Coming home, changed by war

Reservists for better and worse

By Howard Wilkinson / The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fueling lesson
At the Army Reserve Center in Fort Thomas, Sgt. Jason Distasio of Deer Park, Pfc. Dana Beck of Lima and Spc. Christopher Carrelli of Milford watch as Pfc. Tim Hastings learns to check fluids in an armored personnel carrier. (Glenn Hartong photos)
anthrax shot
Spc. Angel Neal, 19, gets an anthrax shot from Nurse Eda Perry. "I grew a lot as a person," Neal says of her service. " If I could get through that, I could get through anything."

A year ago, Lt. Col. Mark Williams, Sgt. Donald White and Spc. Joseph Bowman left their comfortable lives in Greater Cincinnati for the whirlwind of war halfway around the world - Iraqi snipers, howling sandstorms and, eventually, an uneasy peace.

Today, they are your neighbors again. Williams is back coaching his daughter's fifth-grade basketball team in Delhi.

White is repairing autos again in Madison Place, and Bowman is taking classes at Cincinnati State.

These three "part-time'' soldiers and 448 fellow members of the 478th Combat Engineer Battalion, Army Reserve, of Fort Thomas returned from Iraq in August. None was killed, not one seriously injured - though the battalion spent five months clearing minefields, guarding ammunition convoys and doing humanitarian work in searing desert temperatures, sometimes under fire.

Still, a Cincinnati Enquirer survey finds that many paid a price for their service - including financial woes, family stress, lingering health issues and the difficult task of picking up their lives after a traumatic uprooting.

As the nation reflects this week on the start of war one year ago, one in 10 of soldiers surveyed says he sought counseling upon returning home, and one in five says he will not reenlist.

"It is a hard thing, to leave your wife and children and everything you know to go halfway around the world to serve," says Williams, commander of the 478th. "But being a reservist is not a one-weekend-a-month deal anymore. It's a commitment to be ready to serve at any time. That's the reality now."

The Enquirer survey - completed over the past three weeks by 105 soldiers, about a quarter of those who went to Iraq from the unit - also found that 59 percent believe their family relationships are stronger today than they were before the United States invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003.

One of those is Sgt. Ken Ashcraft of Dry Ridge, Ky., an 18-year veteran of the Army Reserve. Ashcraft is the divorced father of two teenaged sons and, until his deployment to Iraq, had never missed one of his boys' baseball games, soccer contests, birthdays or big school events.

"It was hard for them and hard for me,'' says Ashcraft, one of a handful of 478th soldiers who work full time at the Brooks-Lawler Reserve Center in Fort Thomas. "But I think, since we came back, I've appreciated the time I spend with them even more, and so do they. It was hard, but it made us stronger."

Despite the harshness of a desert war, the vast majority of the soldiers said the experience was worth it - for themselves personally and for the Iraqi people they helped liberate.

"We endured harsh conditions away from family to liberate a good people from years of abuse," an officer from Hamilton County wrote on his survey form. "Weapons of mass destruction aren't the main point. Helping the Iraqi people live a better life is worth it."

One year ago today, the 478th Combat Engineer Battalion was huddled in a desert camp in Kuwait, nerves on edge over possible Scud missile attacks, weathering a ferocious sand storm, the soldiers' internal motors racing in anticipation of the mission a few days ahead. It was a mission to drive up through Iraq with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in a war to topple Saddam Hussein.

The troops had left Greater Cincinnati in February, first to train at Fort Campbell, Ky., then to head overseas.

Today, the aftereffects of war show up in the soldiers' answers to an 18-question Enquirer survey:

• 85 percent said their civilian employers did not pay them while they were deployed.

• 16 percent had financial difficulties during deployment- making mortgage and rent payments, car or credit card payments, and meeting general family expenses.

• 12 percent sought some form of counseling after they returned

• 22 percent have health concerns related to their service in Iraq.

• 26 percent say they did not get the support they needed from the military, social agencies and government for themselves and family members while deployed.

• 22 percent do not plan to re-enlist.

Over 60 missions

The soldiers of the 478th are among thousands of military reserve and National Guard troops from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana whose particular skills - engineering, military policing, civil affairs or medical - were needed in the war on terrorism and the war with Iraq.

In Iraq and Kuwait last year, the four companies of the 478th worked alongside the Marines and the Seabees in more than 60 combat and humanitarian missions.

Alpha Company logged more than 150,000 miles helping run convoys from Kuwait into Iraq, while Bravo Company established and guarded a camp near al Nasiryah used for re-supply and helicopter landings. Charlie Company guarded the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's largest ammo supply point. Headquarters Company established a 1,000-soldier base near al Nasiryah to help with humanitarian efforts. Several Bronze Stars were awarded to members of the battalion.

As the U.S. military rotates 130,000 troops out of Iraq and replaces them with 110,000 more - nearly half them National Guard and reserve forces - many more "part-time" soldiers from Greater Cincinnati could be deployed for a year or more. It is possible that the 478th will be among them.

But unlike full-time soldiers, reservists and National Guard members have families, civilian jobs and routines that in a normal year are untouched by the military, except for that one weekend a month and several weeks in summer in which they don khaki fatigues and drill.

'My business just disappeared'

Of the soldiers surveyed who are married with children, 22 percent reported financial difficulties during the deployment.

