Special Edition of The World: Returning Veterans

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(Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

A US soldier hugs his girlfriend at a homecoming ceremony to welcome his unit home at Fort Hood.

PRI's The World produced a special edition on returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. We've asked for veterans, and friends and family of veterans, to share their stories about what their homecoming has been like. Below are a few stories of the many contributions we received.

If you are a veteran, we want to know what it’s been like to come home. What’s been good? What’s been bad? Or, if you know a vet, what has homecoming meant to you? Enter your responses in this form.

What was your homecoming like?

Emily Winslow is an Iraq veteran from Georgia.

A bit strange. Starkly lonely. Sneakily depressing. I was freshly separated in my marriage, freshly broke because the military started wrongly recouping 2/3 of my pay less than 3 months before I came home, and fresh out of energy to face everything I left, let alone everything I had come home to. When I left I had 2 jobs and lived comfortably; coming home I had no job, no prospect of one, and moved in with my mom. No one I lived near understood anything I had been through. [I’m] facing real life again, and everything that comes with it. In some ways, you can hide from the realities that occur back home. When you come home, there are people and situations to face, issues to attend to, and triggers for deployment memories you can't avoid. At least that's how it went for me. I know others with very different experiences.

Robert Muir is a parent of an Iraq veteran from Providence, Rhode Island.

My experience was incredible for the mere fact that he came home. No bodily injuries, (in spite of the fact that the Humvee he was commanding was hit by an IED) and, as far as we can tell, no residual mental or emotional effects. My son, Devin, was IRR (Inactive Ready Reserve) and activated to go to Iraq not quite two years after he finished his required active duty. Sort of the back door draft if you will. He came home just before Thanksgiving. By virtue of having been active army attached to National Guard Unit out of Minnesota, he had to fly, to Minnesota to fill out his discharge papers before he could fly home to New England. We had Thanksgiving at the home of my brother-in-law Mike, a Vietnam Vet. It was a great time. Until that day Mike rarely spoke of his Vietnam experience. That day, with my son, and a feeling of kindred spirit in their experiences Mike, mentioned things no one in the family had ever heard before. The two were unloading much that I'm sure the general public could never understand. (I myself am a retired domestic soldier, a 20-year veteran of a 500 man New England police department. There is much I hesitate to talk about with "civilians".) Devin stayed with us until he got settled and eventually bought a home where lives today. Recently he was laid off from his job and is now in school taking advantage of the GI Bill. We are glad he is home. Very glad. Devin is the oldest in the family, in the previous two generations the oldest boy has been killed in WWI and WWII. He's back and we are thrilled.

Nicholas is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran from Florida.

Surreal, but refreshing. The simplicity of being in a support role while deployed was refreshing. Being single, I had very little outside of work to worry about. My work in Iraq was low-stress and I had great coworkers. My role in Afghanistan was much more challenging, but fulfilling. While deployed I didn't have to do any shopping, worry about what to wear, what to do on the weekend, what to eat for my meals, what to do in my free time, etc. The life is relatively simple, and I enjoyed that. Coming home you have to worry about all these little things again. The greatest challenge by far is adjusting back to the normal pace of life. Deployed, you can get things done very quickly and hold people accountable for their actions. When you get back stateside and somebody cuts you off in traffic or holds up the line at Wal-Mart, there is nothing you can do about it. It is also frustrating to listen to reports about Iraq and Afghanistan, especially ones about events you were intimately involved in, [which] are inaccurate. Public radio is usually pretty good, but many of the outlets seem biased towards preconceived notions that they are adapting a certain story to, fail to appreciate the broader context of the conflict, or are biased towards laziness and fail to put out an article or editorial that is insightful, accurate, and appreciates the scope of what they are talking about.

Carrie Donoho is an Iraq veteran from Los Angeles, California.

