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08-26-07, 09:22 AM #1
Out Of The Desert | Coming Home From The War
OUT OF THE DESERT | COMING HOME FROM THE WAR
Odyssey home begins
After 12 months in the Mideast, Wisconsin soldiers put down their weapons and get ready to pick up their lives.
By CROCKER STEPHENSON
Posted: Aug. 25, 2007
First of Three Parts
Camp Virginia, Kuwait - Dust hangs over the Kuwaiti desert, which is boundless.
There is no firm horizon, no place where earth meets sky. It's just a tan-colored thinning of atmosphere that resolves itself in blue.
The sun above the dust is punishing. It is enormous and it sears. Light is neither wave nor particle. It is a blade.
It is July 12. Within the next few hours, the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery will complete its final mission into Iraq. Flags above the handful of trailers that form the battalion headquarters flap in the desert thermals.
A few soldiers stand on the wooden porch in front of the headquarters, all drinking bottled water, some smoking cigarettes, some watching dust devils twist across the sand.
"This is a Godforsaken place," 1st Lt. Randy Gehrke says.
"This is hell."
The 1-121. Six hundred and forty men, most from Wisconsin. Deployed in April 2006. Arrived in Kuwait that July.
And now, a year later, they are a few days from going home.
All of the things that they have missed, all of the things that for the sake of the mission they have forced to the back of their minds, now at last come forward. They come forward as a longing some feel in their chests and in their throats.
They miss green, they say.
Not the puke green of the desert scrub. Not the khaki-green that patterned their fatigues. Not the freaked-out electric sci-fi green that everything became when they hooked up their night goggles and went on patrol.
They miss up north green. Packers green. The green that is a baseball field under lights.
They miss the kind of green they can feel, like a striking bass. They miss the kind of green they can smell, like a neighbor's freshly mowed yard.
They miss iced beer. They miss the weight of snow on a shovel blade. They miss the smell of their wives' hair. They miss church bells. They miss holding their children's hands.
They miss their moms. They miss their grandkids.
They miss sex.
They miss not being afraid.
Cpl. Troy Kind misses his wife. They met at a Wal-Mart in Watertown. She worked in jewelry. He worked in electronics. They dated four years and have been married for three. A few weeks ago, she stopped answering his calls.
Spc. Kevin Beattie missed his daughter's first year of school. He missed his wife's pregnancy. He missed the birth of his son.
Capt. Mark Brooks, the battalion chaplain, missed being beside his wife, Melissa, when she miscarried at 22 weeks. They plan to bury their daughter when he gets back.
The lowering sun embeds itself into the dusty air, a nova collapsing into an orange disk. Word spreads through camp that the last gun truck is back, safe and sound.
The battalion's commanding officer, Maj. Brian P. Wolhaupter, will sleep more soundly tonight than he has in a year.
When they were in camp, they played pool and pingpong. They played air hockey and foosball. They played Risk, Monopoly, Sorry! and Life. They played all kinds of cards. They played checkers and chess. They played Yahtzee, Stratego, Scrabble, backgammon, Parcheesi and Rummikub.
They played volleyball and basketball and Ultimate Frisbee.
But they were away from camp and on the road most of the time. They crammed themselves into gun trucks, three guys a truck. They wore uniforms, boots, gloves, helmets, 45-pound armored jackets, pockets weighted with ammunition, rifles clipped to their shoulders.
Sometimes the temperature in the trucks climbed to 150 degrees. They struggled to keep awake. They tried not to pass out.
They moved at night, a fleet of 180 vehicles, escorting huge supply convoys throughout Iraq. They patrolled what are perhaps the most lethal roads in the world in their stupefying trucks. Their battlefield was a strip of baked asphalt seeded with booby traps and tended by enemy snipers.
They covered more than 5.2 million miles in more than 3,855 combat missions. They encountered more than 170 roadside bombs. They withstood mortar rounds, small-arms attacks, ambushes and attempted hijackings.
For them, it was hours of tedium interrupted by terror, a terror that evolved. A recent innovation in roadside bombs sends a molten disc that, instead of exploding against the armored trucks in a spray of force and shrapnel, cuts through the armor, turning the armor itself into a ricocheting chunk of superheated metal.
They were awarded 31 Purple Hearts. They were burned, pierced, shot and broken.
