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Body of War

War is never over, or so they say.

Though war as a global phenomenon, as a human condition, does not appear to be losing strength, individual wars do end, as do tours of combat. Yet war stories – whether in books or movies or magazine articles – rarely end anywhere but the battlefield, the aftermath relegated to an epilogue at best. The worth of the story often reflects the reality of war, its value measured in blood spilled, and comrades lost, and the number left standing.

After all, war is not calculus; it’s merely subtraction. How many soldiers can you afford to lose, and how many bodies are there? It’s cold and gory and simple, the lingering remnants of the animalistic lobe of the brain that doesn’t bother with any judgment that isn’t final. Person to person, only one left standing.

But for those who survive, their personal stories don’t end with war. They aren’t left to wander some desolate combat zone, and most of them do not continue on to the next war. They come home. What happens then?

That is the straightforward yet complex question we explore in the following pages. What happens when the fatigues come off? How does a person continue with everyday life after what is an undeniably life-altering experience? Can you really come home again?

We honor our soldiers on Veterans Day, but they are here among us – working, playing, living – the other 364 days a year, too. We found four local vets who were willing to share their experiences after their wars have ended, to help shed some light on their struggles and triumphs, and how we as a society can ease their transitions. Though the gap between soldier and civilian will always be separated by combat, we hope this helps to close the distance by some small amount.

Veterans

What is something the public still doesn’t understand about transitioning to civilian life?

Sean: I think the public, as well as leadership within the civilian workforce, still doesn’t understand the qualities that veterans can bring to their businesses. The media has been so overwhelmed with the Global War on Terror over the past decade, that they may only see a veteran as someone who simply survived the GWOT – not understanding all of the education, experience, leadership, and teamwork qualities that veterans can bring to their businesses.

Adam F: It’s difficult to narrow it down to one specific thing and varies from veteran to veteran. In my case specifically, because of my leadership position overseas, I had a very difficult time relinquishing that authoritative role. I planned everything, to every last detail. I would fill up the gas tank every time I drove the family vehicle, topping off each time. I would check traffic reports to make sure our travel time to a family gathering wasn’t going to be delayed. I would want the public to know why many veterans do peculiar things, why running out of gas on a patrol could be terrible, or why being late or stuck in heavy traffic could ruin a day. I know this is an impossible task, but the vets I know usually laugh at themselves and each other for these old, sometimes annoying quirks and think they wouldn’t have a problem sharing.

Kim: I think the biggest thing the public doesn’t understand is that not all deployments and not all soldiers are alike. Even when soldiers serve on the same deployment, they have different experiences and different reactions to the same events. Likewise, the transition to civilian life is different for each service member. It’s really an intensely personal and individual experience. For me, it was driving that was rough. I am a fairly aggressive driver anyway, but when I returned from Iraq, I was really over the top. I was constantly alert, constantly on the lookout for IEDs. I was used to owning the road – we drove as fast as our slowest vehicle could manage. We didn’t stop for traffic lights or stop signs…it was just too dangerous. So when I got home and got back into my car, although I knew I wasn’t in danger, that anxiety stayed with me and I had no patience for other drivers. I was a bit of a jerk, actually, and was probably lucky I didn’t have a serious road rage incident. That stayed with me for a few months, then gradually just faded away.

Adam W: With the growing issues in VA healthcare, one of the big things that stands out is PTSD. There is a stigma around PTSD that has been painted by Hollywood, and it shows. It depicts violent post-deployment veterans that don’t know how to handle what they are going through. The reality is that most don’t know where to start.

“Most civilians tend to dance around the subject of combat injuries, thinking that it may “set us off” into a PTSD episode. That’s absolutely not the case. We want to talk about our injuries – our experiences – so that they understand and are not afraid to engage in real conversation about real topics.”

Do any specific moments or conversations stand out to you that might paint a picture of that transition?

Kim: When I came home from my first combat deployment, my three sisters all came in from out of town so we could spend some time together – a rare event for us because we’re all so busy and live so far apart. We spent several days talking, often late into the night. Whenever I joined in the conversation, my anecdotes inevitably related back to my time in Iraq. I don’t think I spoke much about actually being in combat because it felt somehow inappropriate – I was afraid it would sound like bragging, and quite frankly, that’s nothing to brag about. I think I talked more about life on a forward operating base and some of the more comical things that happened. On about our third day together, I started talking about something that had happened in Iraq – I don’t remember what – and one of my sisters stopped me and told me they were all tired of hearing about my deployment and asked why couldn’t I talk about anything else. I was really stunned and hurt and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t actually have anything else to talk about; the previous year of my life had been spent in Iraq and it was my only frame of reference. I think I just excused myself so I didn’t cry in front of them. I know they felt bad about it and apologized to me later, but I think my experience was just too foreign and they just couldn’t relate to it.

