. Still others were in the regular armed services but left after their tour to discover that the job market was far from easy.

"I never fathomed it would be this difficult to find work after serving my country," says Steve Hurt, a 26-year-old Ephrata resident and a member of the 1161st. When Hurt got back in August, he found that his wife and newborn had moved from their residence in Leavenworth to Ephrata to be closer to other families of his unit. Hurt stayed there, thinking he could do better than the $8-an-hour retail job he had in Leavenworth. In five months, despite numerous applications, nothing has turned up except an offer from a trucking company, which would require him to be on the road for two or three weeks at a time with only a few days between stints. "After being gone for 18 months, I don't know if that's what I want to do," he says.

Meantime, one gets the sense that Hurt and his peers are still making sense of what they saw in Iraq and what they continue to see on TV. Hurt calls Iraq "a whole different world," where people in remote areas live in mud houses and the men, according to his commanders, send their wives and children out to the middle of the road to stop an Army convoy. "We were cautioned not to stop for anything," he says, a directive that unsettled several in the unit, including him, "a pretty strong Christian." Having seen the insurgency and the resulting casualties, Hurt says he "doesn't understand why the military is still there. . . . If the country doesn't want to be free, let 'em be."

Others would eagerly go back, like Staff Sgt. Kenneth Harmon-Brown of the Guard's Bravo Company, 14th Combat Engineers Battalion, based at Fort Lewis. One of the presenters at the Saturday armory event, Harmon-Brown says when he saw Iraqis in their mud houses, he'd get a great feeling that he was making their quality of life better. Still, he keenly remembers some of the less pleasant aspects of duty. Often, he and fellow soldiers in his unit would be charged with finding and disarming explosives that Iraqis had hidden in the innards of dead dogs, sheep, and other animals lying on the side of the road. "You'd be digging through some dog's chest cavity," he says. "There'd be those smells and the sounds of maggots, and now you're crawling through this stuff."

"We have learned a lot about taking care of soldiers returning from combat," says Steve Hunt of the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound's main facility on Beacon Hill in Seattle. There was no term "post-traumatic stress disorder" when Vietnam vets were first coming home. That label came years later, when the psychological trauma endured by vets could no longer be ignored. Now, Hunt says, there is an appreciation for war trauma and also an awareness that doctors might need to treat symptoms they don't understand, such as the nerve damage government authorities finally admitted Gulf War soldiers suffered after exposure to chemical agents. In an attempt to address both physical- and mental-health needs for troops coming back now, the VA has set up a "deployment health clinic." Hunt, who is its medical director, encourages returning soldiers to come to the clinic for a comprehensive exam, including a mental-health screening. The clinic hopes to catch soldiers who might not acknowledge they need treatment, a prevalent phenomenon in a military culture that views psychological distress as a weakness and a potential career killer.

The VA, through its satellite Seattle Vet Center, has also recently hired a retired Navy chaplain and psychologist, Mike Colson, to serve as an outreach coordinator for returning troops. Colson got out of the Navy in November, after serving in Iraq and experiencing what he calls his own "dark period" for which he sought counseling. He, along with other VA staff, are continually engaged in workshops like the one at the armory, talking with soldiers and their families about war's psychological effects and how to get help.

Not only the federal VA but the state Department of Veterans Affairs offers PTSD counseling. The department contracts with private therapists around the state, which is especially helpful in rural areas not served by VA facilities. It is the only such state agency in the country to do so. It is also one of an array of state and federal agencies to sign a "memorandum of understanding" meant to coordinate all types of services for soldiers returning to Washington, from health needs to job placement. "There's a huge state commitment to veterans coming back," says Julie Mock, the Bothell-based board president of the National Gulf Resource Center, an advocacy group for veterans.

Yet the state's PTSD program is not expecting any new funding, given the horrible shape of the state budget. In fact, it's trying to keep its funding from being cut, according to Tom Schumacher, the program's director. He estimates that the program's caseload has increased about 30 percent in the past year. "We're really going to have to make do somehow," he says.

There's been no great surge of federal money to the VA, either. Miles McFall, director of PTSD programs for the Seattle and American Lake facilities, says that he has, to date, hired no new staff to deal with returning troops. He hopes to do so, though, by winning a portion of a $10 million pool of federal grant money for which VA facilities around the country are now competing. "I resist the perception that the VA is on the ropes and doesn't have funding to take care of people," McFall says, noting that only a percentage of soldiers are plagued with mental-health problems and only a percentage of those seek treatment. "I don't anticipate having a landslide we can't handle."

At this stage of the game, though, with many or most of Washington state's soldiers who have served in Iraq yet to return, it's hard to say. "Do we have the resources?" asks John Lee of the state Department of Veterans Affairs. "I don't know. There are some things about the population returning that we simply do not know about."

nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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