World never the same for returning veterans

7/4/2010
BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Janeen Przysiecki, a 2nd lieutenant with the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing who has been a medic in the Middle East three times since 2005, says she is struck by the calm in the States.
Janeen Przysiecki, a 2nd lieutenant with the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing who has been a medic in the Middle East three times since 2005, says she is struck by the calm in the States.
Sgt. 1st Class Dan Cahill, left, Staff Sgt. Wesley Martz, center, and Spec. Brandon Brown, right, noted that lingering feelings from war zones like Iraq made it difficult to transition back to home life.
Sgt. 1st Class Dan Cahill, left, Staff Sgt. Wesley Martz, center, and Spec. Brandon Brown, right, noted that lingering feelings from war zones like Iraq made it difficult to transition back to home life.

When sleep wouldn't come, the bourbon did. Lots of it.

Even then, when Caleb Shanks finally drifted into unconsciousness, he didn't find relief.

People might ask what it was like spending a year of his life protecting convoys in Iraq — getting into firefights, driving armored vehicles through unfriendly territory — but in some ways that's the wrong question. Facing death was the easy part for soldiers like him. It's facing life back here that's hard.

“I had a lot of problems readjusting when I came home,” said the 22-year-old who returned last year. “I did a lot of drinking. … I have a lot of relationship problems with people.”

Gone, maybe forever, is the jovial man his friends and family once knew.

“I'll never be the way that I was before,” the Indiana Army National Guardsman from Liberty Center, Ohio, said. “I was always a really happy person, and I'm just not anymore.”

More than 250,000 active-duty, Reserve, and National Guard personnel are deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the most recent statistics from the Defense Department.

One day, they'll all have to come home. When that happens, they'll face a whole new set of challenges.

It's common to focus on the extreme cases — soldiers returning from the desert with limbs severed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), bodies scarred by shrapnel, minds shaken by post-traumatic stress disorder — and assume that everyone else goes back to life as usual. The truth is that even for the most well-adjusted soldier, the world is never the same. It can't be.

“They all experience trauma, if you will, on some level,” said Anne Demers, an assistant professor of public health at San Jose State University who is studying returning veterans and their loved ones. Almost half of the family members in the focus groups for one of her studies reported deployment having a “somewhat to very negative” effect on their veterans' lives.

“What I'm seeing is that there's a real disconnect with [veterans]. It's almost like they're caught between two different cultures,” she said. “They describe feeling like aliens in this civilian world.”

Sgt. 1st Class Dan Cahill of the Ohio Army National Guard knows what Ms. Demers is talking about.

“While I had been away, everything here had changed,” he said. “I still remembered the old Toledo or the old situations that I was in. I had to learn to adapt to everyone else because their lives had been going on and yet mine had been virtually staying still since I left.”

Sergeant Cahill, 46, spent three of the last five years in the Middle East during three separate tours of duty. Each time, the South Toledoan came back to something different.

In 2006, after spending 15 months performing escort missions in the most dangerous part of Iraq and readying base defenses against chemical attacks, he returned to a longtime girlfriend who had bought a home for them while he was away, grown her hair longer, and lost weight.

“We took a couple evolutionary steps in dating backward because there was a certain uncomfortableness, a certain, like, ‘Who the hell are you?' sort of thing,” Sergeant Cahill said.

By the time he left again in 2008, they were husband and wife and knew what to expect. Except they also had an infant son, born not long before Sergeant Cahill left the country. His homecoming more than 20 months later wasn't exactly the stuff a daddy dreams about.

“It was like I was a visitor that [the boy] tolerated,” Sergeant Cahill said. “When I got off the plane and came into the airport, he didn't run down the carpet and jump up into my arms and hug me until I could barely breathe. That never happened.

“So yeah, reality started setting in from that point. And I wasn't all crazy in my vision, but, you know, everybody fantasizes a little bit about what's to be.”

Eventually the sergeant sought counseling from a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic, which put him on anti-depressants for a few months until things returned to normal.

It's not unusual for troops to go through such a period of adjustment, and it doesn't mean they have clinical mental health issues. More than 2 million have been deployed so far, and most who return don't have problems over the long term, said Sheila Rauch, director of the Serving Returning Veterans' Mental Health program at the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System, which covers the Toledo area.

Depending on individual circumstances, it can take between a couple of months to a couple of years for service members to adjust, she explained. Factors include whether a job is waiting for them, support from their family and friends, and if there are any other stress factors in their lives.

At least the Cahill family survived intact. Many relationships don't.

Many of the married soldiers in his roughly 600-person unit ended up getting divorced, said the Rev. Jeff Wheeland, senior pastor at Fallen Timbers Community Church in Waterville who spent nearly a year in Iraq as an Army Reserve chaplain in 2005. He was stationed with the 983rd Engineering Battalion in the perilous locales of Tikrit and Ramadi.

“I think a lot of it's post-traumatic stress,” he said. “People have no idea what you go through when you're over there — what you see, what you smell — and sometimes soldiers just can't get that out of their mind.”

It can build walls between spouses or significant others.

“That's the cost of war that people don't see. They always want to look at the killed in action, but it can really tear families apart,” said Mr. Wheeland, 36.

Look at what it did to Mr. Shanks. He was dumped by his fiancee during his mobilization, then found himself adrift.

“You're really relying on that other person to be there for you when you get home,” he said. “I really took a big dive after that.”

The problems multiplied. Plagued by sleeplessness, troubling dreams, and constant paranoia, he started drinking a fifth of bourbon every night to fall asleep. More alcohol followed during the day — clear stuff at work so no one would suspect. Mr. Shanks was angry all the time for no reason, gained 40 pounds, and became disengaged from the world around him.

