Re-integrating into civilian society is a challenge for soldiers returning from war. Some World War II veterans are reportedly just now realizing the depths of trauma and distress that they have been silently living with for decades. Vietnam Veterans returned to a climate that made them feel unwelcome and angry; forced to form their own networks of support, many suffer painfully to this day, coping with a past they wish they could alter.
Today, men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have relatively more support from the military, social services, and their communities; but re-entering the civilian world is still tough.
When Woodstock resident Jeff Langan signed up for the Marine Reserves in March 2001 he didn't know that a year later he would be deployed to Iraq. A fitness buff who worked at a nutrition store and did bodybuilding on the side, he was enticed by the image and physical challenges offered by the Marines.
'Since I was a freshman in high school, I was always fascinated by what they are, and what they stand for,' he says referring to the U.S. military branch most renowned for its rigorous physical discipline.
Now that he has returned from two deployments to Iraq, he is ready to settle down--but he says that if he were called again, he would go. 'If I get a call, I don't really want to do it, but for my country I will go and help with one last-ditch effort.'
Langan says that when he returned home for the second time in 2005 it took him nearly a year to 'start to wind down' from the intensity of his Iraqi experience. He describes the first deployment as beginning in a sandstorm that made him wonder how he would survive in the dry, brutal desert climate. Although he says those first months were 'scary,' he remembers it as exciting--going through cities, being greeted by welcoming cheers.
The second deployment was far less welcoming. 'Iraqi people wouldn't react as much. Our mission was to sweep roads and question people, looking for IED's (improvised explosive devices) and land mines. This time it was guerilla warfare. Iraqi soldiers were often not in uniform.'
The IED's were frequently hidden in piles of garbage along a road in Hadifa or Ramadi, and the tension of hidden death and danger was ever-present. The engineering training that prepared him to help clear the roads for the Marine convoys did not prepare him for the psychological assault.
The level of trauma he had been exposed to in Iraq became clear one day, after he was back in Southeast Portland, as he drove down a road and saw a pile of garbage. 'I just sort of freaked out,' he remembers. 'Up to that point, I didn't think I needed counseling, although some people in my family had been saying I should get some. After that, I went.'
Langan is fortunate to have the support of his fellow reservists. As a part of Marine Reserve duty, monthly outings (such as snow camping) and ongoing trainings provide an opportunity to share experiences. 'It helps a lot to be with people who have been through the same thing. We talk about how hard it is getting used to society, dealing with people in a different manner--trying to be more relaxed, and not stressing all the time.'
Increased awareness of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and how to cope with it can aid veterans and their families when problems develop. However, for the most part, the Veterans Administration is overwhelmed with requests for mental health care, so some turn to nonprofit organizations and web sites for information on PTSD and for help with re-adjusting back to civilian life. Four of many Internet websites available are:
That warfare and its fallout have become a part of daily life for so many may not be something to stand up and cheer about; but at least, for those who choose to serve and sacrifice, options for finding help may ease the pain of returning from war.