M.L. Lyke, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter
EPHRATA — A
guardsman walks into a local Wal-Mart, freaks, does a 180, and walks back out
again. Even after seven months, he can’t stand the crowds. Another jerks
awake in the middle of the night, holding an imagined gun at his wife’s
honey?” she asks.
tear down highways, swerve to avoid trash in the road. The bag that held a
Big Mac could now hide a bomb. One still jumps if you touch his neck. Others
refuse to sleep in beds. Those who do may awake in a sweat.
members of the Ephrata-based 1161st Transportation Company, the close-knit National Guard unit that returned
from Iraq seven months ago to a happy little town dolled up in yellow ribbons
and townsfolk who breathed a collective sigh of relief.
the town knew someone in uniform. The 130 citizen soldiers — from age 18 to
60 — were the region’s postmen, tractor mechanics, lab technicians, firefighters
and weekend warriors called to war.
was this sense of something missing when they were gone,” says Wes
Crago, city administrator of Ephrata, population 6,980. “Now, watching
the news, hearing about roadside bombings, there’s not the weight, not the
people are back home.”
All of them.
The unit had no casualties, only three wounded. Driving was extreme-danger
duty in Iraq, but the 1161st managed to complete more than 14,000 missions,
covering more than 1 million miles.
Some call it
“The Miracle Company.” But if no one paid the ultimate price, the
deployment still came at a considerable cost.
some citizen soldiers have slowly eased back into routines, others still feel
like strangers in their own lives seven months after troops touched down.
talk to someone and they say, ‘You’re fine now, you’re home, so everything’s
good.’ You want to say, ‘No. It’s not good. I’m feeling lost,’ ” says
Spc. Keith Bond, a 31-year-old explosives specialist and father of two.
he goes to bed not even thinking about Iraq. “Others I lay down and
‘Bam!’ ” The face of a young Iraqi boy who aimed a gun at his truck
haunts him. Bond drew a bead on him, almost took the kid out before he
realized the gun was a toy. He says it felt like 45 minutes. It was probably
10 seconds. It’s still messing with his head.
if I had shot that boy?”
soldiers, do you explain that to civilians? How do you explain anything —
the claustrophobia of being close, the anger that lashes out of nowhere, the
desire to hole up?
while I just wanted to sit home and do nothing,” says Spc. Steve Hurt,
whose son, Tanner, was four days home from the hospital when he left. “I
was tired of talking about the war, tired of hearing people ask, ‘Did you
shoot anybody?’ I didn’t want anything to do with anybody — and here I was
with a wife who wanted attention, and a 2-year-old son who was walking.”
after his return, Hurt and wife, Michelle, both 26, are still quarreling.
“We fight over stupid things, like disciplining Tanner and paying
bills,” he says. “I wasn’t used to having to deal with all this
1161st unit — closely tracked by larger National
Guard battalions with new waves of soldiers coming home — could still
sniff the gunfire when it arrived in Iraq in May 2003.
was one of the first on the ground, one of the most poorly equipped and
pulled one of the longest deployments, with two tough extensions. The
soldiers — some call themselves “guinea pigs” — found out about
the last extension from newspapers, a problem higher-ups vowed not to repeat.
military has said they hoped to learn by mistakes made with our unit,”
says Sheila Kelly, wife of Spc. Edward Kelly.
training and extensions, the unit was gone from families for more than 18
months, finally arriving at Fort Lewis at the end of July. The military had
prepped soldiers and spouses on possible reintegration problems. But nothing,
some say, could fully prepare them for what was to come.
tractor parades, the award ceremonies, the celebrations and chili feeds died
down, it was all quiet on the eastern front. In some households, eerily
says her husband locked himself in the bathroom to dress when he first got
home. He’d become a smoker. He cursed. He was reclusive. He didn’t want to be
kissed, hugged — it felt “suffocating.” When she threw a big
dinner party, he bolted.
say it’s like a roller coaster, and sooner or later the ride comes to an end.
But it doesn’t. There’s always another ride that begins,” says Sheila
Kelly, 41, tears spilling onto her cheeks.
seven months, Spc. Kelly, 42, still craves privacy. “For me the hard
part is getting back to the day-to-day, re-establishing my feelings and
emotions,” says the soldier, a lab technician in civilian life.
