They’re back from Iraq, but are they OK?
Ephrata guard unit loses no lives, but life is different
EPHRATA — A guardsman walks into a local Wal-Mart, freaks, does a 180, and walks back out again. Even after seven months, he can’t stand the crowds. Another jerks awake in the middle of the night, holding an imagined gun at his wife’s temple.
“Uh … honey?” she asks.
The soldiers tear down highways, swerve to avoid trash in the road. The bag that held a Big Mac could now hide a bomb. One still jumps if you touch his neck. Others refuse to sleep in beds. Those who do may awake in a sweat.
They’re members of the Ephrata-based 1161st Transportation Company, the close-knit National Guard unit that returned from Iraq seven months ago to a happy little town dolled up in yellow ribbons and townsfolk who breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Everyone in the town knew someone in uniform. The 130 citizen soldiers — from age 18 to 60 — were the region’s postmen, tractor mechanics, lab technicians, firefighters and weekend warriors called to war.
“There was this sense of something missing when they were gone,” says Wes Crago, city administrator of Ephrata, population 6,980. “Now, watching the news, hearing about roadside bombings, there’s not the weight, not the burden.
“Our people are back home.”
All of them. The unit had no casualties, only three wounded. Driving was extreme-danger duty in Iraq, but the 1161st managed to complete more than 14,000 missions, covering more than 1 million miles.
Some call it “The Miracle Company.” But if no one paid the ultimate price, the deployment still came at a considerable cost.
Although some citizen soldiers have slowly eased back into routines, others still feel like strangers in their own lives seven months after troops touched down.
They landed. And crashed.
“You talk to someone and they say, ‘You’re fine now, you’re home, so everything’s good.’ You want to say, ‘No. It’s not good. I’m feeling lost,’ ” says Spc. Keith Bond, a 31-year-old explosives specialist and father of two.
Some nights he goes to bed not even thinking about Iraq. “Others I lay down and ‘Bam!’ ” The face of a young Iraqi boy who aimed a gun at his truck haunts him. Bond drew a bead on him, almost took the kid out before he realized the gun was a toy. He says it felt like 45 minutes. It was probably 10 seconds. It’s still messing with his head.
“What if I had shot that boy?”
How, ask soldiers, do you explain that to civilians? How do you explain anything — the claustrophobia of being close, the anger that lashes out of nowhere, the desire to hole up?
“For a while I just wanted to sit home and do nothing,” says Spc. Steve Hurt, whose son, Tanner, was four days home from the hospital when he left. “I was tired of talking about the war, tired of hearing people ask, ‘Did you shoot anybody?’ I didn’t want anything to do with anybody — and here I was with a wife who wanted attention, and a 2-year-old son who was walking.”
Seven months after his return, Hurt and wife, Michelle, both 26, are still quarreling. “We fight over stupid things, like disciplining Tanner and paying bills,” he says. “I wasn’t used to having to deal with all this stuff.”
The small 1161st unit — closely tracked by larger National Guard battalions with new waves of soldiers coming home — could still sniff the gunfire when it arrived in Iraq in May 2003.
The company was one of the first on the ground, one of the most poorly equipped and pulled one of the longest deployments, with two tough extensions. The soldiers — some call themselves “guinea pigs” — found out about the last extension from newspapers, a problem higher-ups vowed not to repeat.
“The military has said they hoped to learn by mistakes made with our unit,” says Sheila Kelly, wife of Spc. Edward Kelly.
With training and extensions, the unit was gone from families for more than 18 months, finally arriving at Fort Lewis at the end of July. The military had prepped soldiers and spouses on possible reintegration problems. But nothing, some say, could fully prepare them for what was to come.
After the tractor parades, the award ceremonies, the celebrations and chili feeds died down, it was all quiet on the eastern front. In some households, eerily quiet.
Sheila Kelly says her husband locked himself in the bathroom to dress when he first got home. He’d become a smoker. He cursed. He was reclusive. He didn’t want to be kissed, hugged — it felt “suffocating.” When she threw a big dinner party, he bolted.
“They say it’s like a roller coaster, and sooner or later the ride comes to an end. But it doesn’t. There’s always another ride that begins,” says Sheila Kelly, 41, tears spilling onto her cheeks.