First was Spc. Stephen Castner, a 27-year-old college student from Cedarburg. He was killed by a roadside bomb July 24, 2006.
He was but a few hours into his first mission
Then it was Sgt. Richard Parker, a 26-year-old Maine National Guardsman attached to the 1-121. He was killed by a roadside bomb June 14.
He was but a few weeks from going home.
Going home is not what it used to be, and perhaps it never was.
While modern medicine has sharpened our awareness of how traumatic stress affects veterans, warriors throughout history have found the adjustment to home life strange and often difficult.
Combat alters combatants, and these alterations have been given a variety of names: shell shock, combat fatigue, soldier's heart, non-ulcer dyspepsia, post-traumatic stress disorder.
Though the trauma might be timeless, some wars have been easier to leave behind than others.
Veterans returning from the world wars often spent a week or so together on ships, swapping stories, unwrapping the things both bright and dark that they carried inside. Friendships forged in combat were deepened and sustained.
Vietnam, most say, was the worst in recent history. Soldiers rotated out of their platoons, often arriving alone in the airports of a nation not only hostile to the war but hostile to the soldiers themselves.
The war tainted them.
Many of these veterans suffered in isolation. For some, the journey home transcended geography. Their journeys took years to negotiate. Alienation. Anger. Remorse. Shame. More than 30 years have passed, and still many are not quite home.
Troops returning from the current conflicts also are suffering, in numbers not seen since Vietnam.
The Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health's landmark report, published in June, cites health assessments administered to service members 90 to 120 days after returning from war. Some 38% of the soldiers and 31% of the Marines report psychological symptoms.
The figure rises to 49% among members of the National Guard.
Families feel the strain. One year after deployment, the report says, one in five married soldiers planned to separate or divorce.
Shame, the report says, and fear of injuring their careers, discourages military men and women from seeking help.
Researchers all over the world are studying combat trauma. Risk factors such as age, race, gender, intelligence, previous exposure to trauma, even left-handedness, all have been examined. Results have been mixed, and the critical question of how to prevent or ease the suffering of traumatized troops is not answered.
Even what constitutes a traumatic event is difficult to define. Every combatant is different. Which trauma is likely to produce the most enduring emotional scar: getting hit in the face by a piece of shrapnel, or receiving a battlefield e-mail from your wife informing you that she is filing for divorce?
Schooled by Vietnam, the military rarely sends combatants home with an airline ticket and a hearty handshake, though in some cases, this can and still does happen. It has, instead, created demobilization programs at bases throughout the United States.
This is of particular importance to National Guard units, such as the 1-121, whose members will scatter to their homes and will not meet again as a unit for three months.
And so they are sent home in groups. The 1-121 has been divided roughly into thirds. One will leave within the next few days, the others a few days later.
The soldiers will reunite at Camp Atterbury, near Indianapolis, where they will spend five days being briefed, debriefed, counseled and congratulated before they climb aboard the buses that will take them to Milwaukee.
A day after the 1-121 completes its last mission, Wolhaupter and Command Sgt. Major Jeff Fletcher are going over demobilization plans in the major's office. Power is out, which means no air conditioning. It is well over 100 degrees, and both men are bright pink. They drink bottle after bottle of water.
The year has not been easy. The commander who preceded Wolhaupter was unpopular, soldiers say. Morale was low when Wolhaupter assumed command a few months ago.
And the battalion has moved. Navistar, its old base, was smaller, cooler and much less sandy. The wind never seems to stop blowing at Camp Virginia. In the Internet trailer, sand from the soldiers' fingertips has all but erased the letters from the keyboards.
Their men perceive both Wolhaupter and Fletcher as decisive and fair. Under their guidance, and with the approaching demobilization, soldiers say, morale has improved.
Wolhaupter and Fletcher are proud of their men. They admire two traits in particular: the 1-121's ability to adapt to the constantly changing conditions of combat and the bravery their soldiers display day in and day out.
Gun trucks guarding supply convoys on an open road are easy targets.
"On a traditional battlefield, you could run away," Fletcher says. "These men can't run away."
"Every person that gets into a Humvee is a hero," Wolhaupter says.
Wolhaupter points to adaptation after adaptation that the 1-121 has made to its fleet of gun trucks as the enemy's roadside bombs and ambushes have grown more frequent and sophisticated.
