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Vets struggle, adapt a year after returning home from Afghanistan

A year ago, they simply longed for home — for the cry of a newborn baby, the touch of a spouse, the comfort of sleeping in their own beds.

But life after Afghanistan has been anything but simple for the Army reservists who have shared their stories with the Dayton Daily News for the past year.

It has been a year of joyful reunion and painful adjustment; a year of welcome down time, for some, coupled with anxiety about finding a job; a year of mending — and ending — relationships.

The soldiers were greeted with open arms and “Welcome Home” banners last fall when they landed at Rickenbacker International Airport in Columbus last fall, but day-to-day reality hasn’t always been a welcoming parade for these soldiers from the Ohio Army National Guard’s Columbus-based Task Force 1-134 Field Artillery Regiment.

After the initial euphoria, they have dealt with the daily indignities of life, from relationship problems to financial struggles. Worst of all, they lost a fellow Guardsman, 24-year-old combat medic John Ainslie III of Toledo, to suicide in April.

It has been an eventful and challenging year for soldiers who shared their stories with the newspaper.

Capt. David Marshall of Beavercreek has reclaimed his role as father to his four children — and welcomed two foster children into his family.

Sgt. Pat Wright of Beavercreek, a combat medic, couldn’t wait to return to his wife, stepchildren and newborn son. But the honeymoon period was short-lived. He and his wife divorced and both moved to Indianapolis to be closer to family.

Spc. Seth Parker of Dayton has advanced in the martial arts, landed a job at FedEx, and reconnected with the former probation officer who turned his life around.

Sgt. Rard Hamber of Springfield also continued on a path to success despite a traumatic start in life. He lost his mother to murder as a teenager. Since returning home, Hamber has advanced in his career at Chase Bank and nearly finished his bachelor degree.

‘Everything is affected’

The transition from a dangerous military assignment back to civilian life can be difficult, said Bill Wall, program manager of The Freedom Center at the Dayton VA Medical Center, which serves as a post-deployment clinic for veterans. “Everything is affected — your family, your occupational roles, even fundamental things about who you are and what you do,” Wall observed when first interviewed for this series.

His words proved prophetic. Their service in Afghanistan was life-changing for these veterans, in both positive and negative ways.

Parker, 23, was deeply troubled by Ainslie’s suicide. “This hits close to home,” he admitted. “We sometimes make light of suicide training, but it is real. I saw him a few weeks before he died, and he was smiling and having drinks. And the next thing I know, he’s dead.”

The Department of Defense and media outlets report that about 3,000 soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have committed suicide, nearly the same amount of people who were killed during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And the number of suicides continues to rise among servicemembers and veterans.

Parker said he has never contemplated suicide, but he knows that a veteran’s mind can go to some dark places. Insomnia has been a constant struggle, he said: “There are days when I can’t close my eyes. I think it’s because of the de-escalation in activity level. In Afghanistan, my body was used to three or four hours’ sleep. It’s still hard to adjust. There are times when I really need sleep, but I can’t shut down and end up looking at the ceiling.”

Strenuous physical activity, such as weight-lifting and martial arts, have helped to keep Parker in good physical and mental trim. He schedules video game nights with a group of close friends he calls “the homies.” He has a new girlfriend from Cincinnati and has enjoyed exploring the city with her.

Parker joined the National Guard in part because he wanted to finance his college education. He plans to study psychology at Sinclair Community College. He wants to help others, just as he was helped, after he had troubles with the law as a teenager.

Parker is moving to a new apartment after living with his mother, Pamela Brown Parker, for a year. His mother said he would have moved out much sooner but wanted to support her financially during lean financial times. He told her, “You’ve taken care of me, now it’s my turn to take care of you.”

Now that Pamela has landed a full-time job, she is able to pay the bills by herself. “It has been a true blessing having him,” she said. “He has shown a lot of support and maturity. He wanted to help me just as I helped him in his troubled past.”

A year ago, returning soldiers faced 10 percent unemployment, nearly 3 percentage points higher than last month’s U.S. unemployment rate. Parker was surprised that it took him nearly a year to land a full-time job with FedEx. “In the past, finding a job was like snapping my fingers,” he said. “I think it’s because of the economy.”

His military background helped to land him the job at FedEx, Parker said: “We have a reputation for being more professional and disciplined, with a strong sense of integrity.”

Marshall felt lucky to return to a good job as an intelligence analyst at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Most of his fellow Guard members have been able to find work, he said, even if they didn’t have anything waiting for them. “The National Guard does a good job of holding job fairs and sending e-mails about jobs in the local area,” he said. “They’re very pro-active in getting people what they need.”

Becoming a full-time father again

Marshall found it “surprisingly easy” to step back into his role as a full-time Dad to his children Bryn, 10, Wyatt, 9, Aria, 7, and Levi, 4.

