When returning home means back to work
Baghdad to Bismarck.
It’s a long road from the Iraqi capital city to the one in North Dakota.
Longer still if the traveler starts the journey as a combat soldier and ends it as a teacher. Or salesman. Or farmer.
For America’s citizen-soldiers in the National Guard and Reserves, the adjustment to a post-Iraq world includes a step not required of their active-duty brethren.
Active-duty troops remain in uniform. They continue to salute and say “yes, sir.” They train. They drill.
Reservists and guardsmen shed the uniform, kick off the combat boots and return to a civilian world. They teach. They sell. They till the land.
It might be the journey’s longest step.
“The military world is black and white,” said Scott Staudinger, who spent 13 months in Iraq with the North Dakota National Guard. “The civilian world is more gray.”
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Shelly Sizer, a family readiness coordinator for the National Guard in North Dakota, said, “The National Guard, for them, is a part-time job. Their full-time job is in the civilian world.”
Sizer said she recently visited a grocery store and the young woman at the checkout counter had been in Iraq for a year with the Guard.
“I thought to myself, ‘My goodness, what a leap,’ ” she said.
The war in Iraq is being fought with large numbers of National Guard and Reserve members, the largest call-up of those troops in decades. Almost 40,000 are currently on duty in Iraq.
The North Dakota National Guard sent more than 600 troops to the region in the spring of 2003. Before their return this summer, five members were killed.
And while some were returning, more from the state were deploying.
For those who have returned, the adjustment to civilian life is the new challenge, replacing the insurgents who attack and melt into the landscape.
Maj. Gen. Michael J. Haugen, commander of the North Dakota National Guard, said the jump from the military world to the civilian world can be daunting.
“The camaraderie that you have built up [while in uniform] all of a sudden stops,” he said. “You’re expected to go back into your civilian community and be Joe Mechanic or Joe Teacher or Joe Farmer. You are changing your whole psyche.”
“It’s got to be culture shock for them,” said Mary Graham, senior policy adviser for the National Mental Health Association. “Work is where you spend the majority of your time.”
Staudinger was a first lieutenant with the 142nd Engineer Battalion (Combat Heavy) in Iraq. He was away from Dickinson, N.D., for 16 months before returning to his job as direct accounts manager for TMI Systems Designer Corp., which designs storage compartments for schools, hospitals and the like.
“Your company realizes you’ve been gone,” he said, “but they all think you’re the same person you were when you left.”
He wasn’t. He and his soldiers spent a lot of time under fire while building bridges in Iraq. Three soldiers in his unit were killed.
“Mortared. Shot at. It was pretty intense,” he said. “I had two [improvised explosive devices] go off right by me.”
Staudinger, 36, faced different problems when he returned to his hometown of 15,000 in western North Dakota.
“I could not make decisions. You felt like you were out of your element,” he said. “That was an issue.”
His bosses allowed him to ease back into the job, which is what he’s been doing, working a few days a week at first and building up to full time.
Eventually, he said, he made the adjustment.
“Don’t expect it to happen overnight because it took a year and a half to get you to this point,” he said.
Shana Peltz, too, was able to slip slowly into her job as a fifth-grade teacher in Hebron, N.D. She returned in March 2004 after 14 months away and was given the opportunity to be a substitute teacher.
“It was really a good transition,” said Peltz, 26. “That way, I didn’t feel the pressure of going back to work right away.”
Another factor to the adjustment is the change that may have taken place in the workplace. Graham said companies have downsized, eliminating workers. A returning troop’s job may have changed. He or she may have new colleagues and new responsibilities.
“That’s magnifying [the transition],” she said.
Another issue popping up is the isolation. While active-duty members have the benefit of seeing daily people they served with downrange, the citizen-soldiers are often the only person in their workplace — or, sometimes, community — who has walked in the desert of Iraq.
Bernadette Ternes, hired as a social worker by Haugen for this purpose, said she frequently hears from soldiers returning to civilian life and struggling to relate to colleagues or others who were not away.
“I encourage them to talk, to let their co-workers know they’ve been through this experience,” she said.
Also, she said, she tells them to talk to “battle buddies,” friends who were with them in Iraq.
Peltz did. She said a friend from Iraq visited her this summer. They spent the day looking at photographs from the deployment and reminiscing.
“It was nice to have someone who understood,” said Peltz, who married shortly before deploying.
Haugen also brought on board Chaplain (Capt.) Dave Johnson to help returning soldiers deal with the transition. Johnson, too, said troops have told him about feelings of being alone in a strange new world.
“You come home and you’re spread throughout the state,” he said. “They do feel isolated.”
He noticed, too, that even though he is unknown to most returned troops, since he did not deploy with them, they call him rather than go to their own pastor in the community.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who wanted to talk to a military person,” he said.
Haugen has also encouraged the troops to seek out veterans groups such as the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. And he’s asked the veterans groups to seek out his troops.
“It’s kind of making them realize, ‘Hey, there are guys who have done this before me,’” he said.
The North Dakota National Guard is trying to keep in touch with its returned troops. But once they return, they scatter like wheat chaff to all corners of the state and beyond.
This, too, is a difference from the active-duty world, where the services and the clients are on the same base.
“That’s one of our biggest challenges,” said Sizer. “We have families that live all across our state and even into neighboring states.”
Ternes said she spends a lot of time on the road to attend family support meetings held in small towns and villages.
But it is a chore done willingly. Haugen said they have only one chance to get it right. Plus, he said, the war on terror will continue, so there will be other deployments to other war zones and, therefore, other returns.
Sizer agreed and said, “We think this is our new normal.”
Mary Graham, senior policy adviser for the National Mental Health Association, has created a list of tips for National Guard members and reservists returning to the civilian world after a deployment in support of the war on terrorism. She said the transition to work after so much time in uniform and a war zone can be tough. She offered these suggestions to ease the transition.
• Contact your supervisor: Before returning to work, ask for a briefing on the current situation, including issues such as how your responsibilities were handled during your absence, changes in personnel and new policies and projects.• Ease into your return to work: Focus on communicating, being patient, anticipating and accepting changes, and using this time as an opportunity to start fresh.• Avoid “taking charge”: Recognize that your absence may have forced co-workers to take on some of your responsibilities and they may resent it if they feel you’ve come back to take control or criticize them. Be supportive of decisions made and ease back into your previous role gently and with open communication.• Consult your commanding officer: He or she may have experience advising others with similar transitions, or may be willing to speak to your employer on your behalf to address concerns and to ensure a supportive environment for you when you return to work.• Talk about it: By talking with others, particularly others going through the same process, you will relieve stress and realize that other people share your feelings. Reach out to trusted relatives, friends or faith leaders.• Take care of your physical health: Getting plenty of rest and exercise, eating healthy, as well as avoiding drugs and excessive drinking, will help you manage the stress more effectively.• Know your rights: You are protected by the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, which applies to all employers regardless of their size.
— Ron Jensen