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Reflecting on the long war and the toll it has taken

A U.S. Marine walks through the desert at the end of a clearing operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Dec. 21, 2013.

Timothy Habedank pulled his Air Force uniform out of the closet, gathered his gear and flew out of the country a second time to help defuse bombs in Afghanistan.

The senior airman and Xenia native left behind his wife, Lauren, and a 6-month-old daughter, Kylie, at an Air Force base in Louisiana.

Since 2001, servicemembers like Habedank have left their families to serve in one of the world’s hot spots. Thousands have paid the ultimate price and thousands more have come home damaged. Families back home have endured untold hardships as deployments drag on during a war in Afghanistan that long ago became the longest in U.S. history.

“It’s hard. I mean, you wonder if your spouse is OK, whether he’s able to sleep or what he’s doing at that moment,” said Lauren, 28, who took her daughter and moved in with her mother back in Ohio while Habedank was at war. “It’s always a concern if he’s going to get hurt or if he’s going to come home at all.”

Three days before he left in January 2012, Habedank’s best friend and two other airmen were killed in an improvised device explosion in Afghanistan, according to news accounts.

Habedank’s deployment this time, his third since he met Lauren and the first since his daughter was born, would be his last. He left the military in June for a new life in Troy, away from firefights, snipers, exploding mortar rounds and bomb blasts.

“It’s one thing to be gone from your child for six months, or seven, eight months at a time and come home,” said Habedank, 25. “It’s another thing for your child to never know you.”

Overseas multiple times

Like more than 1.1 million service members across the nation, Habedank served multiple tours of duty overseas, twice to Afghanistan and once to Oman.

The stress and strain are familiar to service members on active duty, and to reservists and National Guardsmen. The Pentagon estimates 2.6 million American service members have been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan at least once since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base alone, the largest military base in Ohio, the number of deployed personnel reached a peak of 1,039 last year, compared to 565 in 2002.

Even as the war in Afghanistan winds down, military commanders in other areas of the world have called on service members stateside to fill positions overseas, said Col. Cassie B. Barlow, commander of the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson. The Air Force doesn’t assign as many airmen to bases in foreign countries as it once did, so deployments have been greater, she said.

“I think there’s going to be a constant level of deployment from here on out as far as I can see because there are so many combatant commands that are in need of support,” she said. Barlow said she recently talked to an airman who had 10 deployments.

“We have many, many multiple time deployers, which is also a new phenomenon in our American history,” she said. “We haven’t seen that much in the past.”

Col. Norman A. Poklar, commander of the of the 269th Combat Communications Squadron at the Springfield Air National Guard Base, has seen the phenomenon at work in his unit, where he said members want to deploy to practice their skills in real world conditions.

“We’re not seeing an immediate reduction in the demand for our services,” he said.

The Air Force has attempted to prepare airmen with realistic expectations of life down range while helping families prior to and during their family member’s absence and with reintegration when they come home, she said.

The military has been more open about talking about issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, she said. “First and foremost we’ve come to a point where we can talk about it,” she said. “Years ago, nobody wanted to talk about it and we talk about it.”

The costs of war

The Pentagon reported nearly 4,500 service members died in Iraq and nearly 2,200 in Afghanistan, where 33,900 U.S. troops remain entrenched in America’s longest war at 12 years and counting with a timeline for most and perhaps all to depart by the end of the year. More than 32,000 U.S. service members were wounded in Iraq and more than 19,500 in Afghanistan.

The deployments, and the demands of military life, can take their toll. Many troops have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injury, musculoskeletal injuries such as back problems or lost limbs.

Kathy Platoni, a Centerville psychologist and retired Army Reserve colonel who deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba, said multiple deployments have exacerbated issues for service members such as sexual assault and suicides in the ranks and joblessness and homelessness.

The most common problems deployed service members cited were family separation, concerns about the relationship with their spouse or significant other, and “toxic leadership,” or commanders who put their self-interest ahead of the needs or safety of troops, she said.

Returning service members may find themselves isolated when they come home to a culture where less than 1 percent of the population has served in the military and doesn’t understand the aftereffect of war, she said.

“Nobody comes back unscathed,” she said. “People go searching for their old selves hanging in the closet and you’re just not there.”