“It's boring here,” Mr. Shanks said. “You went from something that was exciting and new every day to something that's just blah all the time. You feel like you can't really connect with people, and nobody really gets what's going on. It just makes relationships hard.”

Mr. Shanks gave up his job in sales, too irritated with people in general to make it work. He tried going to college but said an anti-war rant directed at him by a teacher led him to drop out before returning to school recently.

Now, after seeking counseling and giving up heavy drinking, he's pursuing an associate degree in marketing. Still, he was briefly tempted to volunteer and rejoin some military buddies for an upcoming mission to Afghanistan.

“It could be a lot of fun. Same guys who are going,” Mr. Shanks said. “But no. No. The problems you have when you come home, I don't think it's worth it.”

Like it or not, the armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — the latter now qualifying as the longest in this country's history — have become a revolving door of deployments and redeployments, unlike past major wars. Fortunately, there are some who like it that way.

Second Lt. Janeen Przysiecki of the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing has volunteered to serve as a medic in the Middle East three times since 2005. She said she and her husband, who went with her each time as a member of the 180th, have had no problem readjusting to civilian life.

That doesn't mean nothing changed. They had to leave their son behind with his grandparents, and they've tried to dispel his fearful images of what things may have been like at Balad Air Base in northern Iraq.

And although Lieutenant Przysiecki's old job as a nurse and research coordinator for the Jobst Vascular Center at Toledo Hospital was waiting for her, it wasn't the same. She was struck by how eerily calm everything seemed.

“It's different when you come back to work because it's like: I don't hear any explosions sitting at my desk and I don't hear warnings going off and things like that. I don't have my Kevlar vest sitting next to me,” the Rossford resident said.

War is a hard thing to leave behind, and sometimes it pops up when you least expect it. Lieutenant Przysiecki, 33, still has occasional dreams and flashbacks prompted by innocent events, such as when an air ambulance lands on the hospital's roof.

“It never fails,” she said. “Every time I go to a total flashback to Balad and the helicopter pad and those patients that would be run in into the hospital.”

It's not traumatic for her, but it happens just the same. Not that she wants to talk about it with her colleagues, who may have their own — very different — burdens to get through.

“They were all very nice and ‘I'm so glad you're home' and ‘We appreciate your service' and everything, but that's kind of where I leave it,” she said. “I don't really want to delve into it because they can't understand it.”

There are other remnants of Iraq and Afghanistan that many soldiers bring home with them, an edginess that takes time to dissipate.

“It's hard to adjust back,” said Staff Sgt. Wesley Martz of the Ohio Army National Guard. “Your sense of awareness is a lot higher. … You can't trust anybody over there.”

Those anxieties don't vaporize when a soldier sets foot on American soil. There's no on-off switch.

“People would tell me more about it than I would [notice],” said Sergeant Martz, 28, who ended up marrying a friend who stayed in touch with him during the year he spent stationed in Kuwait in 2008. “It took me about a month to be able to relax and be comfortable in a crowd, like at the mall. It was hard to be around a lot of people and feel 100 percent comfortable.”

At restaurants, the Perrysburg Township resident always faces toward the front now. For the first 30 days home, he made sure that he never went anywhere alone, that he had a close friend or family member nearby.

Everyone lives with something different, but it's not always what you would expect. Spec. Brandon Brown of the Ohio Army National Guard took part in firefights in Iraq as a gunner and driver protecting convoys in 2008. It's not the fact of being in battle that lingers with him, though.

“It's that state of mind that you're in. You're always in that state of alert and that aggression because you don't want to be sitting in the gunner's turret with a smile on your face,” he said. “That sticks with you. That sticks with you for a while.”

The 27-year-old, who has the words “Lord have mercy on my Enemies for I will not” tattooed on his arm, had the job of clearing the path for convoys. If others didn't get out of the way, he made them. Here in the United States, things don't work that way, and he finds himself infuriated by red lights and other drivers. Even roadside trash can get his heart rate going now.

“Sometimes if I'm driving down the expressway and you'll just see a box sitting on the side of the expressway, I watch it as I pass by it,” he said. “Because when you're over there they'll bury IEDs under anything, and you just, you pay attention a lot more to that stuff.”

That's natural, said Ms. Demers, the San Jose State professor whose son deployed three times to Iraq with the Army.

“It's part of survival when they're in theater,” she said. “It's overreacting in our world; it's survival in the military world.”

At least Specialist Brown, who said his back was injured as a result of all of the heavy equipment he wore and carried, was able to find some good in all of this.

The Perrysburg Township man found that the experience strengthened his relationship with his wife, Brooke. The two eloped just before he went abroad and had a proper ceremony upon his return. In between, they communicated constantly.

“I would put him on my speakerphone and just carry him around with me so that he could hear normal sounds,” she said. “It calmed him down more. … I would watch TV with my family. I would get ready, do my hair.

“Even though we were on the phone all the time, it wasn't enough,” she continued. “It makes me appreciate him being here more.”

That word — “appreciate” — hangs in the air. It's one that comes up almost as often as “adjustments” among some returning veterans. They appreciate the freedoms they have back home, the respite from temperatures soaring above 130 degrees, the value of family and friends.

For Sergeant Cahill, serving in Iraq had its costs, but in the end he believes it made him a better man.

Sitting in fatigues in a room at the National Guard's Walbridge Armory, where he ensures that troops for future deployments are fully trained, he described how it's made him a much more satisfied person.

“[Before,] my life was supposed to be bigger and better,” he said. “And now I'm just happy to be alive. I take wonderment at trees. I can't get enough of trees.”

As he got up to leave, he noticed a butterfly on the floor. He picked it up and helped it out the window, watching as it fluttered away into a clear blue sky.

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103