When military members return from war: Culture shock at home

Andy Kravetz

It was March 2005. Sgt. John Stoor was pulling onto his base in Hawaii in his Mustang when a military police officer noted his car didn't have a valid safety-inspection sticker.

"That can't be," Stoor remembers thinking. "I told them my wife had taken care of it."

She didn't, or they didn't check on the paperwork, but in any case, Stoor was off to the side, and two MPs were asking for his papers. That set him off. He flew into a rage, grabbed the paperwork and threw it out of the car. One of the guards put her hand on her sidearm.

Stoor got even angrier. He got out of the car, and the other MP put his hand on his weapon. Now Stoor, who had done three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, knew it was time to relax.

A few minutes later, one of them, after checking with his unit, asked Stoor, "Are you just back from Iraq or Afghanistan?"

Culture Shock

Stoor's experience isn't unusual. Hundreds of returning veterans are coming home after spending time in Iraq or Afghanistan, where they were forced to cope with extreme stress, terror and death. And, for the most part, the transition back to civilian life is pretty quick, given the experiences, Stoor and others say.

The Defense Department has a series of debriefings that can last up to a week for soldiers or Marines after they return to the United States. There, GIs can talk about their experiences and learn about any sort of counseling or help if needed. However, it's not infallible.

Karl Newman, a 29-year-old former Marine who was wounded three times in Iraq and received a Bronze Star for Valor, said his transition from wartime to peacetime was pretty quick. He was discharged from the corps in April and returned to his home in Peoria about a month later. For the 10-year veteran, it was culture shock.

"It's tough," he said recently. "I went from a situation where it was regimented and people listened to you to being in an unstructured environment."

As a staff sergeant in the Marines, he was used to people listening to him. He was used to being in charge of a platoon of Marines who would do what he said. Now he's one of the pack, forced to figure out how to adjust.

Newman is looking for work but has had a hard time finding a job. It's tough when your job skills involve field-stripping an M-4 carbine or planning an assault on a fortified position. And like Stoor, he's changed on the inside.

"You are numb to people's feelings. It's hard to be understanding, I guess," he said. "It is just from the missions I did every day. You can't care about people's feelings. That's part of killing. You can't think of their families."

Dr. Victoria Folse, the clinical director for OSF Saint Francis Medical Center's critical-incident stress-management team, says such feelings are fairly common for people who experience a traumatic event. She went to ground zero not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to help police officers there deal with their emotions.

"What often happens is that there is a delayed onset for those individuals who don't demonstrate the symptoms that we would expect," she said. "Every person has a different way of trying to deal with the incomprehensible.

"For some, displaying those symptoms is truly a self-preserving act. Others don't. It's those walking wounded that are so emotionally hurt that no one knows it who are truly in need."

Triggering Stress

Stoor, 32, spent a year in Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Wolfhounds." There, he went on extended patrols that lasted for several days. They set up ambushes, walked into ambushes and were attacked by insurgents and by improvised explosive devices.

A statement from his commanding officer says Stoor went on more than 113 patrols and was exposed to weekly rocket attacks. The constant pressure of a combat zone, especially one like Afghanistan, is unimaginable, said Stoor and his buddy Christopher Roe, who also was there.

"There is nothing that we have here that can train for Afghanistan," Roe said. "Put it this way: My brother said he was happy to go back to Iraq because he didn't want to be ordered to Afghanistan."

Roe, 34, served with 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, and less than six months into his tour was wounded by an IED explosion.

Their experiences differ from that point, but in the end, they wound up back in Hawaii and then in Marquette Heights. Both say their time "in country" changed them and how they view the world and the Army.

"Today is an 180-degree turn," Roe said, noting the high level of stress and attention to detail required in combat. "When you come home, your body doesn't know that, and it keeps thinking you have to (maintain that high level of vigilance)."

They both don't like to ride in cars, preferring the open-air feeling of a motorcycle. They don't like to drive on one side of the road; instead, they unconsciously drift toward the middle, where it's safer, in their minds. And they both tend to get irritable and angry much quicker.

In short, classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It's the body's natural reaction to an abnormal event," Stoor said. He was medically discharged from the military earlier this year because of his PTSD. Roe was discharged as well but because of his wounds.

