8:17pm

Sat March 31, 2012
The Impact of War

Home Front: Soldiers Become Civilians Again

Originally published on Fri May 11, 2012 9:33 pm

We first met the soldiers of the 182nd Infantry Regiment of the Army National Guard about a week ago, on an airport tarmac. They had just landed in the United States after wrapping up a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.

The plane touched down in Indiana in the middle of the night. It was raining, but the soldiers bounding down the stairs couldn't have cared less. They were almost running, pausing only when they realized a couple of one-star generals were standing at the bottom of the stairs ready to welcome them back to the U.S.

The 600 or so soldiers filed into a noisy airport hangar, their backpacks and M-4 rifles in tow. Under the drone of fluorescent lights, an officer shouted instructions.

After a briefing and gathering their gear, they got on a bus headed south, to a military base called Camp Atterbury. The longest part of their journey was over, but they weren't home yet.

Most of the 182nd are from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Once they settle back home, they'll begin the transition from soldier to civilian. Some could face unemployment and financial problems; others may struggle with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Their families face challenges as well, trying to integrate these men back into their lives.

Demobilization: Checking Up And Checking Off

Before soldiers can go home, the Army has to check them out and say they're OK. The 182nd spent the next several days standing in lines at Camp Atterbury for various check-ups. A lot of a soldier's life is spent waiting around, and it's no different here.

"This is where [you go] if you would like to get all of your shots brought up to date," Lt. Col. David Ellis says as he tours us through the process. "I can get you stuck in about 20 different ways."

Ellis oversees the next chapter for these soldiers, a process called demobilization. That's the physical kind of stuff, which is fairly easy to detect and fix. The harder part is gauging a soldier's state of mind.

In a huge tent-like structure, hundreds of soldiers settle into metal folding chairs. Some sip coffee from Styrofoam cups, a few use empty juice bottles as spittoons. All National Guard demobilizations are run by 1st Army Division East, and Col. Tim Newsome, the Army officer in charge of demobilization, greets them.

"Let me be one of the first to welcome you back home to our great nation for swinging the bat on behalf of the freedoms and liberties we all enjoy," he tells them.

That's Newsome's kickoff for the first of six hours of briefings the soldiers have to absorb, so he knows he's working with a limited attention span.

"But listen, something is no kidding going to slap you right across the face when you get home within the first 72 hours, and it's going to let you know that life has continued on in your absence," he says.

Newsome walks up and down the aisles, delivering a broad range of advice, even about relationships.

"It seems that we males forget the art of kissing when we're in the pursuit of a, shall we say, other end states," he says. "OK, so part of the reunion process: Take the time to relearn the art of kissing, because evidently they really, really do like it."

But Newsome doesn't ignore the big issues like PTSD or depression. Over the past couple of years, the Army has put a heavier focus on mental health — especially in the demobilization process. Newsome says these war wounds should be treated like any other.

"Somebody has got something wrong with their foot, they go see the podiatrist," he says, "no harm, no foul. Nobody says anything. It's when they got something wrong up here, that's when we want to put a stigma on somebody."

The soldiers in the audience nod their heads. They know what he's talking about.

"Don't you dare let some stigma prevent you from seeking out the treatment here," Newsome says.

'A Civilian, Trapped In A Military Uniform'

For many soldiers, the main objective here isn't getting help. It's getting home.

"You get excited about being in the United States, but then you realize you've got be here for, like, five days, and that's even more depressing," says Spc. Jonathan Remkus just outside his barracks. "I'm basically checked out right now. I'm already considered a civilian, trapped in a military uniform."

But leaving Camp Atterbury requires checking a lot of boxes on a lot of forms. Members of the 182nd work their way through a maze of assessments, filling out stacks of paperwork as they go.

Lt. Col. Kathryn Peoples-Robinson handles medical screenings at Camp Atterbury.

"We have people who do multiple deployments," she says. "So we need to be able to gauge pretty well whether this person is put together enough to go back out on another deployment."

Sometimes they're not, and sometimes she knows it when she sees it. It's a feeling she calls "bubble guts."

"Bubble guts is something just not right," she says. "You don't know exactly what it is. You can't put your finger on it, but you know it's not right."

The demobilization process includes a number of diagnostic tools, personal interviews and computerized tests. But determining a soldier's mental health often comes down to intuition.

If a soldier is in denial about his injury, or dead set on going home early, he can game the system and essentially deceive the Army into thinking he's just fine. Ideally, a soldier will raise his hand and ask for help.

