Coming Home: For Returning Soldiers, the Next Battle is on the Homefront 

Agencies struggle to help returning soldiers

The scene will play out many times across Idaho throughout September: cheers, well-wishes and tears of joy as more than 1,500 members of the 116th Cavalry Brigade come home, following nearly a year in Iraq. But long after the sheet cakes, yellow ribbons and balloons have disappeared, the memories of 10 intense months in a combat zone will remain.

"A returning soldier will get three different questions from three different people: a friend, a family member and himself," said Col. David Sutherland. "When you return, a friend will ask you, 'What did you do in the war?' Your family will ask you, 'How do you feel about what you did in the war?' And we ask ourselves, 'What did I accomplish in this war?'"

Sutherland, a veteran of both Iraq wars, has been shot at and bombed. He also witnessed a suicide bomber kill 20 people less than 10 feet away. Eight days after returning from one of his numerous deployments to an Iraq combat zone, Sutherland was driving his family car along a remote highway in Killeen, Texas. His wife Bonnie sat next to him, their two sons in the backseat.

"I stared out on the highway and said, 'Look. All of the telephone polls are standing.'"

After an uncomfortably long pause, Bonnie Sutherland gently put her hand in her husband's palm and looked into his eyes.

"Honey," she said. "You're nuts. What you're saying doesn't make any sense."

Sutherland remembers the conversation as if it were yesterday.

"If I had made the same statement to my fellow soldiers in Iraq, they would have said, 'Yes sir. The telephone polls are indeed standing and the street lights are working, too.'"

Sutherland readily admits to having post-traumatic stress and mild traumatic brain injury.

"But I'm not worried about my career or what people may think," he said.

In fact, Sutherland, one of the most decorated American soldiers of the last 20 years, whose honors include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, reports directly to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving as a special assistant with principle focus on Warrior and Family Support.

"I'm an advocate and mentor of more than 2.2 million men and women who serve our nation today," Sutherland said on Aug. 9, addressing an invitation-only meeting of Idaho law enforcement, elected officials and representatives from Veterans Affairs and Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare. A select handful of veterans were also at the gathering, held at the offices of the Idaho National Guard at Boise's Gowen Field.

"He's a soldier's soldier," whispered one of the veterans to another.

Sutherland's message was sobering and timely. In anticipation of the imminent return of the more than 1,500 members of the Idaho 116th after nearly a year in Iraq, the Gem State needed to be better prepared.

As part of his presentation, Sutherland revealed the following:

• A returning soldier is more likely to struggle with substance abuse.

• Veterans are more likely to be homeless.

• Veterans are twice as likely to divorce.

• In 2009, America lost more soldiers and veterans to suicide than were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• Forty percent of Iraq veterans are more likely to have mental-health issues.

"Our military is known the world over for our honor, courage and kindness," Sutherland told the crowd. "That's what we see in return from you. You need to know that we fight for you. We don't fight for the Department of Defense or Veterans Affairs. We fight for you."

Ultimately Sutherland's message was that too many returning soldiers will share his mental-health challenge.

"The signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury," he said.

George Nickel Jr. sat several feet away listening to Sutherland. He knew all too well what the colonel was talking about. In spite of being a decorated war hero, it was a minor miracle that Nickel was alive. He survived two wars--one in Iraq, another in Boise.

Guilt of Survival

At the Aug. 9 meeting, Nickel, dressed in a well-tailored tan blazer, shirt and tie, was sitting next to Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson. A little more than two years ago, Masterson's department had used what is technically known as "deadly force," firing 12 rounds at Nickel after he faced them down outside his Bench neighborhood apartment complex.

The call came in at 10:50 p.m. on July 28, 2009.

"I need the police," shouted a woman to the 911 operator. "There is someone pounding on my door, and he has a gun."

Nickel later told police that he hadn't slept for three days. "So I thought a beer would help," he said, estimating that he might have drank close to a full case of beer that day.

"My brain was telling me that someone had taken my dog," said Nickel, a soft-spoken man who makes solid eye contact while talking. "And I was angry and I had to get my dog back."

What Nickel did next was something he had done hundreds of time before--he put on a tactical vest, holstered a handgun and grabbed an AR-15 rifle and 90 rounds of ammunition. The problem, of course, was that this time he was on the streets of Boise.