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Adam Fitzsimmons – photo by Chris Casella

Adam F: [One story occurred] while we were at the movies, the Movie Tavern to be exact. I had purchased our tickets, of course [we arrived] 30 minutes early, and I walked through the hallway to find the correct theater. The hostess checked my ticket and informed me that particular film was not seating yet. I asked her, “OK, when will it be seating?” She responded with “in a little bit.” I responded, “OK, what does ‘a little bit’ mean exactly?” The hostess fumbled for an answer and replied “five-10 minutes.” I responded with, “Is it five or 10?” As I read this now, I had no intention of being rude, however I know it looks and sounds that way. The fact of the matter is, I had just come from an environment where “a little bit” was never used to describe anything, and in the span of five-10 minutes a lot could change. Needless to say, my wife was a bit embarrassed.

Tell us about the adjustment process of the people around you: family, friends, employers… How does it compare to what you might be struggling with? Where do the two intersect?

Sean: Being a wounded warrior, there is an extra adjustment process involved when making the transition from soldier to civilian – as well as the transition from wounded warrior to civilian. Most of my friends are strong Type-A personalities, so they have no problems asking me how my combat wounds, recovery, and transition are coming along. However, that’s not the case with most civilians. Most civilians tend to dance around the subject of combat injuries, thinking that it may “set us off” into a PTSD episode. That’s absolutely not the case. We want to talk about our injuries – our experiences – so that they understand and are not afraid to engage in real conversation about real topics.

Adam F: After being gone for a year, picking up where you left off is difficult for any couple. My wife and I were no different. It felt like sometimes I wanted to fit a year of being gone into a month, doing as much as I could. I never slowed down, never relaxed…but then again, I was used to that pace. She was not, nor was the rest of my family, so I think there were some growing pains in the area. There were changes to some of my behavior and personality, but not so dramatically where people were freaked out. Those changes would dissipate over time but never leave; [they’re] still with me today. The real intersection is identifying the plan on moving forward and then having enough fortitude to actually do so.

Adam W: My family wasn’t sure how to deal with how different I was. I was more prone to aggravation, was hyper-vigilant most all the time, and had no idea what to do next after having a very structured life. It wasn’t until almost eight years later that I started regular treatment with the VA. I had started originally after I got out, but after I moved I wasn’t able to continue because of my work and a lack of benefits.

Kim: For about six months after I came home from Iraq (and probably to a lesser degree from my later deployment to Afghanistan) I think I had very little patience for the banalities of life. To this day, my mother swears I had PTSD because I was very short with people, and quite frankly, I was angry. Really angry. A lot of the time. I think it actually scared her a little bit. I didn’t see it at the time – I just thought people were being stupid and trivial – and while I still don’t think I suffered from PTSD, I do realize that I had a tough time readjusting. I also realize that I wasn’t the easiest person to deal with. Even when I wasn’t angry, it seemed like I always felt impatient and anxious. Fortunately, my mom convinced everyone I had PTSD so they chalked it up to that and forgave me for being a jerk!

Before your deployment ended, did you talk to anyone about what you might face in your return to civilian life? Is it something commonly discussed? Did you think you were mentally prepared?  What has surprised you?

Kim: I know we received a lot of briefings about resources available to us when we redeployed back to the States, but I don’t really remember talking to anyone specifically about the transition back to civilian life. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I don’t recall anything like that. I don’t think it is commonly discussed because everyone returns to their own reality after having their own deployment experience. I know some of the common things I’ve talked about with other vets are being startled easily by loud noises. I did think I was mentally prepared to return home at the time, although I’m not sure I appreciated what the transition would be like. I think the thing that I’ve been surprised by the most is the outpouring of public support. I’ve had so many strangers walk up to me and thank me for my service – it really feels great, especially when I’ve had a tough day. On a few occasions, people have anonymously bought my meal when I dined out in uniform. It really does feel good to know that people appreciate the sacrifice, because being a soldier can be a tough job some days.

