After Combat, the Unexpected Perils of Coming Home
By JAMES DAO
Capt. Adrian Bonenberger made plans for his final patrol to Imam Sahib. But inside, he was sweating the details of a different mission
Sgt. Brian Keith boarded the plane home feeling a strange dread. His wife wanted a divorce and had moved away, taking their son and most of their bank account with her. At the end of his flight lay an empty apartment and the blank slate of a new life.
“A lot of people were excited about coming home,” Sergeant Keith said. “Me, I just sat there and I wondered
For a year, they had navigated minefields and ducked bullets, endured tedium inside barbed-wired outposts and stitched together the frayed seams of long-distance relationships. One would think that going home would be the easiest thing troops could do.
But it is not so simple. The final weeks in a war zone are often the most dangerous, as weary troops get sloppy or unfocused. Once they arrive home, alcohol abuse, traffic accidents and other measures of mayhem typically rise as they blow off steam.
Weeks later, as the joy of return subsides, deep-seated emotional or psychological problems can begin to show. The sleeplessness, anxiety and irritability of post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, often take months to emerge as combat veterans confront the tensions of home and the recurring memories of war.
In their new normal, troops must reconnect with children, adjust to more independent spouses and dial back the hypervigilance that served them well in combat — but that can alienate them from civilians.
“The hardest part for me is, I guess, not being on edge,” said Staff Sgt. Francisco Narewski, a father of three who just completed his second deployment. “I feel like I need to do something, like I need to go on mission or I need to check my soldiers. And I’m not.”
For the First Battalion, 87th Infantry out of
On March 9, the day before he was scheduled to leave Kunduz, Specialist Andrew P. Wade, 22, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend who was practicing a drill with his 9-millimeter pistol inside their tent.
Three weeks later, Specialist Jeremiah Pulaski, who had returned from
Both soldiers were considered among the best in the battalion. Specialist Wade, a whiz with a soccer ball, was a member of the elite scouts platoon and on a fast track to promotion. Specialist Pulaski could be quick to use his fists in an argument but was revered for his fearlessness on the battlefield.
Specialist Pulaski was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor for dashing across an open field during an ambush in December, drawing enemy fire away from his platoon. Later that same day, he killed several insurgents as they were trying to ambush his unit near a village called Haruti.
Captain Bonenberger, Specialist Pulaski’s company commander, said the soldier saved his life twice that day — and it gnawed at him that he had been unable to return the favor.
“When he was in trouble, he was alone,” Captain Bonenberger said. “When we were in trouble, he was there for us. I know it’s not rational or reasonable. There’s nothing logical about it. But I feel responsible.”
In Kunduz and
By February, the Afghan police were conducting regular patrols alone into places they had refused to visit without American forces just weeks before
Even a slice of Dasht-i-Archi, where the stoning of an adulterous couple last year became a worldwide symbol of the Taliban’s resurgence, was cleared of mines and insurgent checkpoints.
American intelligence officers say scores of insurgent fighters were killed and as many as 300 laid down their arms or switched sides. Cellphone towers that had been shut down nightly by the Taliban started running 24 hours a day. A radio station that played rock music returned to the air. Commerce revived along roads once too dangerous to travel.
Through the winter campaign, only a handful of American soldiers were wounded, and none died.
“The police are more capable today than they were a year ago,” said Lt. Col. Russell Lewis, the battalion commander. “They are going places they haven’t been in years.”
Still, there was much debate among American soldiers over whether the stability would last. Had insurgent forces melted away simply to regroup for a spring offensive? Would the insurgents who switched sides remain allies? Many soldiers had doubts.
Then came a series of attacks that made it clear the insurgents were not gone. In early February, the governor of Chardara District was killed by a suicide bomber just hours after a visit with Colonel Lewis. Two weeks later, a bomber detonated a powerful device in Imam Sahib, killing 30 people, most of them civilians. And in early March, another suicide bomber assassinated the police chief of
General Saidkhail had been aggressive in pursuing Taliban commanders and cajoling their fighters to switch sides. To American officers, his death was a blow to the government of President Hamid Karzai and an ominous indication of what lay ahead for
“Whatever chapter has been written is now finished,” Captain Bonenberger recalled thinking when he heard about the general’s death. “The book is lying on the table and that’s it. What’s done is done.”
