Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Today we're going to spend the hour of the program on veterans who have come home. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what the return is like and how hard it can be, and stories of adjustment and moving forward after, in many cases, having lived through horrors, but also camaraderie in places most of us have a hard time imagining. Let's begin with a story of homecoming. Last Friday we heard from Patricia Hohl of Framingham, Massachusetts. Her 22 year old son, Alex, was on his way back from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. That's where he spent a month after completing his second tour of duty in Afghanistan. Patricia and Alex Hohl are in the studio with me here in Boston and first of all, Alex, welcome home.
Alex Hohl: Thank you very much.
Werman: When did you get back?
Alex Hohl: Well, we got back into the states on February 6th and I got back to Framingham this past Saturday.
Werman: What does it feel like?
Alex Hohl: It feels incredible. It's something you can't describe, not seeing your friends and family for this long and coming back, and finally they're back in your world again.
Werman: What were you expecting with the homecoming?
Alex Hohl: You know, I'm a very simply guy. I just want to come home, and you know, sit down and have a beer with my parents and see my friends and sleep in a nice bed.
Werman: Did you have that beer?
Alex Hohl: I did. I had a few of them.
Werman: Patricia, how about you? Describe the moment when you first saw Alex again after the second deployment.
Patricia Hohl: When I see Alex walk into Camp Lejeune, the only more exciting night was the night he was born. It's incredible to watch him walk in on two legs, healthy, it's thrilling.
Werman: I see you've got his dog tag around your neck.
Patricia Hohl: I do. This is the dog tag that he wore in his boot during his first deployment. He gave it to me when he came home. It was my ritual, I wore it everyday when he was away. It was my way of doing something.
Werman: And I see it's sitting on top of a peace sign. Tell me about that.
Patricia Hohl: Yes, it is. I'm very much a peace activist, so having a son in the Marines has been very conflicting for me in many ways, but you realize that you love these kids and I wanted to support them in any way I could. Alex has the biggest heart of anyone I've ever known.
Werman: Go back to when Alex was away at the end of his first deployment, or whenever you learned that he was going back for a second deployment. Describe that and what you were thinking, Patricia.
Patricia Hohl: Learning he was going back, I knew it was going to be worse because we knew about the first time. Alex kept a journal the first time he was away and I had read that journal. It was a difficult read, and knowing he was going to walk into that again was pretty tough.
Werman: Was it worst the second time around, Alex?
Alex Hohl: Yes. My experience in my first deployment, we were a mounted platoon which means like we were in trucks, and in my second deployment, we were foot mobile, and the dangers of being on the ground are so much worse than being in a truck. You know, if something happens, you don't have all this armor surrounding you and it's just, the injuries are so much worse.
Werman: And what you saw in Afghanistan and one of the areas of the most intense military operations, Helmand Province, must have made you feel at times as if you may never come home. A lot of your buddies paid a heavy price there.
Alex Hohl: Yes, they did, like I had a couple of them who paid the ultimate sacrifice and I have quite a few of them who lost limbs, and I have a bracelet on for my buddy, Christopher Levy, who died in early December and I wore the bracelet for him because I want people to know his story.
Werman: Let me ask you about him. Tell me about your buddy.
Alex Hohl: My buddy, Christopher Levy, is from North Carolina. He is one of our combat replacements. He came to us late in the deployment, but I mean in the short time I knew him, he's just a great guy. I mean he was a guy you could easily talk to if you were having a rough day. You could talk to him any time, and then one day he was taken away from us and it broke my platoon's heart.
Werman: I want to go back to what your Mother was thinking while you were getting ready for your second deployment. You must have known, I'm sure you spoke with her about that, and you must have known what was going through her mind. How did you deal with that? How did you allay her fears? How did you allay your own fears?
Alex Hohl: Well, I broke the news to my Mother. I knew she'd be worried. I knew my family would be worried, but you know, when we got over there, I remember stepping off the plane and being like, Ã¢â?¬Ë?ahhh, I'm back in this country,' you know. It felt like I just left, but for almost the whole deployment, I was a Squad Leader, so it may sound a little selfish, but I had to put the home front aside and focus on the mission, just to get my boys home and get me home.
Werman: I want to ask you about that mission, especially in light of events recently, so let me ask you about those events and how it affects the mission, what you did. The sergeant who allegedly walked off base and massacred 16 Afghans, you work so hard to achieve what you did and so many questions have now been raised about what the mission is and whether we should even be in Afghanistan. What were your thoughts when you heard that news last weekend?
Alex Hohl: It just kind of ruins, well, it doesn't ruin, it just tarnishes our name and just, you know, everything we've done over there, because you know, our day to day mission was to go out and talk to these Afghans and interact with them, and you know, sit down and have Chi and have bread with them, building relationships and building trust with the locals and the elders and the Mullahs, and now because of the actions of this one man, you know, it sets us back.
Werman: Alex and Patricia, we're about to hear from a number of vets who have been back for a year or more. They've had time to reflect on what they've been through and where they're going. You've had just a few days. What are your fresh, just arrived thoughts about the months ahead?
Alex Hohl: Well, I'm pretty much just getting ready for the future. I mean, like towards the end of the deployment, I've just been thinking about the next step in my life. You know, my last deployment, it was pretty tough coming back and I didn't really know how to do it very well and I made some mistakes and, you know, I learned. I talked to people and some of the things they said, you know, I bring up again in my mind about how to help me adjust. This time around, the adjustment is a lot easier.
Werman: Patricia, what are your concerns about moving forward. Not just Alex, but how he's going to remesh with the family?
Patricia Hohl: I think my husband and I are just realizing, especially after this more dangerous deployment, the support that we're going to have to give Alex as a family. Alex hides things well and I know he's happy to be home. I know I'll be real happy when it's all over and his contact is up, but having had conversations with him in this last week and reading a letter that he wrote us, it's really starting to hit us, there's work to be done here as a family to support him and make sure that he steps into his life in the fullest way possible.
Werman: When you talk about that letter, can you share a bit of it with us and what really concerned you?
Patricia Hohl: That okay?
Alex Hohl: Yeah.
Patricia Hohl: Alex wrote us a letter to explain why he didn't keep a journal. He kept a journal the first deployment because I had asked him to. He wrote us a letter explaining why he couldn't keep the journal and the biggest reason was because he was in such danger every day. He was in one of the most dangerous spots in the country. He was also in a leadership position and he had men he had to care for, so he didn't really have the time to write a journal. He didn't have the energy to write a journal. He also explained that he's coming home a different man and that is hard to read. I wonder what's not there anymore of Alex. That's a little bit scary for a mother, but he's got a family who adores him and we want to do everything we can for him, and I think he's got a lot of plans. He wants to go to school and I know he'll make a great life.
Werman: Alex Hohl is a Marine who's just gotten back from Afghanistan. Patricia Hohl is his Mother. Thank you both very much for coming and for being a part of our conversation about coming home.
Patricia Hohl: Thank you Marco.
Alex Hohl: Thank you.