January 2005: The citizens of Iraq go to the polls to elect representatives to the Iraqi National Assembly.
Two soldiers from Missoula climb into Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, and for 24 hours straight patrol the streets of Baqubah, providing security for polling places.
Baqubah is a nasty place in more ways than one.
“I can’t forget the smell,” says Sgt. Fred Hansen of the 163rd Infantry Battalion, Montana National Guard. “There’s no garbage system, just an open field on each block where everyone throws their trash.”
“And an above-ground sewer” that carries feces and urine away, adds Sgt. Dave Bauer.
But it’s not just the stench from the open dumps and sewers. Baqubah sits on the edge of the Sunni Triangle, and Americans are despised.
Still, the elections went off well. American and Iraqi forces put up concrete barriers 500 meters from the polling places in Baqubah to keep car bombs at bay, and the Bradleys lumbering through the streets helped deter insurgents from trying much else. The Americans had come under small-arms fire the night before, but the polls still closed without the election being disrupted.
“Then our mission changed,” Bauer says.
And so did their long night.
Now their job was to provide security for the truck that was picking up ballot boxes at polling places, and that meant getting out of the tanks and moving the concrete barriers.
“The last polling place was about a mile up a road, and we had a big concrete barrier to get out of the way,” Bauer says.
Suddenly, an improvised explosive device was detonated near them. Rocket-propelled grenades rained in on them.
“It knocked my commander out cold,” Bauer says. “I was shaking him, trying to wake him up, and another guy threw a pipe bomb off a bridge at us. We had the road unblocked, so we started going up it, trying to figure out who was firing on us.”
Three-quarters of a mile up the road, the Bradley stopped near a grove of date palms where it looked like the enemy had retreated. The ballot box truck and two more Bradleys continued on to the polling place.
While they waited, more rocket-propelled grenades were fired at them. One hit the transformer on a telephone pole 10 feet away, and sparks and oil rained down on them.
Bauer opened fire with the coaxial machine gun on the Bradley. It cut down trees in the grove. He hit the enemy’s arms cache, creating a huge explosion as a fireball rose in the night sky.
“Go, Dave, go!” hollered Hansen and the other troops.
“There were fires everywhere and trees were down,” Hansen says. “There were Apaches (helicopters) above us, but they didn’t have to do anything. Dave took care of business. We rely on these guys. He was saving our lives.”
“I was saving myself, too,” Bauer says.
March 2007: 23-year-old Chris Dana, who served alongside Hansen and Bauer in Echo Troop, shuts himself in his bedroom in Helena, puts a blanket over his head and shoots himself.
Going to war is not easy for America’s servicemen and women.
Neither, it turns out, is coming home.
Oh, at first there is nothing like the euphoria you feel, they say. You have never been so happy to be back in a safe place. You have never more appreciated the people in your life. You have never felt so lucky to be alive.
You try to settle back into the routines, of jobs, of family. But the memories of Iraq don’t let you.
Months after his return, Hansen and his partner, Jeanne Castle, were putting together a bed. It was time to lift the box spring into place, and Hansen stood there, in the middle of the frame where the box spring needed to go, unable to figure out why Jeanne kept telling him to move.
“I had a hard time forming thought processes,” he says. “The simplest things confounded me. Jeanne and I were remodeling our basement, and I couldn’t make measurements. I talked to my counselor about why I couldn’t think the simplest things through.”
Eric Kettenring of the Missoula Vets Center told Hansen it was because while he was in Iraq, his mind raced at 100 mph, every waking moment, for a solid year.
“At home everything moves at a slower pace,” Hansen says, “but my mind couldn’t slow down. I was over-thinking everything. It was the most bizarre experience.”
For Bauer, the firefight in Baqubah “was an adrenaline rush like no other.”
Long after the euphoria of returning home wore off, the adrenaline rushes didn’t.
“When you’re on patrol in Iraq, you are hyper-aware,” Bauer says. “You want to be in control, because being in control can save you. When you get home, that feeling doesn’t go away.”
It led, he says, to encounters that shouldn’t have happened.
“I’d get frustrated with traffic, frustrated with co-workers,” he says.
Even, says the father of four, with his family.
At the bottom of his frustrations, Bauer says, was a feeling that his fellow Americans have little or no appreciation for the privileged lives they lead.
