War changed Sgt. First Class Steven Addison into eight different people.
The guy he was before he marched into battle — twice in Bosnia and twice in Iraq — and the guy who came home each time.
“Being in combat is not something that is normal for the human body or human soul to experience,” the 33-year-old career soldier said as his wife, Kay, listened. “Imagine: 365 days a year. Every day, guns firing. Every day, mortars. Every day, bombs. Being exposed to a combat zone will affect you for the rest of your life. Coming back, you’re never the same.”
Ever since the first bombs were dropped on Afghanistan in October 2001, more than 1.6 million soldiers have served at least one tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, the Pentagon says. More than 600,000 soldiers have served two.
They are married and single. They have come home in uniform or as veterans. More than 35,000 have been wounded, 4,300 killed in the combined operations.
For many, coming home from today’s wars is no different from how it has been for combat vets since wars began. Happy families. Tears. Hugs. Bright futures.
Others face issues that are as familiar as they are sad: joblessness, homelessness, battered minds and bodies, struggles to connect with family.
But wars and warriors are also unique to their age.
The veterans of World War I who returned as heroes roared through the 1920s headlong into the Great Depression.
The vets of World War II built the nation in the shadow of discrimination.
Korean War vets were all but forgotten.
Vietnam vets, jeered as “baby killers,” came home to a society in upheaval.
Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia vets returned into the age of Google and iPods and sometimes wondered whether they had become afterthoughts.
Not so with the veterans of what soldiers call OIF or OEF, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
The most recent polls show more than 60 percent of Americans oppose the war in Iraq or how it is being managed.
Yet unique to this era is Americans’ eagerness to separate their feelings about the war from the warriors, greeting returning soldiers at airports, buying them drinks, shaking their hands, giving them money, thanking them for their service.
“Every time I have gone out in uniform, I have gotten a positive reaction,” Sgt. Addison said. “I havenever
gotten a negative reaction.”
The moment one returns, he said, is always joyful. But he also knows that it’s just that — a moment.
“Everyone is hugging and kissing, and it’s wonderful,” Kay Addison said. “But give it a few weeks. That’s when everything starts to go differently.”
“It’s going to be good that first day,” Sgt. Addison said. “But the next day, reality hits.”
For today’s new combat vets, no single reality exists.
How one handles coming home is unique to every individual. It depends on a multitude of factors: health and family; whether one is single or married; who they were before they left; their experiences in battle; their character; what they’re coming home to; or, for active soldiers in an open-ended war, whether they will soon have to return to battle.
Matt Zadeh of Overland Park signed up in June 2003. He wanted to fight in the infantry, but he was trained as a medic. Ten months later, on April 4, 2004, the 19-year-old Zadeh got his first taste of war: Members of the Mahdi Army ambushed a U.S. Army patrol outside Sadr City on what would come to be called “Black Sunday.”
Dozens were wounded, “from severe shrapnel injuries to head shots,” Zadeh said. Nine soldiers were killed, including Casey Sheehan, whose death would transform his mother, Cindy, into an anti-war activist.
Hour after hour, from about 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., Zadeh worked on bodies and in blood. More than 50 wounded soldiers were treated and evacuated.
“I had never seen action before,” Zadeh said. “I asked one of my sergeants, ‘Is this the way it’s going to be?’ ”
Zadeh remained in Iraq for a year.
“For the first six months it was really, really active,” he said. “We got mortared. I don’t know the exact number. It was in the 800s. Day-to-day bombardment.”
He returned to Fort Hood, Texas, and the first couple of weeks back were weird, he said. Crowded places — the kind where bombs would explode in Iraq — spooked him.
“Just going to the mall made me nervous, on my toes, on my guard,” he said. “I was kind of jumpy at thunder and lightning.”
He had sleepless nights. They passed, but soon the boredom of stateside military life wore on him.
“There were actually times when I thought, ‘It was better in Iraq,’ ” he said. “I knew it was time to get out.”
When his service was up, he left and returned with his wife, Cynthia, to Overland Park. Zadeh works nights at a sleep lab while he decides where he wants to take his education. Cynthia works nights at Sprint. Mostly, Zadeh said, his family and friends are great and life is good. Being home he already looks back on his service at times with nostalgia.
“I tell people it wasn’t a straight year of hell,” he said. “There were actually some good times over there. It changed my outlook on a lot of things. It kind of forced me to grow up.”
Mostly he feels proud. He tells the story of one night after he returned to Fort Hood. He met another soldier, a guy whom Zadeh had treated during combat after the guy’s leg had been shattered by a roadside bomb.
“He invited me to a poker party,” Zadeh said.
Two of the four other guys at the party had been wounded, too. Scars cut a swath across one soldier’s face. Shrapnel had torn another’s arm. Zadeh looked at them, and they looked back.
“I realized that I had worked on three out of the five guys there,” Zadeh said.
One guy stood up, shook Zadeh’s hand and said, “Thanks for not letting me die.”
Others, meantime, are like Scott Anderson, 25, of Wichita, now a freshman at the University of Kansas.
He joined the Army in July 2000 at age 18 and became an intelligence analyst.
“(I was) the geek with the map,” he says. “Our job was to locate the enemy and tell everyone where they were.”
He hit Iraq in December 2003 for an 11-month tour. Mortar fire into Camp Anaconda, one of the largest bases north of Iraq, was regular.