Modifications to gun turrets and truck armor are classified. Still, no two Humvees look quite the same. Here is a small, unclassified example:
The temperature inside a Humvee is hellish. Soldiers of the 1-121 figured that if they cut three triangular vents into the hood, less heat from the engine would radiate into the cab. No one told them to do this. They worked it out themselves.
That, Wolhaupter says, is the inherent strength of a citizen-soldier force such as the National Guard. The best soldiers are capable of combining their military training with their life experiences.
Their gift is the ability to see both inside and outside the standard military way of doing things. Their gift, which some commanders ignore and others draw upon, is their ability to adapt.
They have adapted to sand, heat and blowing dust. They have adapted to long stretches of tedium interrupted by chaos and terror. They have adapted to working, always, in teams. They have adapted to long nights and sleepless days. They have adapted to taking orders and giving them. They have adapted to fear, discomfort and the constant companionship of men.
Now, battle-hardened, they must adapt again.
The Humvees serve as an apt metaphor. Armored, up-armored and up-armored again, the Humvees' original structure has been irrevocably altered.
But the men of the 1-121 must find a way to remove their armor.
They must come home.
On the afternoon of July 14, in a white tent the size of an airplane hangar, as the temperature on the Kuwaiti desert spikes over 120 degrees and the wind beats against the sides of the tent like an animal wanting in, the 1-121 ceremoniously transfers authority to the California National Guard unit that has taken its place.
1st Sgt. Steve Czekala stands near the center of the room, holding an American flag. To his immediate left, the 1-121's colors are rolled up, then slipped into a canvas sheath. The California battalion's colors are unfurled, and the bearer of that flag takes his place beside Czekala.
Wolhaupter is among the upper brass to speak.
"When all your future days blend together in normality," he tells his troops, "these are the days you will remember."
Czekala lives in Manitowoc. He is married and has two children. In Kuwait, he is a non-commissioned officer responsible for decisions that might mean the life or death of his fellow soldiers. Home, he will return to his job at Kohler Co. He is a sprayer.
"I'm the one that makes the toilets white," he says.
Like Czekala, many of the soldiers of 1-121 expect that the life they will find when they return home will be something like the life they left when they deployed 15 months ago.
But they have changed, and in what ways, to what extent, for better or for worse, will be hard to determine until they are home. For many, home is the standard by which they will measure themselves.
Home, too, has changed. Some already know that the home to which they will return is already nothing like the one they left.
Troy and Sandi Kind live in a small apartment in Watertown. One of his sweetest memories is the moment on their wedding day when Sandi appeared at the back of the Lutheran church on her father's arm.
Troy, who is 28, is a tough guy. Few, if any, soldiers in his company have spent more time on missions into Iraq. He figures he has spent 300 of the last 360 days on missions, driving and then commanding gun trucks.
His trucks have been bombed, tipped over and shot at. One was accidentally rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. Once, his truck was attacked by two roadside bombs, rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
When Troy saw his raven-haired bride walk down the church aisle, he wept.
Troy took a couple of weeks off before his deployment so he and Sandi could spend some time together. She told him she was afraid he would not come back.
They found a unique way to be together while Troy was in Kuwait. They created virtual characters and would rendezvous online in a game called World of Warcraft. Although the characters could not do much more than sit together and chat, Troy found comfort in this.
He tried to call Sandi as often as he could. As summer approached, he would tell her: The time is drawing near. Our time apart is dwindling down.
But Troy found these conversations were becoming distant and uncomfortable. Each time one ended, he felt hollow and sad.
One morning - it was about 2 a.m. in Iraq, about 6 p.m. in Wisconsin - after a particularly unfulfilling conversation, Troy left his tent and called Sandi back.
Alone in the desert, away from his tent mates, he asked her whether things between them were OK.
We'll just have to see how things are when you come back, she told him.
Then she stopped answering his calls. Sometimes he called two or three times a day. He was on a mission well north of Baghdad one night when he found an e-mail from Sandi on his laptop.
"I don't think I can return to how things were before," she wrote. "We've drifted apart."
Troy decided that for his safety and for the safety of the men in his gun truck, he had to keep his head in Kuwait.
He decided to push his marriage, as best he could, to the back of his mind and to deal with it when he got home.
Journal Sentinel reporter Crocker Stephenson was embedded with the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery in Kuwait on July 12 and remained with the unit throughout its journey home and until the soldiers were dismissed from duty July 19.
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