Tough adjustment: Many soldiers back from Iraq find returning to former routines harder than they expected
May 2, 2004
VICENZA, Italy — A soldier has a lot to get squared away after coming home from Iraq.
Sometimes it’s his head.
“My wife wanted me to jump back into things with hands on, but I really didn’t want anyone around me,” said Spc. Michael Sierminski of Jackson, Mich. “I felt cornered. Every five seconds it was, ‘Daddy, daddy.’”
Thousands of troops have replaced their M-16s with a cold beer and their Kevlar with a baseball cap. That’s the good news. Replacing the downrange attitude is another matter.
“It’s very difficult to turn that off when you get home,” said Lt. Col. Sally Harvey, chief of psychology services at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. “They might startle when they hear a loud noise. They might be pretty aware when somebody new walks into the room.
“Many of these folks are coming from an environment where they had to be very hyper-vigilant, very cautious about travel and about who was around. But that’s not paranoia. That’s just being very vigilant in your environment. And it’s going to lessen with time.”
Soldiers of Vicenza’s 173rd Airborne Brigade were among the first to land in Iraq.
Sierminski, a 26-year-old father of four, is a member of the 501st Forward Support Company that was based at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. But he said he was rarely there. He was busy transporting tanks and other large loads northward into the war in Iraq.
For months, his mind was focused on the mission. The children who lined the roads reminded him of his own kids. When he returned to Vicenza in July, it was weird.
“The first night, I slept on the floor,” Sierminski said. “I tried sleeping in the bed but just wasn’t comfortable. We couldn’t sleep in a bed [downrange]. We were always in our trucks.”
Across the street from Sierminski’s home in the Villaggio housing area, Sgt. Isaac Reyesmejia of Charlotte, N.C., limped through his front door upon his return from Iraq and noticed the furniture was rearranged.
Reyesmejia, also of the 501st FSC, drove ammunition, troops, prisoners and supplies to places such as Baghdad, Tikrit and Fallujah. Since he knew the roads, he said he was recruited for a lot of “Hey, you” missions, as in “Hey you, what are you doing?”
One day in October, a bomb exploded under his truck. His Kevlar and weapon went flying, as did his mates. His right leg was badly injured.
“I couldn’t hear anything but a loud beep,” he said.
After a week’s stay at Landstuhl, Reyesmejia phoned his wife in Italy and told her to come get him. He arrived home gimpy and shell-shocked.
“I’d wake up screaming,” he said. “Sometimes I’d wake up in a cold sweat and I would just sit up in bed and not be able to go to sleep for another hour or two.
“I was just thinking.”
Reyesmejia said he used to be calm and cool, but when he came home from Iraq he was short-tempered. He’d lash out at his wife, Stacey.
“To the point of making her upset and hurting her,” Reyesmejia said.
From March to October, the soldier ate and drank and slept a certain way in Iraq. Each day he was focused on his military mission.
When he walked through his front door at home, his 14-year-old son was a year closer to manhood and his 12-year-old daughter was starting to like boys. His infant son had grown.
“When I left, the baby was 3 months old,” Reyesmejia said. “When I came back he was almost 1. He looked nothing like the baby I had left.
“When they gave him to me, he just started crying. He did not know who I was. I got emotional and started crying. Now both me and him are crying, and I’m not making things better.
“So I gave him back to his mom,” he said.
A household changes its personality when a soldier leaves, Harvey said. The spouse becomes a single parent. The children become more self-sufficient.
And the soldier returns to something different than what he’d left behind.
An older child, unconsciously angry that a parent had left, might “act out” by throwing tantrums or bullying other kids at school. The father or mother who has been away might feel out of place upon returning.
“The best advice to give to parents returning is to take it at the child’s pace,” Harvey said. “Some kids will say, ‘Hey, dad’s back, life is good,’ and they move on fine.
“Other kids are a little bit slower to warm up.”
Babies and toddlers get to know their mother and father by voice, smell and touch. A deploying parent should make an audiotape or videotape of themselves to be played for the child while the soldier is away.
“Younger kids may not know who this strange guy is who is in their home,” Harvey said. “You kind of know him and kind of don’t know him.
“Playing the tape provides a constant reminder that there is another person in the child’s life.”
Pfc. Jack Preston of Wapakoneta, Ohio, said he didn’t want to leave Iraq even after an explosion caused him to lose all hearing in his right ear.
Preston, of 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment, wanted to stay because his buddy, Pfc. John Hart, was killed Oct. 18 in a separate attack.
Preston is like many of the wounded troops at Landstuhl who, according to Harvey, wish they could return to their units.
“They feel a sense of guilt, a sense of responsibility for their comrades downrange,” Harvey said. “It’s been difficult for many to reconcile that they are here in a safe place getting care, even though some of them are very grievously injured, and their buddies are still downrange in harm’s way.”
“Sometimes I feel angry,” said Preston, who is 20 years old and single. “Sometimes I feel thankful. Every time I talk to Hart’s family, I feel thankful.
“Then I feel angry when I get off the phone with them.”
Annette Evans, chief of the family support division for Vicenza’s 22nd Area Support Group, said she tells Vicenza’s returning soldiers to expect changes. She tells spouses the same thing.
“There are similar things the spouse might experience who has been running the household for a year and has been very independent,” Evans said. “When the husband or wife comes home, the spouse might ask, ‘How do I re-balance my life? How do we compromise our tasks and chores again?’
“Spouses can have the same symptoms, too, like, ‘He’s home, why am I depressed?’
“Any change in life can lead to uncertainty,” Evans said.
Spc. Rasheen McCullers of Eastman, Ga., said his chaplain told him to think of himself as an “honored guest” when he returned home to his wife and three sons. McCullers said he’d advise other returning troops to do the same.
“Let them welcome you into the house,” said McCullers, of the 501st FSC. “Let things fall into place.
“Don’t start bossing around the wife and kids. The household has been running a certain way since you were gone. You can’t come in and immediately change it.”