“I wasn’t out in the thick of things,” he said. “I never got shot at and didn’t get to shoot my weapon, which was fine with me.”
But two friends were killed — one died when his vehicle rolled and exploded, and the other died when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb.
“He took a piece of shrapnel at the base of his skull,” Anderson said.
Anderson was discharged and came home in October 2004. He’s engaged, studying psychology and working as a part-time security guard. If he’s had any issues coming home, he said, it was for a short time in relating to students again.
“I didn’t have too much in common with them,” he said.
When he first returned, he would talk about Iraq.
“Now, it’s more like I don’t mention it just for the simple fact that it puts a wedge in there.”
By all rights 29-year-old Army Sgt. James Wilson should have died three times.
He arrived in Iraq outside Baghdad in February 2004. In May his convoy was ambushed. A bullet hit his chest, then he took another in the back. His body armor saved him.
“The guy who shot me, I shot him,” Wilson said.
Two weeks later a car exploded at a gate to Camp Taji, sending shrapnel through one of his arms, deafening his right ear. Then, Sept. 8, he was on a routine delivery mission into Baghdad.
He stopped to fuel the truck, and for a reason that’s still unclear, the vehicle exploded, engulfing Wilson in flames.
“I don’t remember anything until I woke up in (the hospital in) San Antonio,” Wilson said.
With third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body, he walks on legs that look like strings of chewed bubble-gum. He’s had 22 surgeries.
He says in stalled traffic he still sometimes feels the urge to ram through traffic; in Iraq, stopped vehicles could mean an ambush.
“I have some bad dreams sometimes that I can’t wake up from,” Wilson said.
His memory is faulty. He’s anxious in crowds. But he also knows how lucky he is to be alive, no less walking.
For every soldier killed in Iraq, about nine have been wounded. From one standpoint, it may seem high compared with the 3.2 to 1 ratio in Vietnam and 2.3 to 1 ratio in World War II. From another standpoint, it means that soldiers who would have died from their wounds in other wars are now being saved because of improved armor and battlefield medicine.
Had Wilson been in Vietnam, he might either have died or had his legs amputated from his wounds.
Instead, he returned to marry a young woman, Amanda, he met over the Internet. Just last month they added a baby, Lilly, to the two children, Bailey, 8, and Chandler, 4, that Amanda brought to the marriage.
“There are lots of good things that have happened,” Wilson said. “Meeting my wife, having the kids. I’ve always loved kids.”
Meanwhile Addison, the four-time battle vet from Fort Leavenworth, has the dreams, sleepless nights and flashbacks, too.
“When it happens, they’re vivid,” he said.
But for him the more significant challenges of coming home, he said, are the more mundane: how to talk to his wife, what to share, how to renegotiate their roles as spouses and parents.
Because once away and back, everything is changed. Addison knows he’s different. His wife has taken on months of responsibility. The kids’ lives have gone on.
“You feel guilty not being there — birthdays, holidays,” Addison said.
His wife, Kay, a former Army soldier herself, knows a lot of marriages don’t make it.
“You’re trying to get back to the way it was before deployment,” she says. “But you have to know that you can’t.”
For soldiers who are still active, the possibility of redeployment makes every homecoming seem impermanent.
Both agreed the Army has been helping more with transitions, offering individual, family and couples counseling and better support for spouses and children.
“Compared to when I deployed in the ’90s, it’s totally different now,” Addison said. “There’s a lot more services.”
Through those services and experiences, they say, they have learned a few lessons.
“I would say not to dwell so much on who they were before deployment,” Sgt. Addison said.
“On both sides,” Kay Addison said, “to have realistic expectations.”
Sgt. Addison said that no matter what the difficulties, he always keeps one thing in mind
“It’s always good to come home alive,” he said. “A lot of guys don’t get to come home.”
@ On KansasCity.com
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. We’ll print some of your stories on Friday.
Since the start of the wars, critics of the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration have complained of poor health care for outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, underfunded care of traumatic brain injuries, poor compensation for soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, GI Bill benefits that are paltry compared with those offered vets in previous wars, a gargantuan backlog of unprocessed claims for compensation.
“Some veterans have to wait years,” said Jerry Newberry, director of communications for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “The backlog is growing as we speak.”
Newberry predicts that as interest in veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan fades over time, so will the care given them by the government.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” Newberry said. “It’s how veterans have been treated over history.”
But even critics acknowledge that, in the wake of criticism, the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs have made strides. Just before Veterans Day, U.S. Army officials signed what they called an “Army Family Covenant” — a pledge, part of $18 billion in additional programs, to support families while loved ones are deployed.
At the VA, officials talk increasingly about “seamless transitions” for wounded soldiers — new one-stop-shopping for help with housing, utilities, medical care, jobs and other benefits.
“These days we’re looking at the family instead of just the veteran. That’s huge,” said Claude Guidry, program manager for OEF and OIF vets at the Kansas City Veterans Hospital.
Guidry talked about a new emphasis on battle decompression, increased mental health screenings for soldiers fresh off the battlefield, and dealing not only with post-traumatic stress but also “battlemind.”
“It’s the mental and physical toughness used to survive in battle,” Guidry said. “In the war zone, anger serves you well. You can be violent and aggressive. But it doesn’t work in the civilian world.”