“They can travel from state to state with no roadblocks,” he says. “They have electricity 24-7, they get 100 channels on their TV, they have food in their grocery stores. I’ve been where they’ll go without electricity for 10 days or have no running water for two days, and then when they get it it only runs for two hours. When I hear people here gripe, I just want to say, ‘Open your eyes and quit complaining when your cable bill goes up $3 or gas goes up a few cents.’ ”
“You have no idea how lucky you are,” Hansen adds, “that you can walk out of your house and not have to worry about getting blown up.”
Old habits die hard. In Iraq, when you’re on patrol, you stop for nothing. Sitting ducks are, after all, sitting ducks.
Hansen yelled at Jeanne for coming to a stop on a busy Missoula street.
“It’s a red light,” she explained to him.
Lori Bauer couldn’t believe it when her husband drove her new TrailBlazer right over 6-inch-high concrete barriers in a parking lot instead of going around them.
“I just knew we had to get across them to get where we were going, and I never slowed down,” Dave Bauer says. “It never crossed my mind that I shouldn’t be doing it until my wife mentioned the fact that we were in her car, not mine, and she’d rather I didn’t do it anymore.”
“We were both Humvee drivers over there, and if traffic stopped, we didn’t,” Hansen says. “If they didn’t get out of the way we rammed them, because you don’t want to be a stationary target. We carried the same mind-set back here.”
“Your average State Farm agent frowns on that,” Bauer adds.
Now 48 and 45 respectively, Hansen and Bauer were the old men of Echo Troop in 2005.
Indeed, his fellow soldiers called Hansen “Grampa” and Bauer’s call sign, Oscar Mike, stood for “old man.”
Hansen, a former district manager in the Missoulian’s circulation department who filed several stories for the newspaper during 2005 detailing his year in Iraq, now works as an administrative assistant in the Department of Education at the University of Montana.
He also served in the U.S. Navy from 1979-85.
Bauer, a Polson native who joined the National Guard in 1979 when he graduated from high school there, works for the Montana Department of Natural Resources, where he builds and rebuilds fire trucks.
He and Lori have four children. The oldest, 21-year-old Dallon, is with the 1st Division of the 509th Airborne Infantry, and was in Iraq at the same time as his father.
“A double whammy” for Lori, Bauer admits.
Their other children are 20-year-old Danelle, 14-year-old Forrest and 10-year-old Faith.
Hansen had been out of the service for 18 years, and Bauer for 16, when they joined the Montana National Guard.
Neither expected to be deployed to Iraq.
Hansen enlisted on Oct. 7, 2003 – his 45th birthday.
“I originally wanted to do something for my community, and I’d seen the work the National Guard did on forest fires, and I respected that,” Hansen says. “I wanted to do the same thing they had. It didn’t quite turn out the way I expected.”
Bauer watched terrorists fly jets into New York City skyscrapers and the Pentagon on 9/11, got out of his chair, drove down to the recruiter and re-enlisted.
“I’d been thinking about re-upping,” he says. “I kind of went down and did it on a whim – but there was no better time.”
At the time, Echo Troop played the role of the opposition at Fort Irwin, Calif., training troops headed for Iraq.
“We were non-deployable because we were trainers,” he says. “I was sort of hoping we would get deployed. I guess my wish came true.”
They spent three weeks at Fort Harrison in Helena, moved on to Fort Bliss, Texas, then to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., where Iraqi nationals played the part of insurgents to add to the authenticity of the training.
Right after Thanksgiving, they were deployed, first to Kuwait, then into Iraq, part of a seven-mile-long convoy that took six days to get to Baghdad.
The day after the firefight in Baqubah, Echo Troop moved out to friendlier territory in Kirkuk, where Kurds and Turkmen who had been persecuted by Saddam Hussein were part of the population.
“We left the Kurds high and dry after the first Gulf War, and for the first couple of years they were suspicious of Americans,” Bauer says, “but by the time we got there they knew we were going to stay, and not abandon them.”
There were shootings, they say, and they awoke most every morning to the sounds of things exploding. But it was nothing like the terror of Baqubah.
They went on patrols and conducted raids – “soft knocks” if they believed an insurgent was in the area; “hard knocks,” where they would break down the door, if they believed an insurgent was in a particular house or building.
“One of our scariest missions came when police had captured four guys who had been kidnapping Iraqi police officers and chopping their heads off,” Bauer says. “Me and Sgt. Hansen had to take them to court in an armored Suburban, and I figured if we were going to get hit, this would be when it would happen.”
