On Veterans Day, a struggle to readjust from Iraq
Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, November 11, 2011
At least it's not the Vietnam War.
But that doesn't mean it's all hearts and flowers waiting for the thousands of military service
members pouring back home from Iraq, on what is expected to be the last Veterans Day of one
of the longest military conflicts in the nation's history.
Take former Army Staff Sgt. Josh Aguilar, for instance.
He mustered out in June, after 11 years of service that included three combat tours in Iraq, and
the cold reality of civilian life has been splashing him ever since.
A sunny, determined sort who led his squads in everything from house-to-house patrols to
firefights, the 31-year-old Aguilar expected that his leadership skills would quickly land him a
job. But in months of banging on doors at everything from retail stores to auto companies, he
has yet to get a nibble.
"I get plenty of thanks for my service, which is very nice - especially considering what the guys
from the Vietnam era got coming home - but employers just don't seem to be able to see how
my military experience fits in for them," Aguilar said at the tidy Hayward bungalow where he
lives with his fiancee.
"What they look at is the fact that I don't have a college degree," he said. "I suppose they don't
really understand that I got a lot of leadership and management training in the Army that
could be useful for them."
He cracked a big smile through the dark beard he's grown as a civilian. "Oh well," he said. "The
military taught us to adapt, and so that's just what we have to do. After three combat
deployments, I guess I could say I'm pretty resilient."
His story is common, experts say, and will become even more so between now and Dec. 31, the
date by which virtually all 39,000 troops left in Iraq have been ordered to return to the United
States. A few hundred will remain behind as advisers, but the main U.S. participation in the
war that began in March 2003 to oust dictator Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of
mass destruction - which were never found - will be over.
The homecoming for these military men and women has one advantage over the end of the
Vietnam War - the public's souring on the Iraq invasion never translated into shouts of "baby
killers" directed at the returning veterans.
On the other hand, with the draft having ended with the Vietnam War, few Americans know
what it's like to return home from armed conflict. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population
has been on active duty at any given time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Not only that, but (Iraq war veterans) are coming back to a society that is in recession and
very pinched right now," said Michael Blecker, head of San Francisco's Swords to Plowshares
veterans aid agency. "Everything is difficult, and it's even harder for veterans."
A Pew Research Center study of post-9/11 veterans last month revealed that 84 percent believe
the public doesn't understand the difficulties they face, and that 71 percent of the public agrees
with that. Forty-four percent of veterans call their readjustment to civilian life difficult,
compared with 25 percent of veterans in earlier eras, and 48 percent say they've experienced
strains in their family lives since coming home.
The damage vets carry with them is also significant, the Pew research found. Thirty-seven
percent say they believe they suffer from post-traumatic stress, compared with 16 percent in
Unemployment among younger veterans over the past decade has commonly been nearly
double that of nonveterans, and with the national jobless rate at 9 percent - and 11.9 percent in
California - that's a stiff cliff to climb for anyone fresh out of the service. Proposed cuts in
everything from pensions to GI college-education funding in congressional budget talks just
add to the stress.
"I don't think there's anyone out there who is sharpening their knives to willfully cut veterans'
benefits, but these are hard times," said Tim Tetz, legislative director for the American Legion
in Washington, D.C. "It's not a good welcome-home gift."
The gloomy outlook, however, does have some counterbalance.
The U.S. Senate passed a veterans jobs bill Thursday aimed at giving tax credits of up to
$9,600 to unemployed veterans. The House is expected to approve it and send it to
President Obama for his signature.
Obama has issued several executive orders providing for special job training at colleges for
8,000 veterans over the next three years, as well as preferential treatment at job-training
centers throughout the country.
"This is really a critical time for our veterans," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove
(Orange County), a key proponent of funding increases for veterans. "It's an opportunity to
catch them before they fall through the cracks. The first six months after they get back home
are crucial, and we have to do all we can."
The best counterbalance to bad times, however, is probably the attitude of the vets themselves.
The Pew study showed that 90 percent of veterans feel their hitches made them more confident,
and 74 percent believe their military experience is helping them get ahead in life.
"I learned in the military that when you want to get something done, it's best to have a plan,"
Aguilar said. "So I have one, and at the same time I am open to everything."
He will be starting at San Francisco City College in January, which will fetch him a $2,400
monthly GI Bill check to go with his $1,800 military pension. After two years, he intends to
transfer to UC Berkeley and earn a business degree.
"When I first went into the Army, I was a rambunctious kid with little direction," Aguilar said.
"Now? I have learned the value of leadership, of standing on your own two feet, of working
hard, of taking accountability for my actions.
"Someone is bound the see the value of that."
