It’s 2 a.m., and an assortment of men and women, some in uniform, can be found milling conspicuously around the international gate of the Indianapolis airport. A plane loaded with soldiers returning from overseas deployments is expected to land within minutes. Peering through the glass into the night sky are a military police officer, a transportation officer and sergeant, a chaplain, an airport representative and a U.S. Customs official. Most have come here from the Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center about 30 miles south of Indianapolis.
Circling the airport overhead are men and women, National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers from all over the nation, ready to hear the words “mission complete.” Inside the cabin, they mentally brace themselves for the abrupt shift back to civilian life. They’re near the end of a 20-hour flight home, a trip typically broken up by leg-stretching stops in Germany, Ireland, Newfoundland or Maine. Now, just minutes from touching down in America’s heartland, some of the troops are asleep. Others are making small talk, or just staring through the windows. There’s an unspoken tension in the air. What will home be like? What’s changed? How much have my kids grown? Will my job still be there? For some of these soldiers, this is not their first homecoming. Whether they have just finished their first, second or third deployment, they are experiencing the conflicting emotions of leaving a world of friends and comrades still in harm’s way and returning to the relative safety of their families in the United States.
As the installation chaplain at Camp Atterbury, I am deeply involved in all a soldier goes through immediately after returning from an overseas wartime deployment. So much is written and reported these days about high rates of soldier suicide and post-traumatic stress that I fear the majority of Americans believe all who served in theater are high risks for serious problems when transitioning back to civilian life. While some do have difficulties, many more make the transition with few issues. But everyone who comes home from war needs an adjustment period. That’s why there are demobilization details scattered across the country – people like us, who meet in airports no matter the time of day or night, waiting for military men and women to set foot in America for the first time since they left for the war.
Off in the distance is a faint light. One of the members of the detail points it out. It seems to hang there on the horizon, suspended in space, until it glows brighter and brighter as the plane descends. It passes over the terminal. The markings are visible. “Yep … that’s them.”
Our group moves toward the gate door as the plane taxis to the front of the terminal. Ground handlers block the tires, and the customs agent walks out onto the tarmac, followed closely by the transportation officer and me.
We climb the steps and wait quietly for the door to open. When it finally does, we are greeted by a mixture of emotion-washed faces. Some are smiling broadly. Others are blank with awe. All appear exhausted.
The customs agent checks the flight manifest before going back down the steps. The transportation officer gives some instructions and then hands the microphone to me. I lead a short prayer, giving thanks for the soldiers’ safe return.
By this time, another group has assembled below us on the tarmac. These people are from the returning soldiers’ home units. As the troops in from the Middle East pass through the door, I give each one a handshake and a hearty “Welcome home.”
I have participated in many such airport runs at all hours, and I can honestly say there are few greater joys I’ve known than standing at the door of a plane and watching U.S. soldiers step into safety for the first time in months. Hot or cold, daylight or dark, few honors compare to being first to welcome them home.
Once inside the terminal, the soldiers wait for their luggage. Buses from the base line up in the parking lot. A truck is waiting with fresh coffee. Water and snacks are available, too, as each one realizes that he or she is out of combat, but not yet fully home.
The combination of fatigue and impatience after such a journey often leads to unique behavior. I’ve seen soldiers get down on their hands and knees and kiss the ground. I once observed soldiers walk over to a grassy area next to a parking lot and lovingly stroke the lawn. Some lie down and roll on it. Usually, though, the men and women just stand near the buses and chatter idly until the order is given to board and begin the next step in the trip: demobilization, or “demob,” as the troops call it for short.
Every member of the U.S. military returning from deployment goes through demobilization. For active-duty personnel, this happens at their assigned bases. For Guardsmen and reservists, it usually occurs at the bases where they trained for deployment. For many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, this means returning to Camp Atterbury, where more than 50,000 have trained for deployment since 2003.
The Adjustment Process. At 7 a.m., the first of five straight days of demob begins. The jet-lagged soldiers file into a large room filled with chairs and a projection screen. This is not where they want to be. They would much rather be at home with their loved ones. The briefing staff, knowing the soldiers are tired and anxious, tries to make them at least comfortable.
The day’s itinerary flashes on the big screen: briefings from medical, the chaplain, legal, finance, insurance. The soldiers resign themselves to a full day of lectures. The presenters go out of their way to be upbeat and helpful.
As the installation chaplain, I’m one of the first to present. I use humor and my own experiences – three deployments with the National Guard – to connect with the soldiers. Laughter, I have found, is an effective tool for getting people to pay attention. And they do.
“I remember the first week I was home,” I tell them, describing my initial return from combat. “I walked into a gas station, grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler and walked out.”
There is a brief pause, then laughter, because they all know what I forgot. “You have to pay for it over here!”