It didn’t, but there was never time to relax. They visited a bank, asked questions, and within 20 hours a car bomb went off in the same spot, killing 42 people.
“It’s hard to explain,” Bauer says. “What if we’d gone 20 hours later? Or were they targeted because we talked to them? There’s a lot of stress knowing every day could be your time to get hit.”
“You had to go moment to moment, day to day,” Hansen says. “To dwell on it would drive you crazy.”
Home sweet home. People hiking Mount Sentinel. Twenty-thousand-plus cheering the Grizzlies on football Saturdays. Rafts floating down the Clark Fork. Folks strolling through the Farmers Market. Kids swinging in the parks. Families enjoying holidays.
A world apart from the death and explosions, the IEDs and RPGs they lived with on a daily basis in Iraq.
Home was a wonderful place, until the euphoria of being back wore off but the memories of Iraq didn’t.
“I couldn’t go into Costco, I’d get so claustrophobic,” says Hansen, who also couldn’t take the noise from the fireworks show on a trip to Disneyland after his return and had to retreat inside his hotel.
“I’d get real anxious in the grocery store,” Bauer says. “I just knew I don’t want to be here, I want to get out. My wife would say, ‘Where are you going?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know, but I’m not staying here.’ ”
Jeanne and Lori were their rocks, Hansen and Bauer say.
“My wife knew, she was my shield instantly,” Bauer says. “My relationship with my wife for the first three or four months couldn’t have been better. But as I settled back in and got back to work, I started seeing more anxiety. When I get anxious, I get angry. And I don’t back down. I was quick-tempered, with her, with my kids, with co-workers.”
His family, his church and the Missoula Vet Center have all been keys to his readjustment into society, Bauer says.
“Jeanne has been my rock,” Hansen says. “She’s put up with me, loved me, guided me, and been there for me every step. If I was single, it would have been a more difficult transition.”
Chris Dana, their comrade who committed suicide after coming home, was single.
He suffered from the same thing Bauer has been diagnosed with – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“He was a young guy who would get into bed with his uniform and boots on, curl up in a fetal position and fall asleep,” Bauer says. “He’d never take that uniform off. He’d stay in it for weeks.”
Bauer guesses Dana showed the same symptoms he did after returning to U.S. soil: An inability to sleep. Nightmares. Showing anxiety in stressful situations.
“I had all those signs, and I was diagnosed with PTSD,” Bauer says. “I was lucky. I have a support system. Chris probably had the same signs, but nobody caught them. He wasn’t working, he wasn’t going to drills, and they were getting ready to give him a dishonorable discharge.”
Matt Kuntz, Dana’s stepbrother, wrote a letter to the Helena Independent Record blaming the state of Montana for the suicide.
“Chris was receiving this dishonorable discharge because he demonstrated tell-tale signs of PTSD, withdrawal from society and an inability to participate in military functions,” Kuntz wrote. “Four days after Chris’s death, the State of Montana buried him as a hero, with Lieutenant Governor Bohlinger and Major General Mosley in attendance. The irony could not be any more appalling.
“Montana’s current system for caring for its service members with PTSD relies on the injured service members to reach out to the military for help. The combination of the self-reliant nature of men and women that are brave enough to volunteer for combat missions and an injury that forces victims into self-seclusion doom the voluntary counseling system to failure. The failure of this system led the State of Montana to begin prosecuting my step-brother for displaying the symptoms of his injury. They were prosecuting him in the name of every citizen of the State of Montana and that ridiculous prosecution undoubtedly contributed to Chris’s death.”
But Bauer says everyone close to or related to Dana must shoulder some of the blame, too.
“If they’re saying he fell through the cracks – his family has to be there somewhere, too,” Bauer says. “Was Chris a casualty of war, or a casualty of the society we live in?”
Families, friends and counseling are the keys to a successful readjustment to civilian life. Families and friends may not understand what you’re going through, but if they understand you’re going through it, they need to step in.
The one thing the military should change, Bauer says, is the practice of giving returning servicemen and women their chance to bring up any physical or mental problems during the days when they demobilize.
Bauer and Hansen did it at Fort Lewis, Wash.
“We were deactivated back into the National Guard, and it took nine days to do that,” Bauer says. “That’s a hard nine days, when you’re so close to home. I had a knee problem (his leg was slammed in a Humvee door) and I had three opportunities to bring it up, but if you say anything, you’re separated and segregated and left behind. I’d been away for 18 months and I wanted to see my wife and kids. That’s the first priority over everything.”
