Soldier comes home

Soldier comes home

Soldier comes home

Colby Williams

The War on Terror often seems so far away to many here in Joplin. One student this year, however, traveled to the war zone many only see on television. Now pursuing his degree at Missouri Southern, this soldier walks the tightrope of readjustment on campus every day.

“There’s kind of a stigma that goes with being someone who’s returned from the war,” he said. “When people know that about you they have a lot of questions they want to ask. They kind of expect you to be really weird or psycho. I don’t want people to take that into account when they meet me, but I also don’t want to use it and be like, ‘I’m a veteran! I deserve special treatment!’ I just want to get my degree.”

After spending a year in Afghanistan, he finds it difficult to open up about his time in the Middle East.

“I’ve noticed that people can’t relate to my experience,” he said. “It is pretty frustrating to hear students complain about how difficult their lives are. That makes it difficult to talk to people. Most days it is just easier to not tell anyone about it. I hate the question, ‘What was it like over there?'”

Now, with everyone he meets, he elects not to talk about being in the war. Even with people who knew him previously, he feels misunderstood.

“I get the ‘you just got back from Iraq right?’ which reinforces the idea that they don’t know what’s going on and don’t really know me,” he said.

Even though the public’s attitude toward the War on Terror shifted negatively during the last 7 years, he said it seems like most people are supportive of soldiers in spite of not supporting the war. He noticed the media focusing on other topics since his return.

“People seem a lot more concerned with the economy now than with the war, which is fine with me, because people around here talking about the war doesn’t have any effect on it,” he said with a laugh.

After five months of training in New Jersey, he shipped out to Afghanistan as a Sergeant in the Bravo Battery 1st of the 129th Field Artillery. He and his company stayed mostly in Kabul, the country’s capital, from March 2007 – March 2008. Their responsibility was to safely transport a two-star General from meeting to meeting and to secure each location. Fortunately, this team managed to stay out of conflict – sometimes not by much.

“The first week I was there I was driving a mission, and 10 minutes after I arrived at the destination I got a phone call that there was an explosion on the road that we had just driven on,” he said. “A convoy of American contractors had been hit by a suicide car-bomber. He filled his car with explosives and drove himself into their vehicle. That really helped the reality of it all to set in.”

Meeting a lot of soldiers during his deployment, he assessed the attitudes of his fellows-in-arms about this dark reality.

“A lot of soldiers feel like people don’t understand all of the issues,” he said. “A lot of people have a really strong ‘bring the troops home’ ethic, but the majority of the troops are fine with what they’re doing. They’re supportive of the missions, because they believe in them.”

He noted that most enlistments are a four-year agreement, and the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.

“So anyone still there must have enlisted or reenlisted after 9/11,” he said. “So I assume everyone is in because they support what we’re doing.”

Most of the soldiers, including this one, realize Afghanistan is accurately called “The Forgotten War.” As far as the effort goes, however, he says the Department of Defense does not let them down.

“They’re very active and very much doing their side of it,” he said. “The public and the media might’ve forgotten, but we still had living conditions and equipment that was pretty well equal with theirs’ in Iraq.”

Since most of the violence takes place in Southern Afghanistan or on the border with Pakistan, the bases in Kabul are a relatively pleasant place to stay.

“It was really crowded, but we were at a really nice base that had a lot of things to offer,” he said. “It had two gyms, a coffee shop, and a well-stocked PX, which is like a shop. I was fortunate to be at that base.”

With his company receiving new missions every day, though, there was little chance to relax.

“Being there is difficult, and you get a little bit calloused and down about everything that’s going on,” he said. “You get tired and worn out, and there’s a level of stress that sets in, and you become really focused on what you’re doing. You can’t really be emotional about it. You just learn to not fear anything because you’re not feeling. There’s just a coldness you have to have with that constant stress.”

He learned this unrelenting stress level is called hyper vigilance, and it is one contributor to some behavioral and psychological disorders affecting many soldiers after their time in the war. Not all soldiers come back scarred, however. Even he recognizes positive changes wrought by his experience.

“It’s definitely matured my view of the world,” he said. “I have really valuable insights and experiences and a level of responsibility that’s not typical of my age. The deployment was an irreplaceable experience. The things I learned and the responsibilities I took on couldn’t have been received anywhere else.”

As a young man from a small farming community in Northern Missouri, he was unwise to the ways of the world before the war, but wanted to see them for himself.

“I joined when I was 17 in February of 2003 – one month before we invaded Iraq – for a sense of adventure and a sense of really wanting to do something with my life that mattered and made a difference,” he said. “I feel like I’ve contributed, and I’ve done what was my duty.”

During his tour, he learned firsthand what goes into the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.

“I was pretty naive about how difficult of a task it would be to build a country up from pretty much nothing,” he said. “I didn’t recognize how much work was going in to establishing systems of government and education and construction and how much work there was to be done. Before I went, I was kind of wondering why it was taking so long. Now my impression is more, ‘Wow! We’ve accomplished a lot in the time we’ve been there.'”

He said he got to see many of the problems in the infrastructure of Afghanistan, but there is no quick way to fix them.

“Education is an excellent example,” he said. “We want to build schools, but building materials aren’t locally available. Also, once a school is built, how do you fill it? There aren’t too many schoolteachers, because there haven’t been schools in 30 years. Kids don’t just start appearing in schools. Children may have chores, or they may go beg in the streets. I heard a story that a girl graduated 8th grade and was teaching 8th grade the next week.”

He also remembers seeing a lot of poverty and desolation. In every town there are kids with no shoes begging in the streets in front of rows of demolished houses. Even so, there is still an effort to regain prosperity.

“The economy is slow and weak, but it exists,” he said. “You can see cars everywhere, people going to work, markets bustling. Few people know that Afghanistan used to have a huge tourist industry, but war isn’t a very popular vacation spot. I got to see a mountain that has the remains of a ski lift and lodge on one side. The other side features a blown up Russian tank and some old fortified positions littered with brass.”

Seeing this helped him understand the deficiencies many nations have and to empathize with the less fortunate.

“The opportunities I have that they don’t makes me really appreciative of them,” he said. “It does really make me marvel at the waste of America – the things we take for granted and use so frivolously. The way we spend money on so much stuff that’s not necessary is pretty incredible to see.”

When he got the chance to spend time with the locals, he discovered that most Afghans were very hospitable and eager to practice speaking English with Westerners.

“But, there were some that were hostile,” he said. “Not violently, but a like a kid will flip you off in the streets or something. They do know how to express themselves in that way. They might yell things at you or stare you down as you’re driving by, but most of them are really supportive of us and the new government and have no warm feelings for terrorists at all.”

Many efforts are made by those stateside to encourage the troops. He remembers his company being grateful for every kind gesture.

“We definitely appreciated support and received tons of care packages and letters and cards,” he said. “It was really appreciated. But if people aren’t interested, that’s ok too. They don’t have to be. I don’t need someone to support the war to know that it’s helping people. I saw it for myself.”

Now, this student walks between so many who know nothing of his experiences and struggles as he tries to regain some sense of normalcy. At least for one, the war is not so far away.