The string of winter operations against the Taliban had given many soldiers a sense of accomplishment that was missing in the fall, when morale, like the temperature, was sinking. By the end of the tour, spirits were high and pranksters were afoot, hogtying officers in their beds and stealing clothing from showering soldiers.
But there was also a more solemn sense among soldiers that they would return home altered by their year away.
Specialist Alan Bakula, 22, had seen the exhilarating highs and shattering lows of combat. One of the battalion’s steadiest fighters, he earned two Purple Hearts and an Army Commendation Medal with Valor in several major firefights.
But he had also been shot through the ankle and hit by shrapnel in the elbow and the face. He had also seen one good friend, Specialist Matthew Hayes, lose his leg to a mine and another, Specialist Wade, killed in an accident. By the end of the deployment, he had lost his taste for battle and was ready to trade the Army for college.
“Getting injured a few times definitely changes your perspective a little bit, makes you feel a little less bulletproof,” he said in Kunduz.
Specialist Billy Moody, 26, wondered whether he could ever talk openly to friends about the close calls he had seen
He detailed those experiences in a notebook that he planned to share with his wife and family, but no one else.
“Some stuff, people just don’t — they wouldn’t really believe or appreciate,” he said. “I hope people don’t ask me that kind of stuff, and then after I tell it to them, they think I’m exaggerating.”
Just getting the battalion’s nearly 800 soldiers home was far from simple. It would take a month, along with dozens of helicopters, military cargo planes and commercial jets, to move them the 6,500 miles from Kunduz through Mazar-i-Sharif and
On his final flight home, Private Stevenson, 20, fantasized about the freedoms he would soon taste again
His deployment had been a mixed bag. After getting into an argument with a higher-ranking soldier, whom he half-heartedly threatened to kill, he lost a rank. But he had also performed well under pressure.
While driving his platoon leader on a mission last fall, his truck hit a powerful mine that blew off its rear end and flipped it over. Private Stevenson was the first out and helped the three other passengers, including his lieutenant, escape. He earned a Purple Heart after sustaining a back injury and a possible concussion in the explosion.
As the plane approached
He had never known his own father and had lived on the streets of
“I want to be there for my kid’s first steps; I want to be there for his first bicycle accident,” he said. “I kind of think the Army is not for me, family-wise.”
A wet snow was falling as Sergeant Narewski’s charter DC-10 touched down at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield in March. It was just after midnight, and the air was colder than it had been in
His unit went through customs, turned in weapons and received safety briefings on base speed limits, malaria pills and mental health counseling. Then they waited. Finally, at 6 a.m., they boarded yellow school buses and headed to the
In the bleachers sat his wife, Christina, with their three children. She had risen at 1 a.m. to apply her makeup, shimmy into a tight dress bought just for this occasion and hustle the children into front-row seats.
As the soldiers marched into the gym, she craned anxiously in search of her husband, squirming with impatience as they croaked their division’s song out of key. She kicked off her high heels, and as soon as a commander shouted “Dismissed!” she sprinted across the hardwood floor.
“Everybody was laughing at me, but I ran,” she said. “That’s all I remember, is running.”
For minutes, time enough for some couples to hug and leave, she buried herself in Sergeant Narewski’s broad arms, whimpering. “Just to have him hold you or be in his arms again is just the greatest,” she said. “You think about that not happening while he’s gone.”
This second deployment of his had been harder than she anticipated, and she had begun taking medication to calm her nerves. To her delight, Sergeant Narewski, 31, accepted a drill sergeant assignment at
Being a drill sergeant would be good for his career, the sergeant said. But inside, he was still thinking about leading soldiers into combat. “I love it,” he said. “I’m going to miss it. I miss it already.”
For Sgt. Tamara Sullivan, 32, there was nothing about
“It’s something that you just have to learn how to turn off and on, like a light switch,” she said. “I don’t feel like it made me less of a mother because I learned how to shut it off. I think it made me a better soldier.”
Now she was finally home, looking lost as she searched the crowd for her husband, Tim, who had come without the children from
She had been thinking for days about how this deployment might change their family dynamic. Tim had learned to be a single parent and was so comfortable in the job that she wondered whether he was prepared to give it up.
