All-American faces, the plumber, schoolteacher, mechanic, accountant, they are all there. Small talk, the smells of barbeque for dinner, an occasional laugh all fill the basketball court/dining room. Some sit in chairs in neatly aligned rows for a ceremony. Others sit in the partially deployed bleachers, head in hands, or checking text messages or email on their phones.
They are from everywhere. They are from Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma. They come from large cities and burgs. They're married, divorced, single, new parents, sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers. I remember the woman, standing a good three feet shorter than the man next to her, each straining to look the other in the eye. They are all of us.
Their eyes, though, reveal something different. Their eyes are filled with anticipation and dread. They are tired, regardless of the banter and occasional smile. They are ready to go home. Some stare off into the distance. Others stare into the faint glow of their phone. You can always tell by the eyes.
In this setting you can tell by the digitized camouflage, brown boots, and constant refrain of "yes, sir" and "yes, ma'am" that though they are all of us and each of us, they are different.
You see them in the mall, airport, and restaurants. They are the men and women who serve our nation as Army reservists. We pass them cavalierly, occasionally saying thanks for their service, or asking where they're going or where they've been. We rarely, if ever, ask how they are - for fear of the answer.
I arrive at this ceremony unexpectedly, having been invited by Brigadier General Norm Andersson. I did not expect to be part of the ceremony, let alone participate. I arrive with a picture in my head of hundreds of soldiers returning from theater with an outdoor ceremony where I can stand in the background, unobtrusively, out of the way. I certainly am not expecting the up close and personal experience I am about to encounter.
This is the 259th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom's Joint Base Balad 2008-2009. A sustainment support battalion does just that -- it sustains and supports the troops. Logisticians, mechanics, accountants, engineers -- anything to keep our forces up and running, working and fighting. And, in the case of the most recent mission of the 259th, teaching Iraqis how to manage the business of refurbishing and repairing those giant containers you see on ships, trucks and trains.
I ask Marci Toler, the battalion's leader, if the Iraqis "got it." Her answer: an unequivocal yes. Not only did they get it, she says, they were appreciative, inquisitive and wanting to learn. Capitalism is growing in the middle of the war. That is a victory.
But this is not about what the 259th did in Iraq. What they did over there is admirable, so all-American that even the most fervent critic of the war would have to admit the 259th was doing good. No, this is about what we do to the 259th after they come home.
I am asked to stand in the receiving line. My father Wayne Brown, a retired Command Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army Reserves, had recently passed away. General Andersson tells these troops about my father and how much I appreciate what they have been through. I am honored to shake each of their hands and tell them what an admirable job they had done as they receive their awards.
But those eyes. They revealed their pride in the work they had accomplished in a year's time away from home, work, family, and friends. Yet those eyes also reveal their anticipation and dread of going home. Family had changed. Work was different. And even in the bureaucracy of the United States Army, their Army home had changed. It's announced during the ceremony that the flag of the 259th had already been "folded." Their organization no longer exists. When their first weekend of reserve duty comes around, they won't know where to go.
The 259th is tired and ready to go home. I ask how much longer they will stay at Fort Carson. The answer is emblematic of the paradox these soldiers face. "We want to get them home as quickly as possible, but wish we could keep them here just a little longer."
After a year in a war zone, halfway around the world, we do nothing to prepare these citizen soldiers for their return to American culture. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is sure to set in the first time one of them is in a restaurant or at work and someone complains of something so minor in comparison to what they have faced, that they can't fathom how we could complain about the luxuries of American life we take for granted so easily.
They are going from a war zone to a life that is frozen in their mind from over a year ago when they were deployed. Think back on the past year in your life. How much has changed in your world? Now imagine being removed from that world and suddenly plopped back into it a year later. Adjustments need to be made. And while these soldiers have great talents used in Iraq, we cannot assume they are equipped to deal with the psychological impact of a changed world frozen in time for them. Assuming they do is unfair and unrealistic.
After World War II, Korea, and sometimes Vietnam, soldiers came home by ship. The relatively slow travel, along side your squad and platoon buddies, allowed time to heal. Rapid transit adds challenges to the decompression process. In a time span of mere hours, a soldier goes from combat to home. Soldiers can too easily bring with them all the stresses and reflexes they use over there.
General Andersson and the other commanders reveal their frustration with our treatment of these troops. The frustration is not aimed at any individual, but at the culture of taking these citizen soldiers, asking them to do work that most of us cannot fathom, and then throw them right back into society without the tools to deal with a different kind of stress from that they've experienced in Iraq.
Army Times reports a growing population of soldiers with abuse problems. One in eight may suffer from alcohol-related problems covering up post-traumatic stress disorder. They fear getting help.
These men and women are not weak. They deserve better from the Department of Defense and us. Just as firefighters or police often experience PTSD or other psychological trauma after harrowing or exhilarating experiences, these soldiers will, and are, experiencing the same. Secretary of Defense Gates needs to steer the defense bureaucracy to care for these citizen soldiers. We must remember that those in uniform, the fighting men and women of the regular armed forces and reserves, are human beings. Treat them as such. We must give them the tools, therapy, treatment and support to return American society.