Leaving The Soldier's Life

Spc. John Nestico is from the 182nd, out of Massachusetts. On his second day at Camp Atterbury, he was still getting over the dramatic change of scenery after getting off the bus.

"My first breath, I looked at the guy next to me and I go, 'I smell grass,'" Nestico says.

Afghanistan was Nestico's second tour of duty overseas, but his first in a combat zone. On his first day in Afghanistan, he went out on a mission driving with a platoon sergeant in Paktia Province to get the lay of the land. The sergeant reassured him violence in the area was rare.

"And sure enough — probably less than a minute after he said this to me — we got hit," he says.

It was an IED. No one was hurt, but Nestico was shaken. He says it set a kind of a precedent for the rest of the deployment.

"I was a little bit more wary; a little bit more cautious on things, but you just do what you've got to do," he says, "so you can go home."

But going home comes with its own kind of stress. Like many guardsmen, Nestico had a civilian job before he deployed. He worked at Radio Shack selling cell phones, but a lot of his friends there have moved on, and he's worried about fitting back into that world.

"Here, I know these guys. We're so close I could tell you their brothers' names, you know, tell you, you know, what their family looks like," he says. "That's how, you know, good we know each other at this point; it's like kind of like going from a family to an environment full of strangers."

Time To Unwind Just A Little Bit Longer

Just taking the time to think about how going home could be hard — that's actually part of the process. The soldiers are intentionally given several hours of downtime every day to physically and mentally unwind from the last 10 months.

There are a couple pool tables, a recreation room where soldiers play video games and even a basketball court.

By this point, many members of the 182nd have been signed off to go home. Others, like Nestico, have not. Catching up with him between appointments, he says he feels a lot better than he did when he first arrived.

Nestico saw a mental health counselor and started working through some issues; the IED attack, his family's financial problems and worries about life as a civilian. He could have left it at that, and a lot of soldiers do, but Nestico asked for a follow-up appointment.

"For a while, admittedly I was in a bit of a free fall," he says. "It just took a change of environment and the ability to talk to someone who wasn't in uniform to allow myself to open up a little bit [and] to feel like what I say here isn't going to be held in contempt or against me, but in the best interest of what's good for me."

The Road Ahead

Only three days after landing in Indiana, most of the members of the 182nd made it all the way to the last station in the demobilization process: final review. Lt. Col. David Ellis says soldiers at this point are at a crossroads.

"They have a choice of what direction they're headed," Ellis says. "We allow them the opportunity, we lay the road map out in front of them. Which road they choose is up to them. But they at least know all the pitfalls and all the challenges that they'll face and we give them everything we can to make sure they're successful."

With that, these National Guardsmen will leave Camp Atterbury. Unlike active duty troops, they won't go back to the structure and support of a military base. They'll return to their civilian lives.

For some, that will mean packing up their uniform and picking up where they left off; for others, it will mean picking up the pieces and starting over.

This piece was produced by Weekend Edition's Tom Dreisbach.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

And these are the voices of the men of the 182nd Infantry Regiment of the Army National Guard.

STAFF SERGEANT JASON KOPP: My name is Staff Sergeant Jason Kopp.

CORPORAL THERY NARCISSE: I am Corporal Thery Narcisse.

CAPTAIN MICHAEL CURRY: I am Captain Michael Curry.

PFC MCKETRICH(PH): PFC McKetrich.

STAFF SERGEANT JEFF BARLOW: Staff Sergeant Jeff Barlow.

SPECIALIST JOHN NESTICO: Grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts.

SPECIALIST KORY DESMOND: From Peabody, Massachusetts.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Coventry, Rhode Island, currently.

DESMOND: Anybody not from Massachusetts would call it Peabody.

MARTIN: The 600 or so soldiers are mostly from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They just wrapped up a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan and are now beginning the transition from soldier to civilian. Some will face unemployment and financial problems. Others will struggle with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. And their families will face challenges as well, trying to integrate these men back into their lives.

For the next year, we'll be following their stories as part of a series that we're calling Home Front.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

MARTIN: We first met the members of the 182nd about a week ago on an airport tarmac. They had just landed in the United States. The plane touched down in Indiana in the middle of the night. It was raining but the soldiers bounding down the stairs couldn't have cared less. They were almost running, pausing only when they realized a couple of one-star generals were standing at the bottom of the stairs ready to welcome them back to the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Welcome home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Clean air, huh?