“I’m ready to come back home and jump back in, you know, where I left it, do my mommy role,” she said before leaving
But she would have to wait to test those waters. She was scheduled to transfer to
Still in her uniform, she took Tim to the airport and then went shopping at Wal-Mart. On a 3-by-5 card, she had neatly listed items she needed for her new apartment near
In her second-floor home, she began unpacking boxes of paperback books, unused uniforms and crayon drawings from her children. Without the children, it had been a subdued, almost joyless homecoming. But she seemed content in her solitude. The Army is her career, and a good one, she told herself. She just needed to be patient.
“As long as my children are happy, as long as I know their education is set for, then I’m good,” she said. “I’ll just keep doing this as long as I have to.”
Sergeant Keith’s homecoming was surprisingly boisterous, even without his wife and son. His parents, grandfather, brother, nieces and nephews greeted him at the gymnasium, then accompanied him to a new apartment they had found and furnished for him.
But when they left, he was by himself for the first time in practically a year. He took a shower, the longest and hottest in months, then crawled into a bed that felt as large as a swimming pool. “I never felt more alone any time ever in my life,” he recalled.
The deployment, his third in six years, had been great, and not because of the adrenaline rush of combat — he saw none of that. A fuel specialist, Sergeant Keith, 29, was responsible for making sure gas tanks were full and generators were running.
Sent from the battalion headquarters in Kunduz to an outpost in Baghlan, he had been left alone to do his job and loved the independence. For the first time in years, he felt proud to be a soldier, and ambitious to do more.
The deployment had clearly been hard on his wife and made him almost a stranger to his 18-month-old son. “I got to work my way back into his life again,” he said.
And yet, almost to his surprise, he felt a sense of lightness and liberation now that his wife had left him. He went drinking at the American Legion with friends. Maybe he would start dating. And down the line, he felt almost certain he would deploy again.
Perhaps it was the clarity of deployed life that he craved. The structured routines seemed so much simpler than the messy realities of home. He could not quite put his finger on it, but he knew that “normal life” no longer meant what it once did.
“Once you get stuck into that environment,” he said of deployment, “and you do it every day, it’s very, very hard coming back to the states and living a normal life. I’m just having a real hard time dealing with it.”
In the weeks after the battalion got home, Captain Bonenberger, 33, moved into an apartment with two fellow captains and considered his future. Should he accept a teaching position at
Private Stevenson married and learned that his child, due in August, was a boy. He bought an SAT prep book.
Specialist Hayes, undergoing rehabilitation at
And Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch, 36, struggled to learn how to run again.
A machine-gun burst had almost taken off his left leg during a battle in Kunduz last fall, and he had been flown to Walter Reed for treatment. Determined to return to a frontline unit, he would have to prove that he could run with a pack. Doctors told him to go slow, but it was not in his nature.
So after returning to
“I’m trying to put on the happy face and the strong guy, but at the end of the day I’m almost in tears in pain, “ he said. “It hurts.”
A single father, Sergeant Eisch was also trying to get his sons reacquainted with
“I explained to him, that’s just your body,” said Sergeant Eisch, who was having his own recurring nightmares. “Your body is just trying to get rid of stress.”
Though he earned a Bronze Star with Valor for aiding a critically wounded Afghan police officer, Sergeant Eisch was also plagued by self-doubt. “There’s a sense of me that says I failed for getting shot,” he said.
Doctors suggested he had post-traumatic stress disorder, but Sergeant Eisch questioned the diagnosis. He also bristled at his assignment to a Warrior Transition Unit, where he felt he was surrounded by unmotivated and overmedicated soldiers.
Up and then down. He raged at the Army. Then he bought himself a new boat to go with his new truck. He bemoaned his bad leg. Then he hugged his boys and considered himself lucky.
It was like that in the Army. Hero one day, faceless grunt the next. Scout platoon sergeant in November, wounded warrior in March. He had rolled with it for almost 17 years; he hoped he could make it three more to retirement.
“Hey, I’m still kicking, and there’s new motivation there,” he said. “I’m going to heal.”
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs