PARIS, Ill. – It was a day for high school bands and red, white and blue balloons, for cheers and tears and a sea of jubilant family and friends in every imaginable form of patriotic attire.
“The 1544th” finally had come home.
For 14 months while stationed in Iraq, the battered Illinois National Guard 1544th Transportation Company had endured more than 100 mortar attacks and had driven more than 580,000 hostile miles transporting supplies and ammunition.
During that time, the unit of about 160 members had suffered more deaths and injuries than any other National Guard company in the nation, military officials said.
Five soldiers – Sgt. Ivory L. Phillips, Sgt. Jeremy L. Ridlen, Sgt. Shawna Morrison, Spc. Charles Lam and Spc. Jessica L. Cawvey – did not return, killed either by mortar attacks or roadside bombs. They accounted for half of all Illinois Army National Guard fatalities in Iraq.
About 70 others were injured; about 20 of those were hurt seriously enough to be sent home.
But this was not the day to dwell on that. The citizen-soldiers of this tightknit community were back, and some 5,000 people lined the streets Tuesday to greet them.
“We’ve prayed hard for this day,” said Annette Brown, who stood in the middle of Main Street straining to get a glimpse of her arriving fiance, Willridge Simms.
And the troops were grateful for those prayers and the greeting.
“This is just awesome,” Sgt. Tyler Heleine said. “You can see that we’ve got the best support in the country.”
But while the 1544th’s battles in Iraq are done, the war is still not over for them and this community. Over the next few weeks and even months, in scores of individual homes here and in neighboring towns, returning veterans and their families will be quietly struggling try to deal with the hidden scars of the war.
According to the military, one of every six service members will return from Iraq with a mental disorder, and some experts believe the number could be even higher. Twenty-three percent of Iraq veterans treated at Veterans Affairs facilities have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s a big thing,” said Sgt. Major John Bauer, who is with the Illinois National Guard 651st Troop Command. “We’re trying hard to address it. It’s not just about dealing with the soldier. The family has to be brought into it as well.”
Murder, suicide and depression
The military began seeing the psychological impact shortly after the war began. In 2002, three soldiers who returned from the war in Afghanistan to their base in Fort Bragg, N.C., murdered their wives.
In July 2003, five soldiers in Iraq committed suicide, prompting the Army to send a team of mental health experts to Iraq.
The military’s primary concerns are depression problems and post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating change in the brain’s chemistry that includes flashbacks, sleep disorders, panic attacks, acute anxiety, emotional numbness and violent outbursts.
Lisset Greene of Spring Hill, Fla., believes it was post-traumatic stress disorder that took her husband from her. Greene said when her husband, Sgt. Curtis Greene, returned from Iraq in 2003, he was a changed man.
“Before he left, he loved the Army,” said Greene, 31. “After he came back, he hated it.”
Greene had nightmares, his wife said. He would awake covered in sweat. He was irritable and short-tempered.
The Curtis Greene she knew before Iraq was mild-mannered. This one was violent. “There were times that I felt unsafe in the house with him,” she said.
Twice the police had to be called to the couple’s home. Once, he was taken away in handcuffs.
He was seeing a psychiatrist, but Lisset said it didn’t seem to help. On Dec. 6, soldiers found Greene hanging in his barracks. He was 25.
Families must prepare
The vast majority of returning members of the 1544th will not have serious readjustment issues. But families here know they will be dealing with some form of re-entry stress. Paris firefighter Steve Wirth, whose 20-year-old daughter, Staci, returned Tuesday with the 1544th, said he began to prepare even before her arrival.
“We’ve discussed it, family-wise,” Wirth said while standing inside the fire station. “There’s going to be changes all the way around. We’re going to give her her space.”
Wirth said he knows the college student he kissed goodbye 14 months ago as she headed off to training and eventually to Iraq is not going to be the one he gets back.
“She’s going to be more mature, I know that, and going to have seen some things that we can’t imagine,” he said.
Tammy Johns, who runs a computer company with her husband, Max, said she is worried about how the war may have affected their daughter, Shelly, 20, a college student.
“I worry about her having nightmares,” Tammy Johns said. “I worry about road rage. I worry about the fact that we have guns in the house. Should we take the ammunition out of the house?”
Coming to grips
The returning soldiers are just as concerned about the effect of the war on their psyches as are their families, some said.
“That’s all I think about lately,” said Sgt. Heather Furry of the 1544th, who is also the mother of an 8-year-old daughter, Macy.
“I’ve got to get back in the routine of being the mom, going back to work, having a house to take care of, the bills. I know it’s all not going to go smoothly, but that’s part of being a parent.”
Furry, a dental assistant, said she knows that what she’s seen has had an impact on her. Furry endured a mortar attack in September that killed Shawna Morrison of Paris and Charles Lamb of nearby Martinsville, Ill., and wounded 13 other soldiers.
In a letter to her mother, Furry, 27, wrote of her efforts to come to grips with the horror of the attack and her futile attempt to save Morrison.
“We’ve been through a lot,” said Furry, who is leaving the National Guard after 11 years of service.
And because she has been through so much, she said, she is going to seek counseling, whether she thinks she needs it or not.
Is military help enough?
To help returning veterans, the military says it is mounting its most extensive effort ever to deal with potential re-entry problems. For instance, returning soldiers and Marines undergo mandatory face-to-face screenings with doctors and psychologists. Readjustment counseling for soldiers and their families has been set up at 206 Vet Centers around the nation. Counseling hot lines are available.
But some people, such as Charles Sheehan-Miles, executive director of the Washington-based Veterans for Common and a veteran of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, are concerned that the military is not doing enough.
They note that the New England Journal of Medicine reported last year that 16 percent of veterans of the war in Iraq suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, but fewer than 40 of them had actually sought help.
Sheehan-Miles said he has been surveying counseling services at various bases and has found them uneven.
“What I’m afraid of is that in one instance you might find a base that is fully aware of the problem and at another base they’re not,” said Sheehan-Miles, who said he had difficulty sleeping, nightmares and considered suicide after his service in Iraq and Kuwait.
One major problem is that many soldiers are reluctant to seek counseling or report strange behavior for fear that it might hurt their career.
Sheehan-Miles said that while the military says it encourages soldiers to seek counseling, it’s handling of one case has sent mixed signals.
While in Iraq, Sgt. George Andreas Pogany had a panic attack and sought medical help. In response, the military court-martialed him for cowardice. The case was thrown out, however, after it was determined that the attacks were probably caused by an antimalaria drug issued to some in combat.
In Paris and other communities across the nation, the military has been counseling families on how to help returning family members readjust.
Don’t ask questions
Patty Kennedy, Heather Furry’s mother, has been attending the meetings here in which the military has brought in psychologists and psychiatrists who offer tips on how to deal with returning veterans.
“They’ve told us to not ask them questions about the war,” she said. “If they want to talk about it, let them talk, but we shouldn’t bring it up. There were other things, like don’t tell her what you want. Ask her what she wants you to do for her.”
But even with pre-counseling, many families here won’t be ready, said Tara Hopkins, whose husband, Erik Hopkins, returned home in September, his body riddled with shrapnel from the mortar attack that claimed Morrison and Lamb.
“They don’t understand the nightmares they have at night,” Hopkins said. “It’s very overwhelming. It’s been an emotional roller coaster.”
Hopkins said the counseling that she and her husband have received through the Army has been vital to re-establishing their relationship.
She explained that it’s not just the returning soldier that has to readjust, but the other family members as well. She explained how she had to “get back into the wife role” once her husband returned.
“I was so used to doing things without him that he was complaining that I would leave him out of the plans I’d made for me and the kids,” she said.
On Tuesday, however, few were thinking of those problems. Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, Sen. Dick Durbin and other dignitaries had turned out to honor the men and women of the 1544th.
“It’s been a long wait,” said Quinn, who previously attended the funerals of all five guardsmen from the unit. “We’re happy to finally have them home.”
Reporter Ron Harris