Deb Knapper joined the North Dakota National Guard right after high school because she had liked playing soldier with her brothers and she didn't have a clue what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. The money was pretty good; the weekend drills provided great camaraderie. She loved practical jokes and her buddies were great jokers. She served 20 years and it never got harder than sandbagging a flood. Her main job was pushing paper. Then, just days before her Guard career was over, her unit got the call. She had the option to stay, but out of loyalty decided to go. But when she got to Iraq, Knapper discovered she'd made a wrong choice. She hated everything about the experience and didn't want to be there. Teeth-gritted stubbornness kept her going through repeated extensions of the company's tour.
In the Guard she was an E-5 or sergeant and a member of the 142 ECB (HV) Engineering Battalion. The code means "engineering combat battalion, heavy," with "heavy" indicating they build big horizontal and vertical structures. At North Dakota State University Knapper is one of the supervisors who keeps the campus clean and functioning. She is a strong, stocky woman with shaggy blonde hair. Her back gives her trouble now. Something behind her blue eyes still glitters with fear. In war zones, everything beyond the perimeter of the military base is called "outside the wire" and the base area is "inside the wire." Knapper rarely left the base, but a soldier doesn't have to be outside the wire to have a traumatic experience in Iraq. For Knapper, it was the mortars.
A mortar is a muzzle-loading weapon that fires shells at low velocities, short ranges and high-arching ballistic trajectories - in other words, it lobs them. It usually looks like a long metal tube. It can be fired from a trench and carried by one or two. Fortunately, the insurgents were mostly rotten shots; Knapper's company had only a few close calls, yet loud noises still cause her to panic.
Day and night the boom of exploding mortar shells marked an erratic beat that had new arrivees hitting the sand, sensitive types ducking and flinching, and toughened vets listening for the clues that signal friend or enemy, distance and timing, sprint or keep walking. There is nothing at home that even comes close to the noise or terror, although backfiring cars and the 4th of July have been known to send combat vets under picnic tables. After sitting guard duty in a perimeter tower, she knows she is a combat vet.
Knapper's year in Iraq is documented with photographs; the same kind of pictures she might take at home only instead of posing by her car she is posed in front of a truck in a convoy while wearing a mix of jungle and desert camouflage and gripping an M-16 rifle. She captured the sardine-can quality of cots crowded into a tent and covered with U.S. flag (her bunk) or green camo blankets, each cot with a stuffed animal gift from home - a dragon, a bear, a cat. Mosquito netting, helmets, water bottles, mirrors, canned cheese, drying towels all make a bunk into a sanctuary.
Since coming back she's gained weight due to stress and a thyroid problem that almost delayed her return home. She had to argue her way out of the base hospital so she could get back to Fargo for her son's 11th birthday. She has an anxiety disorder. Her blue eyes dart constantly, checking for threats. It's hard to relax and impossible to sleep.
Knapper found serenity on the job. Co-workers in her department were welcoming; some had war experiences of their own to talk about and everyone on campus was supportive. Tasks were familiar, surroundings quiet. Peace at last.
Her home life was turbulent; the chaos of re-establishing authority, of adjustment and teenage troubles. You miss a whole year of their lives and when you're with them again, bam, all their pent-up fear flies out as resentment: As "I wish you'd just go back to Iraq." A panic attack is triggered and you hear "What's your problem, all I did was drop my books." Words like that send you back to that mental place where everything is still sand, heat, and hostility and maybe you're stuck there until you're dead. You can't explain it to a teenager, they don't welcome that kind of vulnerability from adults, plus most teens believe they're invincible.
Still, all that long year her one repetitive thought was "I just want to go home." She came home in 2004, retired from the Guard in 2005, and doesn't plan to leave home again.
Justin Grams' life was forever changed during the time he spent in Iraq, but the changes all happened at home. He was deployed in 2006 and landed first in Kuwait, a routine stopover on the way to the Iraq base. He was exhausted from the 20-hour flight and like every newcomer was instantly overwhelmed by the 132-degree heat. Calling his wife, hoping for a little sympathy, she announced "I am pregnant!" and that was how he learned he was going to be a dad for the first time.
Grams joined the Minnesota National Guard at 18 for college money, not ideology, and it helped him get his degree. He married his high school sweetheart. His dreams and ambitions were clear to him: Work in higher education administration. Continue school. Advance. After graduation he quickly won a job as an admission counselor at NDSU. The recruiting job kept him on the run and it was great. Leaving was tough, but his boss assured him that nothing would change in his absence.
In Iraq his job was to refuel jets - work that presented no challenge and little danger. He kept his head down, did what he was told, worried about his wife. It looked like the baby was going to arrive early. An understanding company commander arranged for Grams to have emergency leave, a bureaucratic loophole that let him fly right home rather than wading through the rules and delays of a regular leave. He met his daughter, Ava Lillian Grace, as soon as she was born and was with her for the first two weeks of her life, a sweet, peaceful time, falling in love. When he returned home to stay, she was four months old and had just started sleeping through the night.
Ava wasn't the only change going on at home. An unanticipated opening for an assistant admission director, and a series of interviews by telephone and instant messenger meant Grams came back to a brand-new job, smack dab in the middle of the high school recruiting season. He had five new counselors to supervise and hadn't been part of hiring any of them. Other office staff had changed. Spaces had changed. His supervisor's promise that nothing would change is still a joke between them.