“It’s like you have this little buffer zone around you — and you don’t
want to let anyone in.”
he’ll ever be “old normal” again.
defines “new normal?”
trying to bring back the old me,” says Bond. “I bring him back one
day, and the next I have to try to find that person all over again.”
mother says her son left a boy and came back a man.
Elliott, 35, left a kid at heart, and came back feeling “like a
of five is one of three Guardsmen in the unit decorated with a Purple Heart.
He was wounded in June 2003, when a bomb in a black plastic bag hit the truck
he was driving. He was in medical hold at Fort Lewis until last November,
undergoing treatment for an injured back and anxiety, with symptoms of
post-traumatic stress disorder.
He came home
with an electronic box on his hip to interrupt pain signals to his back. It
flashes like the light on a pursuing cop car. “We’ve been in hell. After
you’ve been in hell, nothing’s ever really the same again,” he says.
tolerate crowds and avoids restaurants — unless his buddy Bond is there to
cover his back. Like other soldiers accustomed to strict discipline, he’s
often impatient with the kids. “It’s Daddy wants it done now, and he
wants it done right now. If it’s not, it pushes his button,” says Penny,
his wife of 15 years.
family wonders what happened to the outgoing baby-faced dad who laughed and
joked with the kids, chasing them through the house, rolling around on the
floor with them.
dad hurts, and he’s angry. “There’s a mentality in the military that, if
you complain you’re hurt, you’re faking it, you’re slacking,” says the
sergeant. “So 99.1 percent of the time you suck it up, don’t
plenty to complain about in Iraq in 2003. The unit arrived to no running
water, no sanitation, no air conditioning and a sheep camp with blood and
feces on the wall for a base. The “guinea pigs” often felt like
sitting ducks with no armor for their trucks, and inadequate flak gear for
their bodies. Sweltering in 120-degree heat, they steamed when officers in
air-conditioned SUVs rolled down their electric windows to bark orders.
serving in Iraq was a matter of pride; for others, a waste of time. “I
lost almost two years in my children’s lives for something I see as a total
waste of time and money and effort,” says Spc. Kelly.
For Kory and
Melissa Brown, it has been an exercise in togetherness. The husband and wife
shipped out together, returned together. Although they couldn’t touch or show
affection in camp — they stole a kiss or two — they shared the same
experiences. It’s made readjustment simpler.
knows where I’m coming from …” says Kory, 29.
knows where I’m coming from,” says Melissa, 28, completing the sentence.
dental hygienist in town, and, like others in the 1161st, found re-entry into
the civilian work force challenging. Away almost two years, she was rusty,
and it took her several months to get her skill level back. There are still
procedures she has to learn again. “I thought I would come back and just
jump right into things,” she says.
At least she
came home to a job. Some soldiers didn’t, including Spc. Hurt. He had to quit
his old job when his wife moved to Ephrata. He came home from an 18-month
deployment to a long, seven-month hunt for work. He applied everywhere and
had only two phone calls, he says. “I felt like, after serving the country
for 18 months, I come home, and I couldn’t even get a job. That got to me.
started thinking, ‘Maybe they’re not hiring me because they know I could be
is a touchy topic in this little town, where remaining yellow ribbons are now
faded by sun, frayed by wind.
enlistments falling 30 percent short of recruitment goals, and members of the
reserve and guard providing at least 40 percent of personnel in Iraq, the
pressure’s on. “When soldiers call to ask me what are the chances we’ll
go back, I tell them 50-50,” says Sgt. 1st Class Merle McLain, the
36-year-old readiness manager for the 1161st and father of 3-year-old twins
Alex and Sara.
They were 20
months old when the tall sergeant with the booming voice left for Iraq. He
missed the “terrible 2s,” potty training, his son’s bout with
pneumonia and emergency surgery. He tried to get home and was denied — a low
Marcee, 32, who heads family support for the unit, says the kids are still
working to reconnect with Dad. They bawled the first time he raised his voice
and still run to Mommy for comfort. “The kids have to regain the trust
that the parent is going to stay.”
like to think about the troops going back.
everyone else in the “Miracle Company” family, she can’t help it.
always in the back of my mind,” she says softly.