Staying in Touch With Home, for Better or Worse
By JAMES DAO
Published: February 16, 201
KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — Forget the drones, laser-guided bombs and eye-popping satellite imagery. For the
average soldier, the most significant change to modern warfare might just boil down to instant chatting.
Consider these scenes from northern Afghanistan:
A gunner inside an armored vehicle types furiously on a BlackBerry, so engrossed in text-messaging his
girlfriend in the United States that he has forgotten to watch for enemy movement.
A medic watches her computer screen with something approaching rapture as her 2-year-old son in Florida
scrambles in and out of view before planting wet kisses on the camera lens, 7,500 miles away.
A squad leader who has just finished directing gunfire against insurgents finds a quiet place inside his
combat outpost, whips out his iPhone and dashes off an instant message to his wife back home. “All is well,”
he tells her, adding, “It’s been busy.”
The communication gap that once kept troops from staying looped into the joyful, depressing, prosaic or
sordid details of home life has all but disappeared. With advances in cellular technology, wider Internet
access and the infectious use of social networking sites like Facebook, troops in combat zones can now
communicate with home nearly around the clock.
They can partake in births and birthdays in real time. They can check sports scores, take online college
courses and even manage businesses and stock portfolios.
But there is a drawback: they can no longer tune out problems like faulty dishwashers and unpaid electric
bills, wayward children and failing relationships, as they once could.
The Pentagon, which for years resisted allowing unfettered Internet access on military computers because of
cyber-security concerns, has now embraced the revolution, saying instant communication is a huge morale
boost for troops and their families. But military officials quietly acknowledge a downside to the connectivity.
Some commanders worry that troops are playing with iPhones and BlackBerrys (as well as Game Boys and
MP3 players) when they should be working, though such devices are strictly forbidden on foot patrols.
More common are concerns that the problems of home are seeping inexorably into frontline life, creating
distractions for people who should be focusing on staying safe.
“It’s powerful for good, but it can also be powerful for bad when you’re hearing near real time about problems
at home,” said Col. Chris Philbrick, director of the Army’s suicide prevention task force. “It forces you to
literally keep your head in two games at one time when your head should be in just one game, in Iraq or
It took the military several years to come to terms with both the cyber-security and safety issues. Initially,
the Pentagon banned access to social networking sites. But when officials realized that they were falling
behind the times and angering young Web-savvy troops, they conducted a study and determined there was
more to be gained by allowing access. Classified-network computers still have no access to social networking
To see the upside of a well-connected force, one need look no further than the Morale, Welfare and
Recreation building, fondly known as the M.W.R., at Forward Operating Base Kunduz, home to the First
Battalion, 87th Infantry for the past year.
In more than 40 plywood cubicles that are available all day, soldiers sit in front of computer terminals or
talk on telephones, all of them connected to home. There is virtually no privacy, so the arguments over
money and children, the love talk and baby talk, are clearly audible in one cacophonous symphony of chat.
Pfc. Briana Smith, 23, medic and bubbly single mother, is regularly in the M.W.R. checking up on her 2-
year-old son, Daniel, who is living with her parents in Tampa. She tries to call home daily and routinely logs
onto Facebook to check in with family and friends. And at least once a week, she uses video conferencing
on Skype to visit with Daniel.
The close communication thrills her, but can leave a pang, too. “I can’t be involved in the everyday things,”
she said. “I only get to see the little tidbits of his life. It’s good to see, but it’s a little heartbreaking at times.”
The Internet connections and phones are not all free. Though troops do not pay to use computers in the
M.W.R., they do pay for the phone calls. And those soldiers who bring their own cellphones pay fees that
typically start at $70 and frequently run as high as $300 a month. A few chatty soldiers have received bills
for more than $10,000 when their texting spun out of control.
To veterans from previous generations, it all seems like something out of science fiction.
George Moody, whose son, Billy, is a gunner with the battalion in Kunduz, spent 25 years in the Navy,
deploying on ships that were at sea for months at a time. Letters home to his girlfriend and now wife, Mary
Jo, sometimes took six weeks to arrive.
Now Mr. Moody, 49, has the family computer programmed to play reveille as loudly as possible whenever
Billy logs onto Skype in Kunduz. With an eight-and-a-half-hour difference between Afghanistan and their
home in Ashville, N.C., he and his wife are waking after midnight almost every day.
“It’s like having a baby again, because we’re back to getting up at 1:30, 2 in the morning to talk to him,” Mr.
Moody said. “But we could not live with ourselves if we could not talk to him when he wanted to talk.”
The easy communication can relieve fears — but also stoke them. Once families become used to hearing from
troops daily, lapses in communication can send imaginations racing.
