View Full Version : Home from war, back to work

12-29-03, 06:52 AM
Home from war, back to work
Some reservists, after a tour of duty, find that 'normal life' no longer feels so normal

By KARIN RIVES, Staff Writer

Kirk Warner returned to work a hero in early October. His colleagues admired the Bronze Star he had earned overseas and threw a party in his honor.

Then reality hit.
The war in Iraq was over for the Raleigh trial lawyer, but resuming a normal life, especially at work, was just starting. Warner, a 20-year veteran litigation attorney who served eight months as a reservist in Iraq this year, found the transition daunting.

Walking to court to attend a hearing without worrying about gunfire in the streets was sensational. But Warner still felt disconcerted not carrying his gun. His life had depended on that weapon in Baghdad, and now he felt exposed without it.

While in Iraq to help set up courts and prisons destroyed in the war, Warner had longed for his routine back home. Now he had difficulty getting fired up about client cases and hearings, the work he had always loved. There was also the overwhelming fatigue that followed working 18 hours a day, seven days a week for eight months in a fiercely hot and often hostile environment.

"I was like a zombie in early October," Warner, 45, recalled. "I don't think I realized how exhausted I was."

Over the next few months, thousands of reservists -- including several hundred North Carolinians -- will be returning to their regular jobs after serving up to a year overseas.

Some will resume their former duties as if they were never gone, gliding seamlessly into their role as fire fighters, police officers, town planners, assembly line workers, administrators or executives. But many will also find the re-adjustment challenging, especially if they witnessed death and destruction firsthand and perhaps lost friends in combat.

"You go from an extreme and often dangerous environment, back to normal, everyday environment, and there's some adjustment that needs to be made," said Capt. Robert Carver, a National Guard spokesman. "Their minds are often somewhere else, and we need to be sensitive to them and help them identify problems that crop up."

The N.C. National Guard, with more than 6,300 reservists now on active duty, has more people enlisted than any other state. The Reserve, another branch of the military, called an additional 170 North Carolinians to active duty.

As more reservists are still being sent out than welcomed home, North Carolina workplaces will feel the effects of the deployments possibly for years to come.

Several centers statewide offer support to soldiers and their families in times of transition. Most of them are still focusing on the departure rather the return home. But that will change over time as more reservists come back, said Cynthia Griffin, a representative at the N.C. National Guard's family assistance center in Morrisville.

"We anticipate getting calls," Griffin said. "It all depends on how they perceive they can take care of themselves."

A learning curve

June Cowles, 36, was only a few weeks into her new job as a planner for the town of Apex when the call came in February to report to the Air Force Reserves at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. She left for Spain a few weeks later to head a crew that conducted maintenance on war planes destined for the Middle East, still in shock about the sudden turn of events in her life.

Still, returning to work at the Planning Department in early August was relatively smooth, she says, in part because she was still so new in her job.

"I didn't really forget anything because I was still on that learning curve," Cowles said.

But Morrisville Fire Chief Mike Chambers said he struggled on the job after returning from a year's fire protection service at Pope Air Force Base in the fall of 2002. The culture shock of going from a rigid and authoritarian military organization to a small-town fire department where people were used to voicing their opinions, he said, was the hardest thing.

"In the military, you have square edges. Everything is black and white," he said. "It's 'yes, sir; no, sir.' And it's hard to round those edges off coming back."

Chambers, 47, recalled run-ins with some employees over issues such as being a minute or two late for work. Today he knows that such transgressions, while unacceptable in the military, are overlooked by most civilian managers. He also had difficulty accepting that, unlike in the military, people in a regular workplace don't always all do as they're told.

"It probably took me three or four months to get back into the swing of things and relax," Chambers said.

James Martin, a mail service coordinator at GlaxoSmithKline, believes his transition was eased by the two-week vacation he took before returning to work at the pharmaceutical company in early August after nine months of active duty.

"At that point it was just a matter of getting readjusted and getting reacquainted with my wife and my co-workers," the N.C. National Guard staff sergeant said.

Martin, 50, spent three of his months in the military in Jordan, providing clean drinking and bath water for the troops stationed there.

Taking time off

But time off was not in the picture for IBM business consulting executive Bill Busby. He rolled right back into his job after serving a five-month mission in Afghanistan as commander of the 455th Expeditionary Operations Group because "if you've got stuff you've got to do, you've got to do it."

In his regular job, Busby travels constantly, which means he and his family are used to being apart. That's not to say it was easy for him, his wife and daughter to be separated for so long. But Busby took comfort knowing he made a difference in people's lives.

"It was probably the most rewarding experience I've ever had," he said of his work in Afghan villages. "These were folks who had been hiding in cellars, had their crops burned. Now, for the first time in 30 years, they told us, they had peace and stability. Their kids were able to go to school. Their girls were able to go to school probably for the first time ever. It's pretty neat having been part of that."

A 51-year-old colonel in the Virginia Air National Guard, Busby returned to work in September after taking just a weekend to decompress. Always on the go, he was eager to get back into his IBM duties and says he has coped well.

"This is not the way I tell my team to do it," he added. "You really do need to take some down time and spend time with your family."

Staff writer Karin Rives can be reached
at 829-4521 or krives@newsobserver.com.