December 2, 2007 – Marine Cpl. Sean Scharf still has a vivid memory of how he was greeted on his new job at a bowling alley two years ago when he had returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq . “This guy goes, ‘Oh you’re back from the war? Well, don’t flip out on me!,’ ” Scharf said, shaking his head at the memory. “What did he think I was going to do?”
Scharf’s pal from his platoon, Cpl. Sean O’Neill, had an even more typical encounter. He was at a party when it came up that he had just finished his second tour. “So, of course, someone asked me, ‘Hey man, did you kill anyone?’ ” O’Neill said, rolling his eyes with disgust. “You wouldn’t believe how many people ask that. Like, ‘So, you a killer?’ “
Vets helping vets: When I caught up with Scharf and O’Neill last month at UC-Berkeley, where O’Neill is studying political science, it had been more than two years since I’d seen them at a friend’s house in Saratoga . Scharf is now a student at San Jose City College , studying law enforcement and moonlighting as a security guard. Both have helped form the fledgling Bay Area chapter of Vets For Vets, helping veterans readjust to life at home.
Recently released statistics on the alarming number of suicides among Iraq war veterans are the most dramatic sign that Vets for Vets and groups like it are an essential part of helping soldiers with their often bewildering re-entry to civilian life.
The Associated Press published preliminary information from the Department of Veterans Affairs that 283 combat veterans who served in the war between 2001 and 2005 killed themselves after returning home. A CBS News report in November said that from 2004 to 2005, veterans ages 20 to 24 – those most likely to have served in Iraq and Afghanistan – killed themselves at twice the rate of civilians in that age group.
Scharf and O’Neill said they haven’t yet counseled anyone they thought might be suicidal, but they have talked to plenty of vets who seem to be lost at home. They said most soldiers they speak to aren’t so much stymied by the politics of the war as they are by being back in a life without the structure, comradeship and solid identity of the military.
“You know, one minute you’re this action hero, and the next, you’re at home doing some job stacking and kicking boxes around,” Scarf said. “It can be really difficult to make that change.”
Where to look: And then there are those who had a wartime experience that’s so wrenching they can’t come to terms with it and don’t know where to find help.
Mostly, Scharf and O’Neill talk to the vets at barbecues and outings they arrange, and they refer them to services ranging from places to get an affordable apartment and a job to how they can get help from the VA. They also work in connection with the San Francisco-based veterans’ advocacy group, Swords to Plowshares.
One member of Vets for Vets, Tia Christopher, has even written a manual for returning soldiers that includes a chapter for civilians on what to say and not to say to a vet.
“What they don’t want to hear is, ‘You kill anyone?’ or ‘You see any action?’ or “Are you OK mentally?’ ” Christopher told me. “Just say, ‘Welcome back.’ Or maybe, ‘How’s your transition going?’ “
O’Neill said the question he appreciated the most was, “How can I help?” That’s something that many returning vets desperately need to hear.
Contact Sue Hutchison at firstname.lastname@example.org