Reintegration can be wonderful. "The life I left is completely different than the life I came back to," said Grams. "A new job, new child, my wife finished her master's degree while I was gone."
To this day Brent Friedt backs his vehicle into parking places so he can get out fast. When he walks into a room he can tell what's been moved or changed. He plans escape routes automatically.
None of that means Friedt disliked Iraq. Fear was not what rode his back; amazement maybe, and eagerness. On base and in his Engineering Battalion, Friedt was the go-to guy. He could find it, fix it, or find the guy who could, and that talent netted him favors from the Blackhawk pilots flying between Iraq and Kuwait. On the sly he'd barter his welding skills to pilots in exchange for two Subway sandwiches from their runs to Bagdad. His superior turned a blind eye until he ordered KFC.
He had fun. Every day there were new people to meet and new things to learn. He learned how the Blackhawk worked and even flew it around base a few times, sat in a tank, and occasionally rode shotgun on some convoys in his dump truck. "Our first trip up there you see tanks firing off in the distance and all of a sudden its like 'cha chicht,' lock and load and put it on safety. I guess I am in a war zone. It was a reality check watching those tanks firing," he said. "I found out what a mortar can do when it hits beside you. It was pretty freaky."
In Iraq the convoy riders and regular army soldiers who work outside the wire are called cowboys. Friedt fits the image: tall, broad-shouldered, loose-limbed, the modern cowboy without much to tie him down.
Friedt was called up with only 48 hours notice. He barely had time to say goodbye, and no time to adjust, clean out his apartment or sell his car. His mom took care of mothballing his life in Fargo. She managed his finances while he was away and was waiting at the airport when he came home. He got his daughter a cell phone so they could better stay in touch. He missed his son's high school graduation.
He had 30 free days to start his life over when he got back: to find a place to live, a bed, a car, and get reconnected with his kids. Heading back to work at the campus heating plant where he is a boiler operator, his first thought was "Now I've got to remember everything." He missed the adventure and the adrenaline of Iraq. Friedt continues to replant the roots of his life and gets a kick out of providing transportation and moral support for his daughter's athletic events. It is enough.
Christina Weber wrote her doctoral dissertation on Historical trauma: The case of children of Vietnam veterans. She climbed the academic ladder from community college through a doctoral program in part because she escaped the pain of her childhood home by being an outstanding student.
Weber's father returned from the Vietnam War in 1969, angry and addicted. Home ceased to be a safe haven and became an unpredictable, even dangerous, jail as her father, hating all things military, refused to seek help from the Veteran's Administration and spiraled deeper into depression, anxiety, addiction, and abuse. It took twenty years for him to seek help and to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
But Weber has steel in her spine. Her own gifts and some perceptive teachers turned her attention to understanding her father's behavior. Today the NDSU sociologist teaches and conducts research on social memory and trauma, particularly in relation to war and gender identity. She also teaches feminist theory, a research method that includes drawing on one's own experience as a source of scholarship.
Because of her research interests, Weber won a 2008 Larry Remele Memorial Fellowship from the State Historical Society of North Dakota to interview North Dakota women veterans returning from deployment in Iraq. Isolation is the most common reintegration pattern she's found so far. The stories she's collected show a harsher reality than is reflected in the other stories here. Her research and the scholarly paper published in the Minerva Journal of Women and War (vol. 2, number 2 - Fall 2008) include examples like this:
There is a woman who had to kill people in Iraq. At Iraqi bases and checkpoints, sharpshooters are required to be at the gate and, if the signal is called, that person has to shoot anybody who comes through. The officers pick the best shooters for that duty. She was a terrific shot. She had to fire her weapon and to see the human being she killed.
The woman is safely home from Iraq, but, as Weber's research predicts, is isolated and living the double life that big secrets create. She goes about her work pretending everything is fine and nothing really happened. She has no interaction with military people who might share her experience and her feelings. She wants people to know what goes on in war, wants to help others, but it's just too hard for her to tell. Yet, Weber says, when she finally starts the story she can't stop talking: "I had to kill. I had to."
This woman was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, placed on medication, and in the care of a psychiatrist. She talked to Weber on her doctor's advice because it was an anonymous way to tell another person what happened to her. So now two people know: the therapist and the scientist. Her husband doesn't know, even though he is also military.
"She said it was easier to tell me because I'm a stranger and I'll never see her again," Weber said. "But she doesn't want people to look at her and see her first as a killer. She doesn't think anybody will see her as anything else but that."
Grams found a way to blend his Iraq experiences and his focus on students at NDSU by helping to create the Student Veterans Association, which looks for ways to support students who are serving now and to train teachers to help with the veterans' unique issues in the classroom.
Knapper and Friedt are both trying to get on with their lives, one by healing herself and her family and the other through being content with the ordinary.
The women Weber meets are beginning to tell their truth.
A wide variety of research on reintegration issues confirms that every combat veteran, male or female, needs time and support to decompress, adjust, take it easy, and recover. It can take up to five years to fully recover, even longer for some.
-- L. Baker