— image courtesy of Helyn Stowe
Packed tight in an Air Force military passenger plane, my sister and her Wisconsin-based Army unit were bracing themselves for what was to come. Fully dressed in combat gear, they were harnessed into seats throughout the belly of the aircraft. The group transferred flights in Kyrgyzstan and again in Germany. On the final leg of their trip, everyone was surprisingly quiet. There was tension and anxiety in the air as they wondered what life would be like once the plane touched the ground. The reality of the situation was finally beginning to set in. Once they landed, they slowly unclicked their seatbelts and gathered their belongings. One by one they exited the plane, boots on ground. They breathed in the once-familiar air of the USA.
Many people believe that a service member’s battle is over when they arrive back home in the United States — that their main fear is being overseas to begin with. But for many veterans, the battle often comes when they return home, and they worry about assimilating back into their lives, being reunited with family and friends, and resuming their jobs or educations. According to Tova Walsh, an expert in support for military families and a professor of social work at UW-Madison, people anticipate that deployment will be really difficult and coming home will be kind of easy.
“I think it can be even more jarring to find that there’s an adjustment that needs to happen coming home, even though home is a place you know well,” Walsh says.
She points out that there are many different adjustments happening all at once, which can be a lot to handle.
According to the National Academy of Medicine, “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the longest sustained U.S. military operations since the Vietnam era, sending more than 2.2 million troops into battle and resulting in … more than 48,000 injuries.” The state of Wisconsin is home to more than 400,000 veterans.
Reports show that many soldiers return home from Afghanistan and Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder (known as PTSD), depression and substance abuse problems. “Although the majority of returning troops have readjusted well to post-deployment life, 44 percent have reported difficulties after they returned,” the National Academy of Medicine said in a 2013 report.
The experiences of deployment, such as combat, can cause psychological distress down the road. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 1 in 5 military service members returning from the Middle East have PTSD, but only about half of veterans who need mental health treatment seek it out. PTSD can develop after a person has gone through a traumatic event. These mental illnesses that develop while deployed follow the soldier back home, making it hard for them to adjust in ways they would like.
Helyn Stowe’s military career began in 1988, when she signed up for the Army right out of high school. She came from a large military family and was eager to have the opportunity to serve herself. Stowe, now 50, eventually served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany and Korea throughout her service.
Her very first deployment found her keeping the peace in Berlin right as the Berlin Wall came down. Then shortly after, she ended up in the middle of Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War, not knowing what to expect.
“I remember the first speech my commander gave us, ‘That’s the north, that’s the south. If anybody comes from the north, run south,’” Stowe says.
Operation Desert Storm was the first deployment that she truly had to face some fearful situations. However, her following deployment to Iraq was the most nerve-racking of all, according to Stowe.
“It wasn’t just grown men fighting, you were fighting kids. There were these young kids with weapons and explosives.”
She had to face several scary situations that changed her.
“I turned into a very bitter, angry person. I would not want to be friends with me at that time,” Stowe says.
Although Iraq put her into a darker place, she found a glimmer of hope in her next tour in Afghanistan. She was placed on a female engagement team, a group of women whose mission is to create relationships with Afghani women with hopes of gaining intelligence.
“I got to sit down and have tea with a grandmother who told me about Afghanistan before the Russians came through … She gave me a huge history lesson on how good it was and how great her country is and how humble these people are,” Stowe says. “That came to me right at the time that I needed it. And that made me become a little more open, caring and have more compassion for people.”
Her mission in Afghanistan got cut short, however, when she was medically evacuated in 2012. Her injury left her in the hospital for six months, learning to speak and walk again. K9s for Warriors, a nonprofit organization that trains dogs to assist returning military veterans, paired Stowe with her own service dog, Astro. The chocolate lab was trained as a mobility dog to assist her with moving about. Because of her gratitude and passion behind K9s for Warriors, she speaks at fundraisers and events for the organization, hoping to spread awareness about veteran suicide. Through her role with K9s for Warriors, Stowe has worked with Wisconsin veterans to spread awareness of the organization and the resources available for those in need.Stowe personally overcame thoughts of suicide upon returning home from Afghanistan.
“I retired out of the military, and that transition wasn’t so easy,” Stowe says.
She found herself dealing with an abusive relationship, and turning to medication and alcohol to cope.
“One day, I sat down, and I had had enough. He left for work, and I loaded my weapon. I was ready to check out, I was done,” Stowe says.
It was in this moment that Astro saved her life, giving her the hope she needed to stay.
That same day, she fearlessly packed up all belongings and left to start a new life for herself.
“Astro has given me … a newly found life. He’s my dude, he’s my buddy. He’s my best friend,” Stowe says.
For many soldiers, the idea of coming home creates excitement. But for Stowe, she felt a lot of guilt — guilt that she came home while others didn’t.
“I didn’t want to come home,” Stowe says, but Astro has helped her feel happy to be home, happy to be here.
Looking back at her many years of service, she is proud and lives with a sense of honor.
“It’s been challenging, rewarding — I don’t regret any of it. I met a lot of wonderful people in the military. Now I have to say I have this great battle buddy,” Stowe says, referring to Astro.
Wisconsin native Dan Exner also joined the military right out of high school. He found himself in the Marine Corps infantry once he finished a series of training camps. Exner was deployed to Afghanistan in the summer of 2010. Prior to his deployment, he was certainly nervous but excited to get to Afghanistan. The Marine Corps gave him a sense of comfort that he was ready for what was to come.
“You train pretty hard, and you just kind of feel like you’re prepared,” Exner says.
The pre-deployment protocol was, however, a little unsettling.
“Taking out a life insurance policy and designating beneficiaries in my will, like next of kin and that sort of thing, was a weird experience at 18,” Exner says.
About eight months later, he returned home, excited to get back. However, since he still had two years left in his contract, his break was temporary.
“I got back, got to go on leave, take some time to spend with my family, but then I came back and basically started training for another deployment,” says Exner, now 28.
Shortly after, he was deployed again, this time to India for annual training exercises with the Indian military who control the very militarized border between India and Pakistan. He returned home about two months later, this time, to transition into post-military life. The military provided a series of resources for his unit when returning home. He recalls leadership within his unit being very adamant about him talking to somebody if he needed to. They had chaplains, or military-trained spiritual leaders, that deployed with his unit who would spend time with soldiers who wanted it. The Marine Corps also provided counselors for the Marines if they needed mental health care.
“The most challenging part about getting back from deployment, for me, was the realization that everyone’s life has continued to go on while you’re kind of stuck in limbo,” Exner says.
He mentioned the contrast between his experience during his service and his friends’ experience in college.
“The world doesn’t stop and wait.”
Upon return, veterans often struggle finding work.
“At first, I could pretty much only get a job working security,” Exner says.
When he began college, he was 23 — five years older than the average UW-Madison freshman, making it difficult to relate.
“You kind of feel out of place, even with some of the other military people because they just haven’t been through the same environment,” Exner says.
He joined a student organization on campus called Student Veterans of America, but felt that it was still tough to relate because of the variety of military service people experience.
“Even though they were in the military and we have this sort of shared background, my experiences in Afghanistan were vastly different than even the majority of military veterans,” Exner says.
Although Exner has fully adjusted to post-military life, he admits that it’s challenging to talk about his service because people without experience in the military — or who have friends and family who have served — truly don’t understand what he has gone through.
“It can be lonely, I guess, is the best way to describe it,” Exner says.