In one way, all combat soldiers are the same.
They’ve left their loved ones, lived with fear and faced live fire in the service of their country.
But their experiences in those conflicts — both during the war and after they returned home from it — are often strikingly different.
Recently we sat down with veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to learn more about what they faced, how it affected them and how they feel about it. This is the first in a series of discussions with those vets.Q. Did you have any problems readjusting after you returned from war? Joseph L. Dickerson (Korean War):
I was in several pretty strong firefights, and I was wounded — shrapnel from mortar fire at night in left chest. It’s still there, close, by my heart. They see it every time they take an X-ray. I had a hard time adjusting because I saw a whole lot of dead bodies in the short time I was there. And blood. Head blown off, arm blown off.
When I got discharged I never did talk too much to anyone about it. I kept it to myself. But I knew something was wrong, because I had problems holding jobs. I think I was 21 when I got out. Battle fatigue, that’s what they called it then. I had dreams, and you become touchy sometimes.
I went in at 17, and I used to be a happy-go-lucky guy. When I got out I was a little different. I wouldn’t go to work as I was supposed to. I couldn’t take orders till after about three or four years. And dreams. I still have the dreams. I sleep with a weapon. I always have slept with a weapon after I came out of the service. You just feel safer.Maj. Jason “Tank” Sherman (Iraq and Afghanistan):
I came back, still in the reserves, and didn’t really go through anything. I didn’t see what some other people have seen.Gary Shepard (Vietnam War):
I’m still not adjusted. I mostly stay with my friends. I’m still not comfortable in restaurants, and my kids still know they don’t let me get my back to the wall, and they watch out for me. I try not to let that bother me so much anymore, but sometimes it does. I still go to sleep with a loaded pistol most of the time.Ernest Torok (Vietnam War):
Coming back from Vietnam I just moved on to my next military assignment. When you stay in the military, amongst your comrades, you all understand each other, and it’s not as much of a problem. But when you go from military back to civilian, that’s a heck of a big adjustment. But personally I don’t feel that I suffered.Patrick Ratterman (Desert Storm):
I had horrible problems readjusting. I had held the same job for eight years (working with delinquent kids) when I was deployed. When I came back I got my old job back, but probably within a few months I was let go. It turns out I was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the last 15 years I’ve had 17 different jobs. There were a lot of physical problems that are related to Gulf War illness — fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue. We apparently got into some depleted uranium or sarin gas, nobody really knows. So I would say I had numerous problems on my return.Andrea Whitworth (Afghanistan):
It’s hard to explain, but you feel a null and void of that year. It’s gone. You’ve been away from friends and family. It’s almost like you don’t know them anymore, and you have to adjust to that. I felt a sense of (being) lost. That’s all I had known for the past year. Not only had I changed since I left, but everybody around me had changed as well. It was the “what-do-I–do-from-here, and where-do-I-go-from-here” type of feeling, and a sense of fear to a certain point. I’ve readjusted now.Roy Shenkel (World War II):
I had a lot of trouble. I was frightened. I couldn’t be around people or be in a restaurant. And as stupid as I was I carried a .25-caliber handgun in my pocket for about a month after I got home. I wasn’t thinking right. One day I said to myself: “What am I doing with this thing?” I just felt like I didn’t want to be challenged anymore or pushed around. I don’t know. But it was stupid. I got rid of it. But it took me two years to get straightened out. I’m still not completely over it, but I’m doing great now. But we all should have been deprogrammed. They just turned us loose, and we did the best we could.How were you treated when you returned? Patrick Ratterman (Desert Storm):
I was treated like a hero, but I didn’t feel like I deserved it.Andrea Whitworth (Afghanistan):
For the most part you are treated great. If you are in uniform out in public you have a lot of people who want to come up and shake your hand. You know, “We appreciate everything you have done, stuff like that.”Roy Shenkel (World War II):
I was treated all right. There were many people who were glad to see me home who knew I was over in Germany.Gary Shepard (Vietnam War):
I wasn’t treated very good. It’s better now, but it seems like too little too late. I’ve had people spit in my face and been called baby killer. And when I let my hair grow long in the hippie days I got pushed around for that. And when they found out I was a Vietnam vet I had to fight my way out of bars. I didn’t like that. I don’t like fighting.If you could give today’s soldiers advice, what would you say? Joseph L. Dickerson (Korean War):
I’d tell them to be proud of their country, and I’d tell them to try to get in touch with officials at the VA. And if they had problems, to go to someone who could help solve their problems. If I had talked to somebody I might have gotten diagnosed (with post-traumatic stress disorder) earlier. But I didn’t have anybody to talk to. So I’d say talk to somebody.Maj. Jason “Tank” Sherman (Iraq and Afghanistan):
Appreciate the time you get at home, and enjoy the time you have with your family. And take care of yourself when you’re over there so you can come back to them.Patrick Ratterman (Desert Storm): I would caution them very seriously that they need to be aware of post-traumatic stress disorder. These guys are coming back today from a combat zone where any bag of trash, any box on the side of the road or any time you turn a corner could mean the end of your life or your buddy’s life. So you’re on pins and needles over there all the time. You’d better be. So that’s what I would say. Just keep your head down and be very well aware that we are not made for that. And (if it bothers you) it doesn’t mean you’re a wimp. It means you’re a soldier doing a very difficult job. You’re a compassionate person, and those kinds of things affect you in a very bad way.