Even after seven months, Spc. Kelly, 42, still craves privacy. “For me the hard part is getting back to the day-to-day, re-establishing my feelings and emotions,” says the soldier, a lab technician in civilian life. “It’s like you have this little buffer zone around you — and you don’t want to let anyone in.”
Kelly doubts he’ll ever be “old normal” again.
But who defines “new normal?”
“I keep trying to bring back the old me,” says Bond. “I bring him back one day, and the next I have to try to find that person all over again.”
One 1161st mother says her son left a boy and came back a man.
Sgt. Jeff Elliott, 35, left a kid at heart, and came back feeling “like a 60-year-old man.”
The father of five is one of three Guardsmen in the unit decorated with a Purple Heart. He was wounded in June 2003, when a bomb in a black plastic bag hit the truck he was driving. He was in medical hold at Fort Lewis until last November, undergoing treatment for an injured back and anxiety, with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
He came home with an electronic box on his hip to interrupt pain signals to his back. It flashes like the light on a pursuing cop car. “We’ve been in hell. After you’ve been in hell, nothing’s ever really the same again,” he says.
He can’t tolerate crowds and avoids restaurants — unless his buddy Bond is there to cover his back. Like other soldiers accustomed to strict discipline, he’s often impatient with the kids. “It’s Daddy wants it done now, and he wants it done right now. If it’s not, it pushes his button,” says Penny, his wife of 15 years.
Elliott’s family wonders what happened to the outgoing baby-faced dad who laughed and joked with the kids, chasing them through the house, rolling around on the floor with them.
This other dad hurts, and he’s angry. “There’s a mentality in the military that, if you complain you’re hurt, you’re faking it, you’re slacking,” says the sergeant. “So 99.1 percent of the time you suck it up, don’t complain.”
There was plenty to complain about in Iraq in 2003. The unit arrived to no running water, no sanitation, no air conditioning and a sheep camp with blood and feces on the wall for a base. The “guinea pigs” often felt like sitting ducks with no armor for their trucks, and inadequate flak gear for their bodies. Sweltering in 120-degree heat, they steamed when officers in air-conditioned SUVs rolled down their electric windows to bark orders.
For some, serving in Iraq was a matter of pride; for others, a waste of time. “I lost almost two years in my children’s lives for something I see as a total waste of time and money and effort,” says Spc. Kelly.
For Kory and Melissa Brown, it has been an exercise in togetherness. The husband and wife shipped out together, returned together. Although they couldn’t touch or show affection in camp — they stole a kiss or two — they shared the same experiences. It’s made readjustment simpler.
“She knows where I’m coming from …” says Kory, 29.
“And he knows where I’m coming from,” says Melissa, 28, completing the sentence.
She’s a dental hygienist in town, and, like others in the 1161st, found re-entry into the civilian work force challenging. Away almost two years, she was rusty, and it took her several months to get her skill level back. There are still procedures she has to learn again. “I thought I would come back and just jump right into things,” she says.
At least she came home to a job. Some soldiers didn’t, including Spc. Hurt. He had to quit his old job when his wife moved to Ephrata. He came home from an 18-month deployment to a long, seven-month hunt for work. He applied everywhere and had only two phone calls, he says. “I felt like, after serving the country for 18 months, I come home, and I couldn’t even get a job. That got to me.
“I started thinking, ‘Maybe they’re not hiring me because they know I could be redeployed.’ “
Redeployment is a touchy topic in this little town, where remaining yellow ribbons are now faded by sun, frayed by wind.
With guard enlistments falling 30 percent short of recruitment goals, and members of the reserve and guard providing at least 40 percent of personnel in Iraq, the pressure’s on. “When soldiers call to ask me what are the chances we’ll go back, I tell them 50-50,” says Sgt. 1st Class Merle McLain, the 36-year-old readiness manager for the 1161st and father of 3-year-old twins Alex and Sara.
They were 20 months old when the tall sergeant with the booming voice left for Iraq. He missed the “terrible 2s,” potty training, his son’s bout with pneumonia and emergency surgery. He tried to get home and was denied — a low point.
Wife, Marcee, 32, who heads family support for the unit, says the kids are still working to reconnect with Dad. They bawled the first time he raised his voice and still run to Mommy for comfort. “The kids have to regain the trust that the parent is going to stay.”
Mom doesn’t like to think about the troops going back.
But, like everyone else in the “Miracle Company” family, she can’t help it.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” she says softly.