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A war comes home with its returning veterans, who bring it back to stay. The conflict lingers long after treaties are signed and aggressions suspended, as soldiers reintegrate into their families and communities.
Some 30,000 Wisconsin service members have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since the start of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. As of March 31, almost 3,000 active-duty and reserve military personnel from Wisconsin were serving in the two campaigns. Fourteen Wisconsin soldiers have died and an estimated 124 were wounded in Afghanistan, with 91 dead and almost 600 wounded in Iraq.
But many of the soldiers who have returned continue to struggle. They need employment, housing, readjustment counseling and treatments for the physical and psychological scars they bear.
Much of the burden falls to state and federal Veterans Affairs, Vet Centers and other organizations. But individual veterans are also helping each other find their way home.
Todd Dennis: 'I felt betrayed'
Madison resident Todd Dennis was in the U.S. Navy from 1997 to 2003, attaining the rank of machinist's mate and serving on the U.S.S. Santa Fe, a nuclear submarine.
He now works for Porchlight Inc., as an assistant kitchen manager for that agency's Veterans Transitional Housing Program, and serves as president of the Madison chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
The group campaigns for withdrawal of U.S. troops but also full health care and other benefits for returning veterans. While membership is restricted to veterans who have served since 9/11, the public can help out by buying IVAW T-shirts and buttons at locations including Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative.
Dennis, 31, was opposed to the war in Iraq from the start. "I didn't really believe what we were being told," he says of the shifting rationales used to support the conflict. "The war just continued and continued and got worse and got worse. I felt betrayed. The government and people of this country don't really give a fuck. They wage wars with no justification."
Though neither wounded in action nor diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Dennis struggles with "symptoms," like anger and insomnia. He enrolled in a study at the UW-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which is researching the possible therapeutic effects of yoga and meditative breathing on veterans like him. Now he has an easier time falling asleep and sleeping longer.
But he remains wide awake to issues confronting veterans as they return from Afghanistan and Iraq. From his perspective, the ubiquitous "Support Our Troops" decals he sees on cars "don't really mean much." The people who buy them, he believes, "don't really put any thought into what supporting the troops means."
What does it mean to Dennis? Talking to veterans, for one thing. "See if they need any help," he suggests. "Make sure they get into the Veterans Affairs system." Help them find mental-health services. And just listening to veterans may help relieve their sense of isolation.
Frances Wiedenhoeft: Bridge the gulf
Also a member of the Madison chapter of Iraq Vets Against the War, Lt. Col. Frances Wiedenhoeft served with the Army Medical Division's professional management command during Desert Storm and in Iraq and Afghanistan. She was scheduled to redeploy yet again on June 7 but didn't pass her physical and now awaits a decision on her status.
"They could decide you're too old and broken down," she says, laughing, "and it's time to retire."
But for now, Wiedenhoeft, 50, is still serving. "I'm ready to retire, but I haven't been released for retirement because I'm in a critically short area."
When Wiedenhoeft sees "Support Our Troops" stickers, she perceives "somebody who wants to be supportive but may not know how." She has a few suggestions.
"What I would like people to do to help returning veterans is to educate themselves about the wars to the best of their ability," she says. "It's a lot more complicated than is usually presented in a two-minute news bite."
Wiedenhoeft also suggests learning about the readjustment issues confronting families of returning veterans. Googling "readjustment," she notes, brings up all kinds of resources. These include community-based Vet Centers (www.vetcenter.va.gov), which provide counseling services she calls "a lifesaver" as she and her family have struggled with repeated readjustments during and after her deployments.
Returning home from a stint in Afghanistan or Iraq, says Wiedenhoeft, can be disorienting. Oftentimes, the veterans, their family members and friends have undergone significant change, creating a gulf that is not easy to bridge.
"It's a process," Wiedenhoeft says, "especially when you have soldiers who are in this revolving door. They come out, they readjust, then they have to go back out again. It's a very difficult process for their families." And a prolonged one.
Wiedenhoeft says it helps when people make an attempt to understand. "Don't be afraid to talk to veterans," she adds. "Some veterans don't want to talk about it, but some veterans just think that no one else wants to talk about it, so they don't talk about it."