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

MARTIN: Hundreds of soldiers file into a noisy airport hangar, their backpacks and M-4 rifles in tow. Under the drone of fluorescent lights, one of the officers shouts instructions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: All right gentlemen, leave your bags where they are if you've got them on the ground. Secure your weapon, bring it in a little closer. Ha-whoomp(ph).

SOLDIERS: Ha-whoomp.

MARTIN: After a briefing and gathering their gear, the soldiers got on a bus and headed south to a military base called Camp Atterbury. The longest part of their journey was over, but they weren't home yet.

Before a soldier can go home, the Army has to check them out and say it's OK.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL DAVID ELLIS: Yes, I'm Lieutenant Colonel David Ellis...

MARTIN: This is the man who oversees the next chapter for these soldiers. The process is called demobilization.

ELLIS: This is our audiology booth, so all soldiers will receive their hearing test...

MARTIN: The 182nd spend the next several days standing in lines for various check-ups. A lot of soldier's life is spent waiting around and it's no different here. Colonel Ellis walked us through the process.

ELLIS: This is where if you want to get all of your shots up to date, I can get you stuck in about 20 different ways.

MARTIN: So, that's the physical kind of stuff, which is fairly easy to detect and fix. The harder part is gauging a soldier's state of mind.

COLONEL TIM NEWSOME: And now, let me be one of the first to welcome you back home to our great nation, and say thank you for doing all the swinging the bat on behalf of the freedoms and liberties we all enjoy. I do want...

MARTIN: This is Colonel Tim Newsome. He's the Army officer in charge of demobilization process here. Hundreds of soldiers have filed into a huge tent-like structure and settled into metal folding chairs. Some sip coffee from Styrofoam cups. A few use empty juice bottles as spittoons. Newsome kicks off the first of six hours of briefings these soldiers have to absorb today, so the Colonel knows he's working with a limited attention span.

NEWSOME: But listen, something is no kidding going to slap you right across the face when you get home within the first 72-hours. And it's going to let you know that life has continued on in your absence.

MARTIN: He walks up and down the aisles delivering a broad range of advice, even about relationships

NEWSOME: It seems that we males forget the art of kissing when we're in the pursuit of a, shall we say, other end states.

(SOUNDBITE OF MURMURING)

NEWSOME: OK, as so part of the reunion process, take the time to relearn the art of kissing, because evidently they really, really do like it.

MARTIN: But Newsome doesn't ignore the big issues, like PTSD or depression. Over the past couple years, the Army has put a heavier focus on mental health, especially in the demobilization process. Newsome says these war wounds should be treated like any other.

NEWSOME: Somebody's got something wrong with their foot, they go see the podiatrist. No harm, no foul. Nobody says anything. It's when they got something wrong up here, that's when we want to put a stigma on somebody. Oh, hey, did you hear about Jones?

(SOUNDBITE OF A WHISTLE)

NEWSOME: Went and saw the doctor. Yes, he did. You got to watch out for Jones.

MARTIN: The soldiers in the audience nod their heads. They know what he's talking about.

NEWSOME: And don't you dare let some stigma prevent you from seeking out the treatment here.

MARTIN: But for many, the main objective here isn't getting help. It's getting home.

Standing outside his barracks, Specialist Jonathan Remkus described demobilization this way.

SPECIALIST JONATHAN REMKUS: You get excited about being in the United States but then you realize you got to be here for like five days, and that's even more depressing. So yeah, I'm basically checked out right now. I'm already considered a civilian, trapped in a military uniform.

MARTIN: But leaving Camp Atterbury requires checking a lot of boxes first.

(SOUNDBITE OF A METAL STAMPER AND CONVERSATION)

MARTIN: Members of the 182nd work their way through a maze of assessments, filling out stacks of paperwork as they go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Are you done sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Well, I think I am.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Do you have any appointments to go to?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yeah, I do tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Do you? You got TBI going on?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Yep.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF A STAMPER)

MARTIN: This soldier was referred to a specialist for a traumatic brain injury or TBI, and he didn't want to talk with us about it. But an injury like that could mean long-term treatment and orders not to return to combat.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL KATHRYN PEOPLES-ROBINSON: We have people who do multiple deployments.

MARTIN: This is Lieutenant Colonel Kathryn Peoples-Robinson. And she handles medical screenings at Camp Atterbury.