Christina Narewski communicates daily with her husband, Staff Sgt. Francisco Narewski, by Skype or
instant messaging on their BlackBerrys. But when he does not call back quickly, she frets. “It’s an anxiety
just waiting to hear from him again, just waiting to hear when he gets back,” she said.
Barbara Van Dahlen Romberg, a psychologist and founder of a group, Give an Hour, that provides
counseling to troops and their families, called the connectivity “a mixed blessing” when couples spend too
much time waiting for calls or excessively discussing problems that cannot be repaired long distance.
“It’s just stress, stress, stress,” she said. “I talked to a mom who was counting the minutes between calls
from her son. I gently told her that may not be good for either one of them. It is a burden.”
The ability to keep tabs on people at almost any hour can also be dangerous for soldiers suspicious of their
lovers or spouses. “It’s nothing to go ask your friend: ‘What was she doing last night?’ ” Pfc. Billy Moody said.
“They might tell you one thing, she tells you another, and the next thing you know, there’s drama.”
Specialist Kyle Schulz, for instance, learned via cellphone that his girlfriend was taking up with another
man. The news sent him into an emotional tailspin — until he rekindled his relationship with an old
girlfriend, by cellphone and Facebook. They later discussed marriage, also on Facebook, until that
relationship, too, flickered out.
“In a way I kind of think I had too much communication,” Specialist Schulz, 22, said, “because the more I
know back home about what’s going on, the less that I am concentrating out here. And it could potentially
hurt me or other people.”
In extreme cases, breakups over cellphones or Facebook have sent soldiers to suicide counseling, or worse. In
one case involving a different battalion, a soldier in Iraq killed himself in 2009 after spending hours tracking
his girlfriend’s movements and then arguing with her and her sister via cellphone and MySpace.
Half an hour after the soldier, Chancellor Keesling, shot himself, his girlfriend sent him an e-mail asking to
“Chance knew exactly who his girlfriend had gone out with and where she was,” said his father, Gregg
Keesling. “She stopped taking his calls, and that is what really sent him into the spiral.”
In Kunduz, the battalion chaplain, Capt. Tony Hampton, said he often advises soldiers to shut off the phone
and stay away from the computers when tensions are brewing with loved ones back home. Take some time to
think, he counsels. Write a letter.
He doubts anyone listens.
“The access is too easy for them and they just can’t rest,” he said. “This is the microwave generation.
They need it, and they need it fast.”
Gates: Too few in U.S. bear the burdens of war
By Anne Flaherty - The Associated Press (Posted : Wednesday Sep 29, 2010 17:45:54 EDT)
Gates: Too few in You have been s http://w w w .army
DURHAM, N.C. — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that most Americans
have grown too detached from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and see military service as
“something for other people to do.”
In a speech Wednesday at Duke University, Gates said this disconnect has imposed a
heavy burden on a small segment of society and wildly driven up the costs of maintaining an
Because fewer Americans see military service as their duty, troops today face
repeated combat tours and long separations from family. The 2.4 million people serving in
the armed forces today represent less than 1 percent of the country’s total population.
To attract and retain recruits, the Defense Department finds itself spending more
money, including handsome recruiting and retention bonuses and education benefits. The
money spent on personnel and benefits has nearly doubled since the 2001 invasion of
Afghanistan, from $90 billion to $170 billion. . . . .
As is the case in most of these speeches, Gates on Wednesday tried to raise
awareness about a long-term problem rather than solve it. He offered no solution to what he
described as a growing divide between Americans in uniform and those who aren’t.
“Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most
Americans the war remains an abstraction — a distant and unpleasant series of news items
that does not affect them personally,” Gates said.
Even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for most Americans “service in the military
— no matter how laudable — has become something for other people to do,” he added. . . . .
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are considered the first large-scale, protracted
conflicts since the Revolutionary War fought entirely with volunteers. Most military officials
agree that this isn’t a bad thing. Today’s U.S. military forces are considered more
professional and better educated than their predecessors.
More enlisted troops hold a high school diploma, or its equivalent, than their civilian
peers. Two-thirds of new recruits come from neighborhoods that are at or above the
median household income.
But the military isn’t representative of the country as a whole. Recruits are most
likely to serve only if they grow up around others who do so. The military also draws
heavily from rural areas, particularly in the South and the mountain West. . . . .
“There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically,
culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have
sworn to defend,” Gates said.
The premise underlying an all-volunteer force also has changed. Initiated in 1973,
the concept was that such a force would fight in short, conventional conflicts like the 1991
Gulf War, or defend the U.S. and its allies against Soviet aggression.