That said, Wiedenhoeft cautions against prying into the darker side of veterans' wartime experiences.
"Ask them what good, what positive things did you see," she suggests. "Veterans get a lot of questions about killing and death. Those are all part of war, yes, that's absolutely true. But almost every military person I know, including infantry, was involved in some type of local help and support missions to improve the conditions of the people in the areas where they were."
David Murray: 'We have our boxes'
Lt. Col. David Murray of the Wisconsin Air National Guard's Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing served one tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2007 and returned in January from a deployment to Iraq, where he was flight commander of the intermediate care ward at Balad Theater Hospital.
A native of Tomah who now resides in Wisconsin Dells, Murray brings his deployment experiences to his job as a nurse manager at Madison's William S. Middleton Memorial VA Hospital. These help him better understand some of the challenges confronted by veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, and convey to VA nurses "some of the things they maybe need to be aware of to ask."
Murray, 54, says readjustment can be particularly acute for Guard members. "The Guard is not like a traditional Army or Air Force unit, where you pick up this entire unit and you move it, and you're all together," he explains.
"On the Guard side of the house, many times people get pushed back into their communities. And even though we say we've got all these programs set up, we've got this stuff for them, it's that day-to-day interaction where you're sitting there just thinking, 'I feel very lonely. I don't have anybody I can share this experience with.'"
As he speaks, Murray's gaze is direct, his eyes are dry, his voice is even and conversational. He describes himself as "very type-A, keep-things-to-myself," adept at compartmentalizing.
Murray doesn't get into the "what-we-had-to-do type of stuff" with his four daughters, who between them have served military deployments to Iraq, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait and Qatar.
"To sit here and tell you all the horror stories, what would be the motive of really doing that?" Murray asks. If you weren't there yourself, it's just a horror story, inert and remote.
After his return from Afghanistan, Murray shared some of what he learned in an effort to help other medics. "But some of it brought back stuff that was just too, too fresh. Soon as I started talking about it, it was like, oh my God, and then I had to kind of figure out how to get out of this."
The experience left him feeling empty, and Murray says he won't do it again. There are things that belong "over here," he explains, gesturing as if to keep the gut-wrenching stuff at arm's length.
"I think from the Afghanistan experience, and then moving to the Iraq experience, I had to figure out a way to just tuck it away," he says. "I don't know if that's a guy thing across the board. We have our boxes, and that's where these boxes are. Unless there's a reason to bring this box out, that box stays over there and I move on."
But some of those boxes contain profound feeling. "You can be in a room full of people and still be lonely," he allows. "I think that loneliness, I just own it. That's just mine, alone."
It's a sentiment he knows is shared by other veterans.
"I worked with 300 people in the hospital in Iraq," Murray says. "Chances are I'll never see them again. Ever." He pauses. "Not only did you serve and were gone from your family, but now you've kind of created this other family. Now you're pulled away from them and you don't see them."
Murray doesn't like talking about this, saying he doesn't want it to sound like whining. It doesn't. It sounds like someone trying to explain, as he puts it, "what happens to all these people that really have nobody to share these stories with."
Resources for returning vets
Local portal to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs services, including mental-health and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) evaluation and treatment, patient education, counseling, suicide prevention, crisis intervention and other inpatient and outpatient services for all U.S. veterans.
Established by Jane Jensen in 2003 just before her son went to Iraq for the first of two deployments, MFP has since grown to include an email list of more than 600. Its network of military families and allies supports the troops by working toward a peace that will bring them home while "sharing ideas, writing letters and collaborating with other organizations." Jensen, a retired psychologist, also counsels veterans with PTSD for free as her obligations and schedule permit.
National organization with a local chapter open to active-duty service members and veterans who have served since 9/11. Its website links to a vast array of governmental and nongovernmental education, employment, health, housing and other resources, including other veterans' groups.
A nascent coalition of state veterans and community members that strives to connect Wisconsin veterans with information, free and discounted services, and other local and national resources. The group welcomes volunteers.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs program for returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, their families and the public, with a wealth of links to information, local treatment programs, facts for employers and other resources.
Opened in 1981 as a readjustment counseling resource for combat veterans, the local center on Williamson Street also provides benefits assistance referrals and connections to other resources.