Nickel is a war hero. He survived the deadliest attack on Idaho soldiers in the history of the Iraq War on Feb. 9, 2007.

"I was in the point vehicle. We were North of Fallujah," Nickel recalled but conceded his memories fade in and out. Following a blast, which killed 22-year-old Spec. Ross Clevenger, 22-year-old Sgt. James Holtom and 22-year-old Pfc. Raymond Werner, Nickel was pulled from the mess of blood and metal. Medics stabilized him in nearby Baghdad, followed by more treatment in Germany before his admittance to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, outside of Washington, D.C.

"I suffered breaks to my right ankle, right knee, shoulder blade and my cheekbone," said Nickel. "And they told me later I had a moderate brain injury. They tried to explain the details of the blast weeks later, but I just wasn't processing stuff at that time."

Months turned into years. The awarding of a Purple Heart, thank yous and congratulations had come and gone. Nickel returned to a job as a guard for the Idaho Department of Corrections, but he wanted one thing: to get back to Iraq.

"If I could redeploy, it would fix everything," he said. "I had been in the military since I was 18."

But on a particularly hot July night in 2009, something went terribly wrong. Nickel, fully armed, tried to shoot the locks off of two different doors in his apartment complex. Within minutes following the 911 call, Boise police were staring at Nickel, who was holding a handgun with a flashlight attached. Boise police fired 12 rounds but none hit his body. Nickel didn't shoot back and surrendered. He was instantly cuffed and charged with six felony counts: four counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, unlawful discharge of a gun into an inhabited building and use of a gun in the commission of a felony.

"Jail was a long, unreal time for me," said Nickel, referring to his time at the Ada County lockup. "I spent eight months in a single cell. Just you and your thoughts."

For all intents and purposes, Nickel said his life was over. He may have survived a blast in Iraq and gunfire from Boise Police, but he would be held hostage by his "guilt of survival" for the rest of his days.

In a plea agreement crafted by Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Shawna Dunn and District Judge Deborah Bail, Nickel was allowed to admit to one count of firing a weapon into an occupied residence. Additionally the judgment was withheld, meaning that the charge would be eliminated from his record if he continued ongoing mental-health treatment and cooperation with law enforcement. That cooperation included Nickel sharing his harrowing story on videotape, which will soon be distributed to law enforcement agencies across the United States.

"Our police officers are finding all too often that the war isn't ending for some of our soldiers returning home," said Masterson. "For some, the war rages on, emotionally, physically, mentally. When that internal, very private combat escalates, police officers in Boise and around the country are finding themselves involved in volatile, unpredictable and dangerous situations."

Nickel is attending Boise State, working on a degree in social work. In addition to all of his own personal counseling, he works with other veterans as part of the Idaho Veterans Network.

"It's not whether you'll ever return to the way you were," he said. "It's how you cope with the way you are now."

Of the handful of veterans listening to Nickel on Aug. 9, one in particular said he understood how combat nightmares could push a soldier into a very public outburst.

"I'm John Larsen," the veteran told BW during a break in the session. "You may know me. I'm the guy who got in trouble down at the Twin Falls Walmart last December."

Larsen, an Iraq War veteran, was accused of threatening a woman wearing traditional Muslim garb outside the Magic Valley retailer on Dec. 22, 2010. Prosecutors said Larsen screamed at the woman while both were shopping inside the store. Police said Larsen told the woman he had a concealed weapon.

On Aug. 1, Larsen entered an Alford plea, admitting that there was enough evidence to convict him but not actually admitting guilt. Minidoka County Fifth District Judge Jonathan Brody sentenced Larsen to up to five years in prison but suspended that term so that Larsen could apply for mental health court as a means of joining a newly formed Veterans Court. If Larsen is successful with treatment and doesn't violate terms of probation, his conviction may be voided. But if he fails to follow through with the terms of sentencing, he may end up spending the full five years behind bars.

The concept of a veterans court began in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008. It has since spread to 21 cities as awareness grows about PTSD and traumatic brain injury and their effects on returning soldiers' behavior. The idea of establishing a veteran's court for Idaho began in 2009, when state and local magistrates met with law enforcement officials and veterans' advocates, in hopes of dealing with special cases such as Larsen and Nickel.