"I had very mixed feelings about coming home. Coming home to me was not coming home - it was returning to my duty station in Germany. I was deployed during the start of the Iraq War, so the anticipation of returning was strange because you have been gone for so long that you aren't sure how you will adjust. I was nervous I might wander outside to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. What was most strange was coming home to my husband, who at that point seemed like a total stranger. It was stressful and awkward for us both - I felt like I had an entire part of my life that he wasn't around for. The surprisingly wonderful part of it, however, was falling in love all over again with the same person." "The greatest challenge for me was dealing with the seemingly endless questions that my family had. They all expected that I was away doing very exciting work, when in reality I was sitting in the desert, dirty and bored. It was like groundhog day there, and they were expecting me to have these incredibly exciting experiences. So I just didn't want to talk about it much because I felt like there was nothing to say. The other challenge was that the bonds that were developed between all of the soldiers started to dissipate. We were like a tight-knit family when we were gone, but once we returned everyone went back to their lives and their families. This was good for those with families, but I think it was hard for those without families - especially single soldiers returning to Germany. Suddenly all of your social support starts to disappear."

Matthew Holzmann is an Afghanistan veteran from Winter Park, Florida.

I was fortunate to have a therapist for a wife, who was waiting for me with an open heart and lots of patience. Unfortunately, the mental health system for soldiers, sailors, and Marines was, and continues to be, woefully inadequate. The nature of the system ensured that low-paid, over-worked, contract therapists (who's contracts are regularly terminated to find a new flock, which leads to continuity of care issues) are the ones 'caring' for the mental health of individuals that have just returned from war. That's a formula for failure that our society will live with for the next 60 years. "When you're in country, you wake up with an unparalleled sense of purpose that disappears the day you get home. Suddenly, you come home to all the news that nobody wanted to bother you with while you were deployed, the friends' parents that died, the divorces that happened, the friends that were laid off. You come home to endless, unthinkable choices...like 30 types of cereal, truly overwhelming choice. So, what was it like coming home? It was frustrating, because your sense of purpose is gone. It was maddening to hear the petty problems that upset civilians going about their everyday lives, two weeks after one of your 'brothers' was blown up. I was in line for groceries one day, and some woman was yelling at the checkout clerk about an expired coupon, and I wanted so badly to slap her and tell her about LCpl Swanson that just gave his life for her security. Instead, I walked away. But, I struggled for months with similar experiences." The greatest challenge when I returned was the confusion experienced when shifting gears from constant hyper-vigilance to domesticated life.

Michael Hanes is Iraq veteran from El Cajon, California.

It was very difficult. I could not associate with society and had terrible anger issues that I couldn't explain. I was also homeless for a time of two years. I would forage for food in the canyons at times. The greatest challenge of being a returning vet was integrating back into society. After five years of being out, being homeless and struggling with work and being homeless, I ran into a program for transitioning veterans called the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture training program. They teach hydroponic food production and entrepreneurship training. I now have my own hot sauce business due to their guidance. My hot sauce is called Dang!!! and is now in the Whole Foods stores in Southern California. It is a unique nutritional hot sauce that is Raw, Organic and has superfoods. The only of it's kind. There are other VSAT graduates with unique ideas. We mentor each other along to get veterans on their feet. My business name is called Forager Mikes Superfoods due to the foraging days of my life. Go to my websites and see the news media on the front page danghotsauce.com

James Davey is an Iraq veteran from Georgia.

At first, it was a relief. I was glad to be home, glad to be with my family. It began to weigh on me within a few days, though. When I left for my second tour, I had finally gotten used to my 2-year-old son (born during my first tour). When I came home after my second (and much bloodier) tour, I had to adjust to a squalling 6-month-old with whom I felt very little connection. I felt disconnected from everyone. Life had continued at home without me, and I no longer felt a part of it. My wife had assumed all of my responsibilities with great success, and had grown accustomed to juggling them with her own. She was hesitant to return them to me; she supposed that I needed to rest. I felt, though, like I wasn't needed anymore. I no longer felt like a member of my own family; I was the breadwinner, but that was it. My parenting advice wasn't needed. Mine was no longer the shoulder my overworked wife cried on. For all intents and purposes, I was utterly alone, devoid of any sort of connection with anyone. The greatest challenge of being a returning vet was, for me, learning to live again. I had decided during my second tour that I was unlikely to make it home. While I made ostensible plans for post Army life, I didn't really invest much in them emotionally. I supposed I was going through the motions, mostly to keep my family from stressing out about the realization that I had made. When I did make it home after all, I was utterly unprepared to deal with life. Even now, I have shocking moments where I am presented with a challenge and think I was not meant to have to face this. It gets better. All returning vets should know that it gets better.

If you are a veteran, we want to know what it’s been like to come home. What’s been good? What’s been bad? Or, if you know a vet, what has homecoming meant to you? Enter your responses in this form.

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