Adam F: I honestly thought I would have absolutely no problem. It was discussed here and there, and we had to sit through a few presentations on what not to do, but other than that, not discussed to a great deal. Getting home was like a honeymoon to a marriage, the first few months were outstanding and everyone is happy you’re home. Everything and everyone is great. And then all of a sudden, you’re back for six months, don’t have a job, have bills to pay, and the deployment money has run out. That seems to be a repeating scenario. Personally, I was fortunate enough to find steady employment, but I was surprised at how cold and insensitive I had become to my loved ones, friends, family…you name it. My fuse had gotten very short. Things that didn’t bother me before the deployment – traffic, lines, rude people, people not paying attention in general – were now causing me great stress and anger. I had no problem confronting complete strangers for things I deemed to be wrong and felt great anger toward them – something that never happened before. Those types of reactions surprised me very much.

If you’re speaking to a civilian, what is one simple thing they can do to better understand a veteran?

Adam W: Actually listening to what the veterans are saying is a good start. Hollywood and video games portray war to make money. The reality is that we can explain and discuss things with civilians so as long as they understand that coming home, we have a shorter fuse to the portrayals of what life is like while in a warzone, in comparison to what some may experience in day-to-day life.

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Sean Clifton – photo by Chris Casella

Sean: Simply talk to a vet. Strike up a conversation about anything – anything at all. Also, reach out to a local veteran organization (such as Fallen 15) and volunteer to support a local veteran event and/or Wounded Warrior event. They will quickly realize who we are…and that we are passionate, educated, experienced, humble, patriotic members of our community that want to continue to serve our communities and our country as best we can.

Adam F: I’d say I wish they would actually understand what a lot of these guys did over there, what they were in charge of, the shear amount of responsibility that they had. Not just in a combat role, but in an accountability role. When I got home, I saw how “kid-gloved” everything was, how it was all right to give excuses for failures and to have the “everyone else’s fault” mentality. That was bothersome to me.

Kim: Spend two weeks camping out in the desert/woods/whatever with no toilet, only MREs to eat, and ration yourself to two bottles of water a day while you hump your body weight in gear all over Hell and creation. Make sure your rifle has a round chambered at all times and never let it out of your sight. That might be a start. I’m mostly kidding, obviously, but understanding life in an austere and hostile environment is something very foreign to most Americans, and certainly was to me before I joined the Army.

A common sentiment from veterans is that they can only relate to those who have been in combat. Do you think this is accurate? Has interacting with other veterans helped you?

Adam F: Absolutely, I believe this to be very accurate. I believe it to be more though that those types of guys have been around you for the past year or more. The conversations are different, the mood is different, the jokes are different, etc. I found myself actively seeking out other veterans, not to do anything specific, just to hang out, and most of the time we didn’t say a word about the war.

Sean: Veterans interacting with veterans is absolutely beneficial, however, we need to be careful not to restrict our social involvement to veterans only. It’s our job as veterans to ensure that the public is more aware of our sacrifices, and our challenges…as well as the challenges that our families face. Vets talking with vets is easy… that will get us back up on our feet and out the door on the road to recovery and success; however, vets talking with everyone else will expand community awareness and make the entire healing process and reintegration process much easier and more successful.

Adam W: I think it is very accurate and very important for veterans to talk and interact with other veterans. I know from my own family that because I was in Iraq, my grandfather told me stories about WWII that no one else had ever heard before. He knew that I would understand the struggles that he faced both overseas and at home. This sort of kinship overlooks generational gaps and only sees war and the long-lasting effects that it has.

Public support often sounds like lip service. Does current policy reflect the sentiments and statements from leaders at the city, state, and federal level?

DSC00195Adam F: When I was overseas, I was interviewed by a local media outlet on the employment climate for returning/transitioning soldiers and the obstacles that were in front of them when they came home. I was concerned for many of them that would have a difficult time finding a steady, well-paying position with which they could support their family. After the story ran, a reporter asked a city and state official on what was being done to support veteran employment. His answer, while sounding great and probably earning him some votes, had little to no content. After which he said something to the effect of, “Sometimes, the skills they learn to go to war aren’t the same skills we need here at home.” I was baffled, and it was extremely clear to me that this person had absolutely no idea what transitioning military members can bring to any employment table nor did it sound like he wanted to take the time and learn.