Larsen made a point of spending some private time with Nickel on Aug. 9. Both thanked each other for their service.

"To the people reaching out to veterans, I would say persistence truly helps," said Nickel. "Being there really makes a difference."

But one veteran listening to Nickel, who asked not to be identified, said he and his military buddies made light of PTSD when they were knee-deep in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"When you're over there, soldiers joke about PTSD," he said. "They never think it will happen to them. It's always somebody else. When you're deployed, you're convinced that you can walk through anything and survive a blast. You're bulletproof."

Identifying Higher Priorities

"Let's face it, PTSD wasn't recognized in other engagements. It just wasn't formally recognized by the military," said Sue Hicks, program manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Boise. "In all honesty, treatment is the key now. We have wonderful evidence-based treatments now that are working. And the earlier they come in, the better the outcomes will be."

Hicks said veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf wars, who never considered getting treatment for PTSD, have seen success with younger veterans and now reach out for help.

"The typical Vietnam-era vet, they weren't so sure what to do," she said. "But they've seen some of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets improving, so they're coming in now, too."

Hicks, who oversees services for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts at the V.A. Medical Center on Fort Street, won't be waiting for recent returnees to come to her. She and two members of her V.A. team are currently at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, outside of Seattle, where members of the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team have already begun returning in waves of chartered flights, each containing 150-300 soldiers on direct flights from Kuwait. While at Lewis-McChord, each soldier will be "demobilized" and is expected to head to his or her hometown seven to 14 days later.

"The V.A. has a wonderful relationship with the Idaho National Guard, and they have asked us to have a primary presence for when the soldiers return," said Hicks. "Our goal will be to get every one of those soldiers enrolled for V.A. services, and then we'll schedule them for appointments once they're back in Idaho."

Hicks said her team will be looking to identify "higher priorities"--men and women who need to see a caregiver sooner than later.

"We don't want somebody with urgent needs waiting in some line, and meanwhile, something devastating might happen to that veteran. Prioritizing is important."

Hicks said it will be very difficult to get the soldiers' full attention when they're so close to their homes and loved ones.

"They're so excited about going home that much of it goes in one ear and out the other."

Col. Anthony Wickham, director of personnel and manpower for the Idaho National Guard, said the military has "improved its radar" in identifying potential problems.

"We definitely had some lessons learned since the last rotation [2004-2005], particularly on behavioral health," said Wickham. "We're screening folks multiple times now. We screen them before they leave Iraq, asking them specific questions about their experiences. Then when they get to Lewis-McChord, another provider will spend some time with them. And once they get back to Idaho, we'll do another check. It's not unusual for issues not to arise for some time. A guy will be fine, but when he gets back home, something could bubble to the surface."

In particular, the 116th will be dealing with the loss of two of their own. On July 7, 20-year-old Spc. Nicholas Newby and 24-year-old Sgt. Nathan Beyers, both from the Coeur d'Alene area, were killed when a convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device near Baghdad.

"That will be a particular concern, especially with the unit from Coeur d'Alene, the hometown of the two soldiers," said Col. Tim Marsano, spokesman for the Idaho National Guard.

Josh Callihan, public affairs officer for the Boise Office of Veterans Affairs and a combat veteran, knows that helping soldiers cope with the recent deaths will be a particular challenge for caregivers.

"From a veteran's perspective, I think a lot of soldiers who might have been in the same proximity of where the two were killed might question themselves: 'Was there something I could have done differently?' You constantly replay the experience in your mind a million times over," said Callihan. "I think guilt is a big part of the shadow that is over the soldiers' heads. I think you might also find some of the soldiers go through some vengeful feelings. But I think the common cloud that will hang over them and possibly stay with them the rest of their life is the question: 'Could I have done some something differently?'"

Callihan was 17 years old when he enlisted in the Marines and was 18 by the time he was in basic training. He rarely talks of the friendly fire incident that changed his life forever.

"I was 20 years old," he said. "We are at the Iraq/Kuwait border. I was shot four times in the back. One of the rounds hit me in the spinal cord. It paralyzed me from the waist down. I was never expected to walk again."

Callihan spent the better part of the next two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., undergoing intense physical therapy.

"They got me to walk again. The nerves on my right leg never fully healed, so I need a prosthetic on my leg to help me walk," he said.

