Coming Back, Fitting In
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It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon at the Concord Senior Center. Colorful military medals, unit patches and American flags fill the multi-purpose room. At the East Bay Veterans Fair, vets of the past have come to help the newest of their group transition from being at war to being a civilian.
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So far, more than a million troops have been sent to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Army studies have found at least 30 percent of those coming home suffer from depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. And the Government Accountability Office says there are some 200,000 homeless veterans from current and past wars living on American streets.
So veterans who've successfully made the transition hold events like this one. In one room, employers from local businesses hand out business cards while in another larger room, admissions counselors from nearby colleges and universities hold out financial aid applications.
Sitting behind the University of California at Berkeley's table, four Iraq war vets have come for the day. They're offered up as role models of soldiers-turned-students. But to hear them tell it, the transition wasn't easy.
Jason is the most outspoken of the small group. He was in the Army for 10 years. One was spent in Iraq. "Things had wrapped up. We went to King Fahad Air Base and got on a plane," he explained. "I think it was actually a Delta airlines plane with stewardesses and everything, and we were full of sand and armed."
Almost immediately after the plane landed at Fort Bragg, N.C., Jason says he had one thing in mind, to wash away the dirt and sand that he says was everywhere, in his eyelids and up his nose.
"I got off the plane, went home, and I took a metal folding chair and an icy six-pack of beer and I got in the shower turned the shower on real hot," he said. "Got my metal folding chair out. Unfolded it under the shower and sat there under the hot-ass shower and drank the whole six-pack. Then I got dressed. I went off post. I got a great meal. Then I came back, I crawled into my bed and I went to sleep."
But after the initial relief, Jason woke up to a harsher reality. He realized it wasn't going to be so easy to wash off the fact that he'd been fighting for his life in Iraq. He couldn't just change back to being a civilian. He was deeply troubled, ready to hit anyone over a small misunderstanding.
"The expectation that you can move from one set of norms, a military set of norms to civilian set of norms and function appropriately that expectation is absurd," he said.
"Veterans who have been in a fight and who go from a fight to their civilian home in just couple of days feel like they've been dropped in from Mars," explained Jonathan Shay, a psychologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Boston, Mass. "You have adapted both in mind and in the physiology of your body to the real situation of other people trying to kill you, and often doing a doggone good job of it."
Shay said there's a giant chasm between the returning combat soldier and the people waiting back at home. For instance, take a soldier's adaptation to driving on a highway in Iraq. "Number one, you drive as fast as you can. Number two, you try and stay equidistant from the two sides of the road. Now you bring that back home, and you have an automatic setup for numerous moving traffic violations when you're driving your own car if you flip into that surviving-in-Iraq mode."
Jason says he tried to tell his family and friends what he'd been through, and what he'd done in Iraq. And why he was the person he'd become. But that didn't work.
"Everybody who's in the Army has the first time: 'What's a good story you have from the service?' And you mention a little something you saw or did. You realize immediately to never ever to do that again," he said. "That's the one mistake you never make again because that's the first-hand experience. Nobody wants that. But at least be conscious of the fact that people had that experience. Be aware of it."
A walk down just about any shopping street in America, there isn't much awareness of war. Posters announce holiday sales, and bell-ringing Santas raise money for people struggling economically, but the war? Not so much.
But there are people and organizations gearing up to help transitioning vets find their way. Joseph Bobraw is a clinical psychologist and founder of the Coming Home Project, a non-profit group of veterans, psychotherapists and interfaith leaders who provide daylong and weekend retreats for returning vets and their families. There the team of professionals offers treatment in psychological trauma, and they provide the vet with tools for stress management.
"It was like the saying of Hillel," Bobraw says, "'if not now when, if not me then who?'
"We try to create the conditions for healing. And those conditions are safety, trust, a sense of unconditional acceptance, compassion. And in terms of the stress management techniques, we offer meditation."
For returning vets, unfamiliar with meditation, Bobraw says, the Coming Home Project offers silent writing and drawing sessions. "The writing is a very rich exercise which takes people even deeper, and then in the small groups they can either read what they've written or show what they've drawn and discuss, listen to one another. And that takes people to another level."
Meanwhile, deep in the Northern California Redwoods, another group is taking their support of returning vets to another level. They're building a veterans' village, a four-story, dormitory-style building that, beginning in January, will house up to 18 veterans from the Iraq war.
When the building is finished, the veterans living here will get long-term counseling, help finding jobs and applying to college. But most importantly, the village offers vets, who have just gotten back from combat, a chance to sit quietly under towering Redwoods with other vets who understand where they've been and what they've been through.
Mark Knipper will manage the project. In Vietnam he served in the Navy on a nuclear submarine and now he says this is the least he can do.
"We were at war every time we went to sea," he said. "I really thought I was going to die. I'm older now and I need to have some legacy to leave behind. What better way than to help the folks coming home now and welcome them? I didn't get welcomed home until 30 years after I served."
But even with efforts by individuals and organizations to help returning vets in their transition, psychologist Jonathan Shay says something critical is missing. Throughout history, he said, from the Ancient Greeks to the Roman Legions, societies held communal rites of purification. When their soldiers returned from battle, there was a ritual in which the society accepted responsibility for what the fighter had been asked to do in their name.
"We really need to pay attention to the health of our democracy," he said, "and this is part of the invisible substructure of democracy, how veterans are returned to civilian society and how their future flourishing is nourished or destroyed."
Back to the Concord Veterans Fair. Jason said the American people sent the troops to war and now it's their responsibility to bring them back and help them heal. "It's the civilians, it's the society at large who bears the responsibility, not just the ethical obligation but the moral obligation as well, to take the people who have served in this capacity that their government has mandated, and then transition them back to being a civilian."More stories from our First Weekend Home series