His wife, Grace, laughs ruefully when she reflects on how well the children accept their father as a disciplinarian. “I had to be a dictator to get them to obey,” she said. “With their Dad, it’s always ‘Yes, sir!’”

She pretends mock indignation, but confesses, “I’m glad it went so well.”

Even though Dave is working full-time and pursuing his master’s degree, the couple took the leap of fulfilling a longtime dream: becoming foster parents, with the hope of adopting. They are currently fostering two young boys, who are fawned and fussed over by the four Marshall children. “They love them,” Grace said.

The family’s church also helps out with the growing brood. “We are very blessed and very thankful,” Grace said.

With their hectic schedules, Grace and Dave find that they need to carve out time to truly talk to each other. When Dave was in Afghanistan, they gave each other their full attention when they Skyped. After an exhausting day, it’s too easy to collapse onto the couch without having meaningful conversation. “We’re trying to be more conscious of that,” Grace said.

In many ways, life is more complicated than it was in Afghanistan, Dave said, when his base was a “self-contained universe, and nothing is more than 50 yards away.”

But he wouldn’t trade his busy, noisy life for anything. During deployment, he missed the birthdays of all four of his children. This year, the family celebrated Bryn’s 10th birthday with a party for 10 friends.

“Everything is so much better with Daddy around,” Grace said.

‘He didn’t make it’

A recent Army study showed that 60 percent of returning soldiers experienced problems with their spouse or partner. Last year, the military divorce rate was 3.5 percent down from 3.7 in 2011, according to Pentagon statistics released to Military.com.

Pat Wright said that, before his return, he tried to ignore “the aching in back of my mind what’s going on with my marriage.”

His son, Aiden, was only three days old when Wright left for Afghanistan, and he longed for a normal family existence. The dream was short-lived. By spring, the marriage was ending. “We tried to work things out, but we couldn’t,” Wright said. “I was gone a long time.”

Wright, 35, saw his savings account slip away as well as he struggled to find land-surveying work. “I went into my savings pretty deep during the six months I was looking for a job. I spent the last of it on the divorce.”

He moved back to his hometown of Indianapolis so he could remain close to his son and stepson, who live a short distance away with his former wife. He has found a job and is studying to become a paramedic. Most days, he’s too busy to be blue. “In a way it is nice I don’t have time to take it all in,” he said.

Wright, too, was profoundly affected by his friend Ainslie’s suicide: “He was going through some of the same things I was, and he didn’t make it.”

‘Never give up’

For other returning veterans, post-deployment life has lived up to their expectations.

Spc. Kristen Brown of Middletown found work after deployment but decided to go back to the Miami University Middletown campus to finish the engineering degree she started before joining the National Guard. Her mother, Tammy Brown, believes she has attained the maturity that she needs to complete her degree. “Her world is wonderful right now,” Brown said. “And her family relationships are strong. She and her brother are closer than they have ever been.”

Sgt. Rard Hamber is finishing up his degree in nursing home administration through the Columbus branch of the University of Phoenix. He landed a full-time job with Chase Bank and recently bought a home in Columbus with his girlfriend, Debbie Lonsway. “Chase has been really good to us,” Hamber said. “They have programs in place to help veterans.”

Lonsway said that his military service has provided Hamber with the discipline and training that he needed to get his life on track. His mother was murdered when he was a teenager and he was placed in the foster care system. His foster parents, Wendell and Betsy Heximer of Columbus, raised him to adulthood and consider him their son. “Wendell and Betsy gave him the extra push to lead the life he wanted to live,” Lonsway said. “I always knew that he was strong, and that if he wanted to do something, he would stick with it and never give up.”

Although he’s delighted to be home with his sons, Wright, like other veterans, sometimes misses the more regulated life of the military. “At least there you know what you’re up against, what is expected and what to expect,” he said.

While Parker doesn’t feel quite like his old self, at times, he said, “I’m still grateful to be here and to be alive, and I make sure that I enjoy myself in any way, shape and form that I can.”

Parker advises fellow veterans to “just breathe, take things slow, and try to get back to the way things were.”

Wright wanted to give up at times, while struggling with his divorce, unemployment, and chronic pain from a service-related back injury. “I did feel like giving up for a while, but I got over myself and my dreams,” Wright said. “I was standing on the corner of fate and destiny, and I decided I’ll go forward.”

Despite a rocky first year from the battlefield, Wright said things are getting better for him. “A lot of people just give up,” he said. “I would tell them they should never quit.”

For the past year, The Dayton Daily News’ “Home from War” series has followed local soldiers from the Ohio Army National Guard’s Columbus-based Task Force 1-134 Field Artillery Regiment. They have shared their struggles and triumphs, as they readjusted to life back home. When the first glow of homecoming subsided, extended absences and multiple deployments can take their toll on marriages, family relationships, finances and employment prospects. While these soldiers have struggled, at times, all have moved forward with their lives.

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