Help is available, but many veterans don’t know where to turn to find it when they hang up their uniform, she said.

February’s unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans at 9.2 percent is higher than veterans of all eras who had a 6.2 percent jobless rate in the same month, according to federal statistics. The national average for the month was 6.9 percent.

The hunt for a job after leaving the military is one Ashlie Hawes, knows well.

When the 23-year-old Enon resident and Wright State University student left the Marine Corps, she filled out 10 to 15 job applications daily for a few months until she said she got a job as an administrative assistant at the Montgomery County jail.

Although she served stateside during her time in uniform, she said veterans battle the stigma of employers fearful to hire those who served because they may have mental health issues from their wartime experiences or assume they may be called back to duty despite not being in the military any longer. “It’s still very difficult, even for veterans, to find decent paying jobs when they leave,” she said.

For some, deployments have brought emotional upheaval, or financial hardships, or strained family ties.

And even when not deployed, some jobs, like Habedank’s, kept him away from his family about 70 percent of the year.

“We actually as a couple spent more time apart than we did together in the first four years of our marriage,” said Lauren Habedank, a legal assistant in Dayton.

When her husband was deployed, they communicated sporadically via email and satellite phone.

“There’s periods of time when you go to certain places there’s no communication or you go on certain missions where she won’t hear from me for two weeks,” he said.

The combat death of his friend and fellow bomb technician, Senior Airman Bryan R. Bell, of Erie, Pa., and the final six-month deployment made it a rough time for his family, he said.

“We felt like that we were drifting apart in a sense and we wanted to focus on our family,” he said.

“The whole world fell apart at one time,” he said. “Deployment for an EOD tech, that’s a great way to escape because when you’re there, you’re focused on two things and that’s keeping this guy and this guy alive. That’s your job. … I didn’t have to worry about Bryan’s death or things going on at home.”

Habedank said a senior leader told him after his best friend died he did not have to deploy then, but he felt compelled to go. “I justified to myself I would be doing him a dishonor,” he said. “He wouldn’t want me to stay home because something happened to him.”

When Habedank made the decision last year to get out, he had a new set of worries about finding employment.

“There’s not a lot of jobs in the Dayton area for somebody trying to disarm IEDs,” he said.

A family member tipped him off about a job opening at a materials testing firm in Lewis Center near Columbus, and after two phone interviews he had a civilian job in Ohio waiting before he left Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

For Lauren, the prospect of no more deployments has brought relief.

“I can breathe,” she said. “It’s nice knowing that he’s going to walk in the door at the same time every day.”

Yet despite the hardship of family separation, Habedank said when he reaches the one-year anniversary of leaving the Air Force, he’ll ponder re-enlistment. He misses the camaraderie in the military and the family-like unit he served in and the purpose behind a job he said saves lives.

Lauren said she would support his choice.

“I think it takes a special kind of person to be able to risk their lives on a daily basis for people they don’t know,” she said, wiping her eyes, “and he truly loved it.”

The danger patrol

Marine Sgt. Mathew E. Demers lived through a barrage of hit-and-run attacks from snipers and improvised explosive devices in his two deployments to Iraq.

“The first couple weeks were extremely boring,” the 34-year-old Enon man said. “A lot of patrolling, a lot of getting to know the area.”

U.S. and coalition forces eradicated large scale, coordinated attacks by enemy forces within Iraq, he said, but the danger never left. He was sent to Camp Fallujah on his first tour in 2005.

“We had to deal with a lot of IEDs, a lot more attacks,” said Demers, now a student Wright State University studying economics.

Three of his fellow Marines were killed and 30 wounded in that first tour, he remembered.

“We lost most to IEDs and mortars,” he said.

It was his first exposure to combat. “The first time it happened you’re not really scared per se,” said Demers, who left active duty last year and transferred into the Marine Corps Reserve. “You’re kind of like waiting for it to happen. You kind of know it’s going to happen. You’re kind of prepared for it. The weirdest thing about it was how ridiculous it was.”

Bystanders would scatter when shots rang out, and wait for the disturbance to cease.