PEOPLES-ROBINSON: So we need to be able to gauge pretty well whether this person is put together enough to go back out on another deployment.

MARTIN: Have you had cases where you encountered someone and you thought no, this person can't go back again.

PEOPLES-ROBINSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. If I start to get the bubble guts - bubble guts is when something is just not right. You don't know what exactly what it is. You can't put your finger on it but you know it's not right.

MARTIN: The demobilization process includes a number of diagnostic tools: personal interviews, computerized tests. But determining a soldier's mental health often comes down to intuition. And if a soldier is in denial about his injury, or dead set on going home early, he can game the system - essentially deceive the Army into thinking he's just fine. Or, ideally, a soldier can raise his hand and ask for help.

NESTICO: My name is Specialist Nestico.

MARTIN: His first name's John and he's a member of the 182nd from Massachusetts. We met him on his second day at Camp Atterbury and he was still getting over the dramatic change of scenery.

NESTICO: The first thing I noticed, for example, when I got off the bus at Camp Atterbury, and my first breath. I look at the guy next to me and I go, I smell grass.

MARTIN: Nestico was wearing the standard issue brown camouflage fatigues and clear ballistic military glasses, like he'd just come off a shooting range. Afghanistan was his second tour of duty overseas, but his first in a combat zone.

NESTICO: My first day in-country we went out on a mission.

MARTIN: He was driving with a platoon sergeant in Pakitya Province, trying to get the lay of the land. The officer reassured him, he said the area was safe.

NESTICO: And sure enough, probably less than a minute after he said this to me we got hit.

MARTIN: It was an IED. No one was hurt, but Nestico was shaken.

NESTICO: It set a precedence, I guess you can kind of say, for the rest of the deployment. I was a little bit more weary, a little bit more cautious on things, but you just do what you got to do. You know? You do what you got to do so you can go home.

MARTIN: But going home comes with its own kind of stress. Like many Guardsmen, Nestico had a civilian job before he deployed. He worked at Radio Shack selling cell phones. But a lot of his friends there have moved on and he's worried about fitting back into that world.

NESTICO: Here, I know these guys. We're so close, you know, I could tell you their brothers' names. You know? Tell you what, you know, their family looks like. That's how, you know, good we all know each other at this point. And it's like kind of like going from a family to an environment full of strangers.

MARTIN: What Nestico is doing here - taking time to think about how going home could be hard - officials here say that's actually part of the process.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BILLIARD GAME)

MARTIN: The soldiers are intentionally given several hours of down-time everyday to physically and mentally unwind from the last 10 months. There are a couple pool tables, a rec room where soldiers play video games, even a basketball court.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BASKETBALL GAME)

MARTIN: By this point, many members of the 182nd have been signed off to go home. Others, like Specialist John Nestico have not. We catch up with him walking on base in between appointments

NESTICO: I feel a lot better than I was even the other day when I was talking with you guys.

MARTIN: Nestico saw a mental health counselor and he started working through some issues - the IED attack, his family's financial problems, and worries about life as a civilian. He could have left it at that. And a lot of soldiers do. But Nestico asked for a follow-up appointment.

NESTICO: For a while, admittedly I was in a little bit of a freefall. It just took a change of environment and the ability to talk to someone who wasn't wearing a uniform to allow myself to open up a little bit; to feel like what I say here isn't going to be held in contempt or against me, but in the best interest of what's good for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

MARTIN: Only three days after landing in Indiana, most of the members of the 182nd have made it all the way to the last station in the demobilization process: final review.

Colonel Dave Ellis says soldiers in this room are at a crossroads.

ELLIS: You know, they have a choice of what direction they're headed. And we allow them an opportunity; we lay the road map in front of them. Which road they choose is up to them. But they at least know all the pitfalls and all the challenges that they'll face. And we give them everything that we can to try to make sure they're successful.

MARTIN: With that, these National Guardsmen will leave Camp Atterbury. Unlike active duty troops, they won't go back to the structure and support of a military base. They'll return to their civilian lives. For some, that will mean packing up their uniform and picking up where they left off. For others, it will mean picking up the pieces and starting over.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh my God, we're so excited. It's so exciting, proud and happy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: Happy to see our son come home.

MARTIN: Next week, the families of some of the members of the 182nd, how they've coped over the past year and how they're planning to welcome their soldiers home.

For more on our series, go to our website, NPR.org

You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.