But after almost a decade of warfare since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, troops who
have escaped combat unscathed still faced repeated deployments with long separations
from their families. In Iraq at one point, some combat tours stretched to 18 months. More
than 1 million soldiers and Marines have been deployed there during the course of the
The consequences of long deployments in combat zones have been real. Suicide
figures have increased, while the divorce rate among soldiers has nearly doubled.
“No matter how patriotic, how devoted they are, at some point they will want to
have the semblance of a normal life — getting married, starting a family, going to college or
grad school, seeing their children grow up — that they have justly earned,” Gates said.
Without offering specifics, Gates said a system must be created that is generous
enough to recruit and retain people without causing the Defense Department to sink under
the weight of personnel costs.
For Many Returning Veterans, Home Is Where the
By LAWRENCE DOWNES
Published: January 2, 2011
Across the country a tide is reversing. Soldiers deployed to two long wars are coming
back, bringing some of the anguish home with them. Those who leave the service are
trying to restart civilian lives, rejoining their families, going to college, trying to find
jobs. It doesn’t always work out.
The challenges for returning veterans are particularly visible in upstate New York,
around Fort Drum, home to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, and some of the
most frequently deployed combat units anywhere. Since 9/11, tens of thousands of
Drum soldiers have seen two or three, sometimes even four tours of duty. Most who
return disperse around the country, but a significant percentage stay nearby.
Veterans are 13 percent of the population in the Fort Drum area, compared with 9
percent in the rest of the state.
In that band of fading cities and rural communities, the governmental safety net is
stretched thin. With more veterans needing help, a growing network of nonprofit
organizations is rising to meet the demand.
Business is booming in the veterans outreach center in downtown Utica. The center,
once a YMCA, was bright and bustling on a recent gray, snow-dusted day. Staff
members proudly showed the strands of a new safety net being woven into place:
dormitory rooms upstairs that will soon be converted to transitional housing, a
basement full of donated clothing, housewares and furniture. Classrooms. A boxing
ring and exercise room. An Internet cafe.
On Dec. 10, the center celebrated the ribbon-cutting for a new program in which
veterans meet other veterans for outings, conversation, friendship. The simple idea
behind it: if you haven’t been there, you don’t know.
The peer program’s coordinator is Michael Sportello, who served in Iraq. He
returned to the worst recession in decades, an ocean of debt and an unhappy home.
His wife left. He kept his sons. He almost gave up, but then found the center and a
focus for his life.
He is working with people like William Lavier, an Army master sergeant who is
striving to reinvent himself for life after warfare. Sergeant Lavier is unemployed and
has a college degree and no interest in working for the minimum wage. Because the
available jobs upstate are mainly in health care and education, he is studying to be a
registered nurse, hoping his finances hold out long enough.
He and his wife, who works for a medical-billing company, are many tens of
thousands of dollars in debt. They are one layoff away from a disaster. He is also
considering leaving his family for a job in Virginia. Or signing up for another
deployment — war may be hell, but it’s also a paycheck.
The world of troubled veterans is still dominated by the Vietnam era, by men in their
60s. But the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, young men and women in their prime,
survivors of bomb blasts and bearers of brutal memories, are catching up. When they
get in trouble, they are said to do so quicker and more deeply.
Mr. Sportello and Sergeant Lavier are luckier than many. They aren’t homeless or in
prison. But both men speak emphatically of how difficult the re-entry to life is after
combat. Over there, on patrol, Mr. Sportello said, the adrenaline is so thick the
pounding in your neck makes it hard to breathe. Back home, Sergeant Lavier usually
can’t sleep. Once, he dozed off to a war movie blasting in his home, the speakers
shaking the house and waking everyone else up. The sounds of combat were a lullaby
for his jangled nerves.
The pace of civilian life confounds many veterans. They see it as a world of slow-
moving civilians who frustrate and terrify them. If a driver resents your tailgating
and slows down, and another pulls up beside you — suddenly you’re boxed in, back
in Baghdad. People on overpasses look like snipers. Trash on road shoulders like
Veterans and their advocates in Utica and elsewhere had good words for the
Veterans Affairs Department, which they said has begun realizing that one of the best
ways to help veterans, especially the many who live far from V.A. hospitals, is
through community-based services. The agency is steering money to local nonprofits
and beginning its own efforts, like a pilot program in nearby Watertown and towns
near other military bases around the country, to seek out veterans at risk of
homelessness. This is a sharp change of attitude.
Someday the country will recognize that the population of veterans is growing, and
that yellow-ribbon magnets aren’t enough to help them. Unfortunately, Congress
hasn’t figured it out. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has a welcome
campaign to end the problem of veterans’ homelessness in five years. But a bill to
give the V.A. $50 million more to address homelessness went nowhere in the lame-
duck session. The next Congress must do better.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on January 3, 2011, on page A20 of the New York edition.