While in D.C., Callihan met a man who would become his mentor, Florida Congressman Bill Young.

"He gave me hope and a new reason for living," said Callihan. He eventually worked for the congressman in his Capitol Hill office, as well as for then-Congressmen C.L. "Butch" Otter and Bill Sali.

Callihan acknowledged that "guilt of survival" was a constant struggle, but somehow he "found his way back."

"For myself, I work here. I do this. I fight this fight," he said. "The best thing I can do is be here and help veterans when they come home."

As if PTSD, TBI or survival guilt weren't enough, Idaho soldiers will be coming home to another stressor: a failed economy.

"In my opinion, that's one of the most depressing things, to not have a job," said Hicks.

"After serving your country and coming home to no job, that's a burden on a veteran that could be insurmountable," said Callihan.

Hey, We Can Help.

"This is a very, very big concern," said Wickham. "Let me show you something."

He turned to a stack of notebooks in his Gowen Field office where he serves as the National Guard's equivalent of a human resources manager for 5,000 men and women in Idaho.

"Let me show you the results of a survey that we just conducted of the Idaho soldiers over in Iraq," said Wickham. "Now consider that we have approximately 1,541 deployed. We heard back from 1,400. That's an unbelievable response rate."

Wickham said that his office asked soldiers about their concerns and needs in anticipation of their return.

"About a third of them said their main concern would be looking for a job. So, yeah, we're very concerned about that," he said.

In fact, Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart, the assistant adjutant general of the Idaho National Guard, has tasked the guard to work on the problem with the Idaho State Department of Labor, which is already trying to cope with a current civilian unemployment rate of 9.4 percent.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act of 1994 "protects service members' re-employment rights when returning from a period of service in the uniformed services, including those called up from the reserves or National Guard and prohibits employer discrimination based on military service or obligation."

"But it puts a big burden on our employers," said Marsano. "Sometimes these companies are only three or four people. Who picks up the slack for that soldier? Do they have to hire someone temporarily or do they have to have their existing employees pick up the slack? A deployment has such a dramatic impact on the state."

It's estimated that about 75 percent of National Guardsmen are part-time soldiers and most of them work civilian jobs. USERRA covers public- and private-sector jobs and requires employers to promptly rehire members of the military when they return from a deployment of up to five years. But the law doesn't guarantee a soldier the exact same job. And of course, the law says nothing about a tanking economy, which forced many employers to shut their doors.

"How many businesses in Idaho closed over the last year?" asked Marsano. "That's part of the reason why we have a third of these soldiers worried about whether they'll have a job."

But Wickham isn't wasting time trying to fill the gap.

"I'll tell you about one piece of good news we got from MotivePower," said Wickham, referring to the Boise-based manufacturer of locomotives. "That particular company has said, 'Hey, we can help.' They told us they had a contract coming up with a foreign country, and they said that they were going to hold some positions for our guys."

Wickham shared a list of Idaho employers who have committed to "prioritized hiring" of returning Idaho soldiers: Amalgamated Sugar, Catseye Excavation, Dutchman Travel Trailers, Empire Airlines, MotivePower, Quality Paint, Service Masters, Simplot, Underground Force and Union Pacific.

"We've asked the Department of Labor to put on a series of special job fairs," said Wickham. "We want to make sure that we have the job fairs in major metropolitan areas. We'll have one in Boise, and I think we're going to have them in Coeur d'Alene and Idaho Falls as well."

As of press time, the Boise event didn't have a location but a date had been secured: Wednesday, Nov. 9, two days prior to Veterans Day.

While Hicks coordinates services at the V.A. and Wickham prepares for the job fairs, they're hoping that returning soldiers simply take some time to exhale.

"They have been on federal active-duty status for a year, so they have accrued 30 days of paid leave," said Wickham. "So the soldiers are still technically on active duty for an extra month after they get home. We're encouraging them to recharge their batteries. Spend time with their families. Not to go straight back to their civilian employment if they can help it."

Approximately 30 days following their homecoming, Wickham said the Idaho National Guard will hold what he called "integration events."

"We'll bring them into various locations across the state. We'll talk about coping skills. We'll go through all of their benefits again," he said. "And then we'll look those guys in the eye."

Wickham's voice softened.

"And we'll ask them, 'How are you doing?'"

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