What can trigger an episode? For Stoor, it can be as simple as a trip to a fast-food restaurant. Before his tour in Afghanistan, he was with 3rd Army in Iraq. That country, he said, isn't the cleanest place, and the stench of garbage permeated the area where he was staying.

Driving by a trash bin at a restaurant, the stench can take him right back to Baghdad. A truck can as well.

"The smell of diesel fuel burning from the exhaust of a truck will remind me forever of the smell of our Humvees as we warmed them prior to rolling out on an early morning mission. That smell can trigger a lot of anxiety in me," he said.

Seeking Help

Both men say they are getting counseling and treatment to cope with the anxiety, but they decry the stigma that it has within the military.

Stoor said he was having a lot of nightmares and flashbacks after he returned from Afghanistan. Live-fire exercises became a particular problem, so he sought out help.

"After a year's worth of help, the shrink decided that it wasn't in my best interest to deploy anymore, and I decided I was not fit for military duty anyway," Stoor said.

What he didn't expect, though, was the reaction from his superiors or fellow soldiers when he sought help. He said he was looked down upon, treated like less of a soldier and had responsibilities taken away.

Roe said he was treated badly -- echoing Stoor's experience -- when he sought help in Hawaii.

"As soon as you step into a mental health facility, you are an (outcast)," he said.

Hilary Tharp oversees the Veteran's Affairs Department's health plan for Illinois and Indiana. Based at the VA hospital in Danville, she focuses on Iraqi and Afghani war veterans. She said she has not seen an increase in PTSD among vets, but there's a steady stream of people seeking help.

"People do know more about (PTSD) than, say, in Vietnam," she said. "It is out there much more."

The attention and the loss of stigma, at least within the civilian population, has made it easier for some to admit they need help.

Everyone, she said, copes with the mental trauma in their own way. Some adjust better than others, but all need some type of unwinding after time "in country."

"When you are on high alert and not sleeping much, it keeps you safe. But when you get home, your body can't just turn it off," she said. "We find people with high levels of irritability, not being able to sleep, or constantly on guard.

"For many, it goes away, but for others, it wouldn't."

Readjusting to the Home Front

All three men are married and have children. Roe and Stoor say they sought help for their families and themselves. They realized that despite the stigma, it was worth it. Roe said he still doesn't like fireworks shows, and a thunderstorm can cause him to wake up in a cold sweat.

"Now the reason I went to get help was because I needed it and still do," he said. "I am happy to be home, and at the same time I am not. I don't fit in anymore, and can't seem to enjoy doing the things I used to do. I do a lot of bow hunting and a lot of motorcycle riding. I think that is because those are two things where you are in complete control of the situation."

Roe, a tall, lanky man, works at the federal prison in Pekin. Stoor is still looking for work. He's angry at what he said is a lack of support for veterans. He'll go for a job interview, disclose that he has PTSD and then, suddenly, the doors close. That's just not right, he said.

"Realistically, is that what it is going on, I can't say for sure. I can say that I have an excellent resume and a lot of outstanding qualifications as far as management/human resources and the ability to train, educate and lead subordinates," Stoor said. "In this community, this equals a $6 an hour job picking up tree limbs. Oh, but that job never granted me an interview, either."

Newman, for his part, said it took longer for him to get readjusted to life after his second tour of duty in Iraq, as opposed to his first one. After spending months living with Iraqi soldiers and being involved in combat, it was tough, he said, to turn off that sixth sense which he had relied upon for his life.

"It took me a long time to adjust to little things when I got back, such as going out in public and socializing, going in crowds of people or just trusting anybody," he said. "In restaurants, it makes me uneasy when someone is behind me. People don't understand, but you really can't expect them to. They haven't been through what I have been though.

"Those feelings have diminished, but they are still there."

Part of his adjustment was healing from his injuries. By the time he was up for a medical discharge, he had suffered two concussions, lost some of his hearing, had ringing in his ears and was being treated in the brain injury center of a civilian hospital in California. He's used to much of the lingering effects now but still suffers from migraines, and his memory isn't the best.

"The government had to get me a PDA (personal data assistant) because I couldn't remember my appointments," he said.

Andy Kravetz can be reached at 686-3283 or akravetz@pjstar.com.