“I had a lower back problem that I’d hurt in training,” Hansen says, “and I didn’t bring it up for the same reason.”
Home sweet home. It beckons so strongly, then weeks later, the memories of war bite back.
For seven months, Dave Bauer kept a journal in Iraq.
Seven months. Sixty-thousand words.
“One day I went back and started reading it for a couple of hours, and it was all negative,” Bauer says. “I decided as soon as I had something positive to write, I’d write it down. I never wrote anything again.”
He and Hansen felt bad for the younger soldiers, who watched marriages and relationships go sour during their deployment.
“Out of 38 guys, I think we had six divorces within a few months, and six more after we got back,” Bauer says. “The only difference was the ones who waited until we got back were just sucking at the nipple of the guys’ wages. When we got back, they’d already sold the car or quit the payments and moved in with someone else.”
One soldier’s wife, who was pregnant when he left, wrote to tell him she wanted a divorce.
“You know he’s thinking about that, instead of what he should have been,” Hansen says.
“Can you imagine being out on patrol, your life on the line, and your mind is on a wife who’s pregnant and wants out of the marriage?” Bauer asks.
In that respect, the old men of E Troop feel blessed. They both had someone who stuck by them; they both had someone to come home to; they both had someone to help them when they got here.
Fred Hansen and Dave Bauer aren’t asking for anything but understanding for the servicemen and women who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’d gladly do it over again,” Bauer says, “and I gladly did it the first time.”
But they thought you ought to be reminded that while war is hell, coming home can sometimes put a soldier or Marine in the strangest of purgatories.
It is April 2007, and these two soldiers, who lost one of their own to suicide, want returning veterans to seek help if they need it.
“Quit saying you can handle it on your own,” Bauer says, “and take the help that’s there.”
They both did. And while their lives are forever changed by war, those lives, they say, look better every day.
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
National Guard assessment extended to 2 years
Maj. Gen. Randy Mosley, adjutant general of the Montana National Guard, says he doesn’t want to steer in any particular direction the task force created in the wake of the suicide of Helena National Guardsman Chris Dana, who killed himself 16 months after returning from Iraq.
But Mosley knows what he knows: That six months is too short a time to watch for symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that – unlike active-duty troops who return from combat to military bases with large support systems – National Guardsmen are kicked back into civilian life.
“They are thrust back into society,” Mosley says. “A lot of Montana is rural, they’re not with their combat buddies anymore and there’s not the support network available to them.”
The Montana National Guard has followed Department of Defense guidelines in identifying soldiers who may need professional help, but Dana’s suicide “brought home that we may have issues the National Guard was not aware of,” Mosley says. “The means to determine if one of our soldiers needs help may not be satisfactory enough.”
The task force is charged with reviewing the current system and coming up with new policies to address identifying and getting help for Guardsmen who may need it.
“Once they’re home, all we see of them on the military side is two days a month when they come to drills,” Mosley says.
And even if they’re having problems readjusting to home life, they may hide it for the two days they’re back in uniform.
“They may not want to show their buddies,” Mosley says.
The Montana National Guard has already moved to extend the Post Deployment Health Assessment, which all soldiers receive after returning home, from six months to two years.
“What we’re finding is that six months after, they may not yet have a problem, or want to indicate they have a problem,” Mosley says. Statistics are showing, he says, that even things like traumatic brain injury, which can be caused by being knocked around inside an armored vehicle by an improvised explosive device, may not come to light for up to two years.
“It’s been well established for some time that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health illnesses are a predictable outcome of war,” says Dr. Mike Magee, host of a weekly electronic media program called “Health Politics.”
The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research says that in addition to PTSD, returning soldiers may suffer from major depression, substance abuse, and impairment of their ability to function in society or at work.
“It’s a challenge, it really is,” Mosley says. “We want to make sure if they need assistance, they get it, and they’re not ostracized for doing so. Once they’re off deployment they’re veterans with all the benefits of the VA, and that’s where they often need to get connected for assistance.”
Help for post traumatic stress is available
Veterans and their family members who would like more information on help available for those who have served in combat and are having trouble readjusting to life at home can contact the Missoula Vet Center (1-800-626-8686 or 721-4918), the Billings Vet Center (406-657-6071) or the state of Montana Veterans Affairs Division (324-3740).