“But as soon as it was over, as soon as we stopped moving, they were just shopping in the markets and going about their day like nothing happened,” Demers said. “It was such a norm for them for that to happen. So it was kind of weird … a really intense part of my life was just another day to them.”

While Demers lived through the danger of war thousands of miles from Ohio, his mother waited and worried.

Demers’ brother, Timothy, enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Afghanistan. With her two sons in the Marines and sent off to war, it was an trying time for Jeanna Kilgore, 51, of Springfield.

While proud of their military service, it was “very emotional like a roller coaster ride,” she said. “You’re going up and down and up and down. You don’t want to watch the news (because) that’s the worst thing in the world.

“I’m very overprotective of my children, so for them to be over there in that situation it literally tore me apart,” she said.

“That was a little bit different dynamic because I saw how stressed out she was about it,” Mathew Demers said. His brother “did join after I did and was really kind of concerned about him because I did kind of have the sense that he kind of followed me so I felt some kind of responsibility for whatever would have happened to him.”

At times, Kilgore said she went weeks without hearing from Mat.

“I would just sit here and just cry,” she said. “Just cry from not hearing from him. You can receive a letter but until you hear their voice … then you know they’re safe.”

She poignantly recalled her son, Timothy, losing a friend in Afghanistan.

“It breaks my heart that my youngest son over in Afghanistan was sent to pick up the pieces of a friend because he stepped on an IED,” she said. “As a mother, that’s a horror you can never erase from your child’s brain.”

Kilgore turned to family and friends and her faith when her sons went to war.

“You put a lot of faith in God,” she said. “I lean so heavily on my religion and on my Catholic upbringing. Every day I would pray for them. Every day. It’s a lot easier now to breathe that they are both home.”

Her son, Timothy, who has suffered back problems since he joined the Marines, will be leaving the military soon. “I’m thankful that he made it home from Afghanistan in one piece,” she said.

Many Ohio Air National Guardsmen have been sent to combat zones as the war on terror grew hotter.

Staff Sgt. Cody J. Gebele, 24, a security police officer with the 178th Fighter Wing at Springfield Air National Guard Base, bonded with fellow air guardsmen when he returned home from Iraq on emergency leave because his mother died of breast cancer at age 41.

“Being away from home was the hardest thing for me,” he said.

Master Sgt. Matthew Dill, 33, went from working on communications gear at the Springfield base to assignments in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other locations.

A member of the 269th Combat Communications Squadron, he spent two months in Afghanistan. “Basically, there’s some excitement, a lot of stress,” the Centerville man said of his deployment after years training in the Air National Guard.

“Then there’s the seriousness (of war),” he said. “I’ve never been a gun owner and I’m now armed with an M-16 with live ammunition. There’s that kind of surrealness to it.”

Maj. Steven Dudash, 44, of Terre Haute in Champaign County has deployed to Afghanistan, Kuwait and Germany while his wife, and two children waited at home.

“It’s probably I would say it’s harder on them than it is on me,” Dudash said. “I go there I know where I’m going to go to bed at night, I know where my meals are going to come from and they’re left at home to have to take care of everything.”

He missed much of his daughter’s high school senior year. “I barely made it home for her high school graduation,” he said.

Waiting at the tarmac

Thousands of other troops have not made it home. More than a hundred times, 1st Lt. Michael A. Gibson waited on the tarmac for the return of fallen service members flown back to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

“It was emotional,” said Gibson, a public affairs officer at the 178th Fighter Wing assigned to Springfield Air National Guard Base. He had a six-month assignment to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover.

“I mean, when you deal in a role like that it’s going to be emotional just because of the nature of what that is. But I was proud to be able honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure when they came home for that dignified transfer that everything was perfect.“

When the aircraft cargo door swung open, an American flag-draped coffin would emerge, carried out slowly by service members in uniform.

“There could be a dignified transfer at 2 a.m., another at 8 a.m., another one at 4 p.m. and I make sure we’re there at every single one,” the Huber Heights man said.

The length from the aircraft to the waiting hearse was the same, every time, carefully measured in a precise choreography for a fallen service member’s final journey home.

“We actually measured the length from the end of the aircraft to the vehicle where they were brought,” Gibson said. “And it was the exact same length every single time.”

Those walks were expected to become far less frequent with the draw down in American forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
 

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