I relate to them what will be a dramatic change of scenery. “I guarantee this will happen to all of you within the first two weeks you’re home ... You’ll be out at a restaurant with your family or friends. In the middle of the meal, you’ll stop and panic. Why? You’ll look around and say, ‘Where’s my weapon?’”
A few laugh, and many soldiers nod their heads in agreement, having already experienced the phenomenon.
“Do you remember the safety briefing you received before you left country?” I continue. “Do you remember being told to not drive your car the first few weeks after you return home? You were told that it would take awhile to get used to driving on American roads again. What’s the first thing that you’re going to do when you get home?”
I pull my keys out of my pocket and hold them up.
“Drive your car! I know. I did the same thing. But let me tell you what one soldier shared with me a year ago after one of these briefings. He was an MP in Iraq running convoy security. He remembers being told about not driving when he first got home. But like all of us, he got in his car anyway. He was driving with his family down the highway. They were passing a truck when one of the truck’s tires had a blowout. Boom!
“He said, ‘Chaplain, I don’t know what happened next. My wife said I drove down the center line of the road in excess of 100 miles an hour yelling, ‘Status! Status! Status!’ I eventually pulled off to the side of the road and stopped. My heart was racing. I realized that I could have killed my family. I had no idea that that would happen!”
I tell the audience that we all have triggers, and we just don’t know where and when they’ll hit.
“These next few months will be the most dangerous ones of your deployment,” I say. “For over a year, you have been living in a highly structured environment. Safety was stressed, and everyone had a routine. That’s all gone now. When you go home, you will no longer live in an environment where you have to think about everything that you’re going to do. You’ll let your guard down, and that’s when accidents happen. You need to continue to stay alert when you go home.”
Then comes a big question: “How many of you are married?”
After the hands go up, I tell a story about a soldier I met on my first deployment. “He was going home on his two-week mid-tour leave. He didn’t realize he had a Polaroid snapshot of his house in his brain when he left, and he naturally expected to walk back into that same picture when he returned home. What do you think his wife did while he was away? She rearranged the furniture. When he got home and opened the door, he said that he had to stop and visually rearrange the picture in his brain. In the few seconds he took to look around the house, what do you think his wife was thinking? ‘You don’t like it.’
“The soldier said, ‘Chaplain, what she did looked nice. Unfortunately, she didn’t believe me. We had a rough few moments.’”
I continue. “If it doesn’t have an adverse effect on the global war on terror, let it go. When you return home, expect that things will have changed. Your kids have grown. The house has new furniture. In the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. You’re home. Just smile and say, ‘Honey, I love what you’ve done to the place.’”
The Tip of the Support Spear. At the end of my briefing, I add one more thing. “Every town in every state has this resource for you called an American Legion post. They are there for you. It’s a safe place for you to go and talk about your experiences. Everyone in there has been in a similar situation. They understand. They have veterans-service officers who are there to help guide you through the VA process and help you get the benefits that you’ve earned. With that, I want to say, ‘Thank you for your service, and God bless your return home.’”
The next three days are filled with medical and dental checks, visits with behavioral-health counselors and chaplains, finance and legal paperwork. Then, after four days of processing, the soldiers receive their DD 214s – or, as most soldiers like to call them, “the golden ticket home.”
Soldiers returning home face a number of complex issues. For most, the experience overseas was positive. Many volunteer to go again. A deployment is a great way to earn extra money and pay off bills, especially in an uncertain economy. It also increases opportunities for benefits from VA and other government entities.
What we have learned recently, after much study, is that key factors in soldier suicides and other post-deployment problems are personal relationships and the economy. Many volunteer to deploy because they need work. Once a deployment is over, they again face unemployment. That’s one reason soldiers go on one deployment after another.
Some don’t have the family or home they left when they deployed. Divorce is not uncommon among returning soldiers. And sometimes it comes as a total surprise to him or her. I’ve personally counseled soldiers who had no idea there were any problems at home. To expect a hero’s welcome, only to find the locks changed on the doors, is a shock beyond words. While these situations are few, they are devastating for those who experience them.
Units and their commanders face enormous challenges caring for soldiers after they return from combat, the Guard and Army Reserve especially. Some units are composed of soldiers from several different states. When they come home, they usually disperse and have little to no more contact with their buddies. Unit cohesion no longer exists. For many, the return home is a personal and often lonely journey.
That’s why I strongly encourage returning servicemembers to check in with their local American Legion posts as soon as they are home. The Legion is often the only organization in a Guardsman or reservist’s town that resembles his or her unit. Veterans-service organizations are, indeed, the tip of the spear in the battle to help returning veterans resume their civilian lives. The challenge is in finding creative ways to build bridges between the posts and those who are returning home, looking for someone who understands the extraordinary shift from deployment to demob and home again.
Lt. Col. Eric L. Ebb is an Army National Guard installation chaplain stationed at Camp Atterbury, Ind.