Marine Reserve Sgt. Dan Ward got himself to the Caribbean soon after returning to the U.S. from Iraq.
Some who have served are back from Iraq, and feeling bitter
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Bad stuff happened in Iraq, stuff Adam Reuter doesn’t want to talk about. His wife worries because he leaps out of bed at night.
But when he does talk about the war, he goes right to how the insurgent crumpled after he pulled the trigger. How later, during the firefight, he ended up just a few feet from the corpse. Bullets buzzed by, and he was supposed to watch the alley, but he couldn’t help but glance over.
“He just lay there,” Reuter said. His eyes and mouth open. His whiskers a few days old. The bullet had gone in his neck cleanly, just to the right of his Adam’s apple, but had come out ugly from the back of his head. He was maybe 25, a little older than Reuter.
How can you describe what that was like? Who would understand it?
Nobody. So Reuter keeps his mouth shut. His Army uniform is packed in a box in the garage. He kisses his baby boy every night. He gets on with his life.
At home in Newnan, Ga., there is no war. “It doesn’t cross their minds. To them, everything is fine,” Reuter said.
After three years, there are at least 550,000 veterans of the Iraq war. The Washington Post interviewed several who were still in the service, and others who weren’t — to hear what their war was like and how the transition home has been.
A constant theme was that the public is largely unaffected by the war, and, despite media exposure, doesn’t understand what it’s like.
The United States that Iraq veterans are returning to is indifferent, many said. One that, without fear of a draft, seems more interested in American Idol than the bombings in Baghdad. Sure, there are the homecoming parades and yellow-ribbon bumper stickers.
But for many vets, those moments of gratitude were short-lived. Soon they were joined by bitter impressions of a society that seems to forget that it is living through the country’s largest combat operation in more than 30 years.
Rude awakening for TexanWhen Army Reserve Warrant Officer Mark Rollings got home to Wylie, he didn’t expect anyone to treat him any differently because he was a vet. But he couldn’t help but notice that the only one to say anything about the newly installed Purple Heart license plate on his Chevy Blazer was the kid who changed his oil.
On the airplane home, wearing his Navy uniform, Clint Davis sat with a 5-year-old boy who got out his crayons and drew a picture of the American flag. “It says, ‘Thank you for fighting for our country,’ ” Davis said. “I’ll hang it up on my refrigerator till I die.”
Quick switchOne day they were in a war zone. Then, suddenly, they weren’t. Home for the first time in a year, Dan Ward woke up in his bed, went to the kitchen and fixed breakfast. And that’s when the Marine reservist realized: His war was over. “The most nerve-racking thing was how normal it was when I came back,” he said. “I’d been gone for 11 months … it’s like I’ve been gone for 11 hours. Then it hit me: This is so normal.”
Army medic Ernesto Haibi, in the thick of the battle of Fallujah, made a vow:
“I told myself, if I get back without any more holes in me, I’m buying myself a piano and learning to play,” he said. “You learn what you can live with and what you can live without. And you learn to appreciate the things that are necessary.”
What was necessary, he decided, was being able to play Isn’t It Romantic? — the first song he learned on his new piano.
Jon Powers “swore I would never go back to Iraq until they build a Disney World in Baghdad.” But then he thought about how he and his soldiers delivered toys and clothing to an orphanage. He thought about how the children had given them a respite from the war. The soldiers would join the children’s soccer matches.
The former Army captain helped start a nonprofit, War Kids Relief, that helps Iraqi children.
Thousands came home wounded; some even with shrapnel in them. Kevin Whelan, who was wounded by a roadside bomb, has so much metal embedded under his skin that it set off a security detector.
Nearly 400 soldiers returned as amputees and had to learn to open doors with metal fingers, walk on prosthetic legs. Senior Airman Brian Kolfage came home to sad, strange stares and spontaneous charity. As he sat in a wheelchair after having lost both legs and his right arm in a mortar explosion, a stranger handed him $250.
Another stared at him and then “just started crying.”
Silence is maddening
Perhaps the worst is when they don’t say anything at all.
Army Capt. Tyler McIntyre was trying to explain this to family as he gazed across a restaurant and saw everyone stuffing their faces.
The country is at war. People are fighting at this very moment. Don’t these people know what’s going on? Don’t they care?
No, he decided. They have no appreciation for their easy, gluttonous lives.
He wanted to yell, “You don’t know what you have! You don’t appreciate it! You don’t care!”
But he didn’t. He was only home on leave. Soon, he would be going back to the war.
IN THEIR WORDS
• Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Jeramey “Jay” Lopez. Security/maintenance recovery, March-September 2003: “You know how the World War II vets, they sit on their porch and tell their grandkids, ‘I was in a foxhole at Normandy’? I see myself doing that. It’s something I’ll have for the rest of my life.”
• Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Chris Bain. Reconnaissance and chemical weapons specialist, January-April 2004: “You know what was really amazing? The people who said, ‘Chris, you know, I don’t support the cause, but no matter what the cause, I’m always going to support the troops.’ I was just dumbfounded by that. I asked this one guy why you don’t support the cause. He said, ‘I’ve been watching the news.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s your problem.’ “
• Army Sgt. 1st Class Darrin Jones. Field artillery, February 2004-February 2005: “It was good to see some trees. Something other than the sand. To get here with some fresh air, without oil burning in the air.”
The closest I can come to understanding that feeling is the feelings I had after our daughter, Rachel, died. I looked around and saw people going about their everyday lives. Nothing had changed for them. People were going out to eat. People were shopping. People were having a good time. Everything was normal for them. But our world had been shattered. Part of us had been taken away. And all those other people didn’t know it. They didn’t have a clue.
Yes, there are those who do not appreciate what they have. But there are many who appreciate it, and will never forget those who have died to give us that freedom.
To those who have been there, I’d like to say don’t worry about us being able to understand it. Tell us anyway. Just talk about it. Don’t keep it to yourself. The only way we will ever know what it is like, is for you to tell us. We will listen.
Let’s not forget!