Sean: Overall, the public is extremely supportive of veterans, combat veterans, and definitely wounded warriors. I’ve seen that support up close and personal, and sincerely appreciate it. However, when the support turns to policy-makers and big government, things get a little dicey. Our government is so big, that we (veterans) tend to get lost in the shuffle and pushed around the process. The VA scandal is just one example. I’ve had city, state, and federal leaders talk to me personally about how they can help me, and they’ve looked me in the eye and said they will help, and I hope they have the best of intentions, but I’m still fighting for VA support of my disability claim – and it’s been over three years. Unfortunately, I think veterans are not a top priority for senior officials. That’s why it’s vital that veterans come together, share their personal lessons learned, and help each other get the best support possible. Post-9/11 veterans are a very active bunch, and with social media and other support, we can get answers to questions fairly quickly.

Inevitably, this conversation always draws comparisons to soldiers returning from the Vietnam War. Has the current climate changed? Do you think we have made progress?

Kim: Yes, yes, yes! The current climate is much more positive; we have made remarkable progress. Our Vietnam veterans got a raw deal, and I think Americans recognized it and learned from it and were determined that our current crop of combat veterans would never be subjected to a similar fate. Case in point: in response to that relatively small group of idiots at the Westboro Baptist Church, the Patriot Guard Riders was formed. I don’t have to do a Wikipedia or Google search to tell you that the PGR exponentially outnumbers the WBC yahoos and that the PGR has a much greater impact on our soldiers and military families than the WBC could ever manage.

Adam F: The climate has changed 180 degrees in my opinion. My father, though he never served in Vietnam, was in the service during that time. He would tell me the horrific stories of what he and his buddies went through just having a uniform on. I cannot imagine being spit on in an airport or not being able to walk down the street in uniform after I rotated back home. I think those wounds were so thoroughly deep and expansive that this nation will never forget how the Vietnam era was treated. One thing that is indicative of this change is the stolen valor problems with the current generation of veterans. Basically, fake service members who throw a uniform on and walk around for attention and recognition with claims of heroic and valorous effort while not actually ever serving and making any type of sacrifice.

What have you brought back with you?

IMG_0759Sean: Increased value of life…and the “little things.” After nearly losing my life on several occasions in 2009, I can honestly tell you that every day is special to me. Every day is a blessing, and I try to enjoy every day as if it is my last. I lived in a world of “last days” for nearly two years from 2009-2011, and I think that reprogrammed my brain a bit…

Adam W: There is a brotherhood that you form with all of the guys that you deploy with. You may not always agree with them or get along, but you are brothers. It doesn’t really even have to be someone you deployed with, it could just be another veteran. It is because of that brotherhood that I brought back a renewed appreciation for our nation’s flag. Each time I looked at my shoulder and saw Old Glory, it reminded me of my family and everyone back home that supported us. The sense of pride you feel is hard to explain in words.

Adam F: I brought back a sense of pride: proud of my guys for the job they did, proud of my service. But most of all, I brought back a “live life to the fullest” mentality. “Now is a perfect time, so do it” – I don’t think that will ever leave me.

What did you lose?

Sean: Other than half my guts on the battlefield (laughs)?

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Adam Williams – photo by Chris Casella

Adam W: I don’t believe that I lost anything while I was in the military or deployed. I am a better man because of the time I put in the military and overseas. I don’t believe that I would be half the man that I am today if it wasn’t for my experiences and interactions with the other infantrymen in my unit.

Adam F: As with many, I think I lost some of my innocence; my soul is harder and less forgiving now. This is a great thing for a soldier – but not a great thing for a husband and father.

Kim: First and foremost, I lost friends and comrades. I also lost that feeling of invincibility, that feeling that bad things only happen to other people that I’d managed to hang onto through my 20s.

Do things look different now than they did a month after your return? A year after?

Kim: Yes, of course. I’m pretty much back to normal in that I get as wrapped up as anyone else in the banalities of life that I couldn’t be bothered with when I first returned. I’m also less hopeful of a definitive end to these wars than I was when I first deployed. I’m definitely less certain that we can “win.” I’m not even sure what winning would look like anymore.

Adam F: Absolutely, I had a baby daughter and life has gone well. We are all happy and healthy. My level of cynicism has lowered, but is still there. Time has helped, and will always.

Have your priorities changed?

Kim: I would like to say that they have, that my priorities are loftier or more noble, but that would be dishonest. I just want to be a good soldier, wife, stepmother, sister, and daughter and have a good life and retire some day.

Adam F: Anytime you get married or have a child, things will change, and that is where my priorities lie at this point in my life. I take more time out of my day to enjoy life, to stop and think about how fortunate I am, to live life to the fullest. It can end in a blink of an eye, and I am fully aware of that.

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