Only a handful said their civilian employers paid the difference between their civilian pay and their military pay. Those who did receive pay from civilian employers were mostly government workers.

White, the auto mechanic who lives in Mariemont, says he lost about $400 a week while deployed. He used his military pay to support his wife, whose health problems prevent her from working.

Civilian employers aren't required to pay reservists and National Guard members while they are on active duty, but they are required to bring them back to their old jobs, or equivalent ones.

Larry Daniels, owner of the Larry Daniels Auto Center in Madison Place, said it was a relief to have White back.

"I've never had an employee go to war before,'' Daniels says. "A lot of our customers are very loyal to Don, because he is a good guy and good at what he does. He brings in about $30,000 in business a month. So we lost some business. But I wasn't the one making the sacrifice; he was."

For one soldier, a self-employed small business owner, the effect of being away from home for six months was devastating.

"My business just disappeared for a while, just like I did," says Sgt. Charles Horrell, who drives from his home in Pickens County, S.C., once a month to drill with the 478th.

Horrell is a contractor who builds log homes. While deployed, he says, "There just was no business. No business means no income. I'm still trying to catch up from that."

Still, 84 percent of those surveyed by the Enquirer said their employers and co-workers supported their military service.

Causes of stress

In addition to the financial problems, 12 percent reported seeking some form of counseling after they returned, and 22 percent say they have health concerns related to their service in Iraq.

Most of the health concerns are relatively minor - scalp itch (many of them are still using a specially medicated shampoo), scars from sand flea bites, back ailments and concerns that the series of anthrax shots they received will lead to problems down the line.

Their concern is understandable - in the months and years following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, many Desert Storm veterans came down with as-yet unexplained illnesses.

So far, the only documented illness from service in the 2003 Iraq war is leishmaniasis, a disease spread through the bite of an infected female sand flea. It produces non-lethal open sores on the body. As of mid-December, Walter Reed Army Medical Center had treated about 130 soldiers pulled out of Iraq because of leishmaniasis.

Some families struggled mightily with the stress of single parenting, or behavioral issues among their kids.

Sgt. Clifford Nuce of Butler County's Liberty Township left behind a wife and three children - girls ages 6 and 3, and a son, 9.

In the end, Nuce says, his wife handled his absence "just fine," but, at first, "she sort of went into a shell. Sort of in shock."

"My boy started to do things around the house to deliberately get in trouble, just to make her react," Nuce says. "It was like he was trying to bring her out."

Stronger families

In the Enquirer survey, 59 percent reported that war service strengthened their relationship with family members. Twenty-four percent reported no change, while 16 percent said war duty strained relationships.

Yet for nearly all of the 478th, it was their first active-duty deployment. Many could barely believe they were really at war.

"In my little 17-year-old mind, I never dreamed when I joined up that something like this would happen," says 19-year-old Spc. Angel Neal of Dayton, Ohio, whose college education was interrupted by her tour of duty in Iraq.

"But what was I thinking? That you join the Army and you never go to war?'' Neal says. "It sounds ridiculous, but that's what I thought."

Today, Neal is back in school, and two quarters behind as she tries to catch up on her liberal arts requirements and make up her mind about a major.

"(Serving in Iraq) was the best experience of my life," she says. "I grew a lot as a person. I learned what I was capable of doing. If I could get through that, I could get through anything."

The war also was a wake-up call for Bowman, the 23-year-old, part-time student from Fort Wright, where he works as an emergency medical technician. Bowman is back at Cincinnati State now. But he often stops to think about what he saw and what he did on the ground in Iraq.

"It was a surreal experience,'' Bowman says. "One day you are living your life the way you want; the next thing you know you are spending six months in a giant sandbox.

"To see the kind of poverty those people lived in, to see a people oppressed like they were, is something that stays with you,'' he says. "It changed me. It made me appreciate all that we have."

Williams, the 44-year-old commanding officer of the 478th, had not been deployed in all of his 24 years in the reserves.

The Delhi resident is an AT&T district manager in civilian life. He was nearing retirement from the reserves in 2002 when the Pentagon put a "stop-loss'' order in effect that prevented him and thousands of others from leaving the service.

When Williams left for Iraq, he left behind his wife, Jenny, six children and one on the way.

The baby, Heather Catherine, came in May, while Williams and his unit were deep in the work of dealing with the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein. Williams remembers worrying about his pregnant wife back home while he and his driver were shuttling back and forth between the 478th's base cap in Kuwait and its forward position in the southern Iraqi city of al Nasiryah.

"Sometimes, I'd take over the wheel from the driver, but finally he told me I shouldn't be behind the wheel. I had too much on my mind," Williams says. "Being responsible for the safety of 450 soldiers while you are worrying about your family is not an easy thing.''

Jenny Williams says the experience was tough, but manageable.

"There were family and friends around to help, but it wasn't all that bad," she says. "The kids were used to him being gone in his civilian job, but then they suddenly realized that this time, he wasn't coming home for a long time. And I realized that he was in a place where I couldn't just pick up a phone and say, 'Hey, something weird popped up on the Visa card' or 'Did you take care of the insurance?' "

Williams says thoughts of seeing his family again helped him get through the long days in Iraq - especially the thought of seeing his newborn for the first time.

Baby Heather Catherine, Williams says, "was one more reason to get the job done and go home.''


Special section home
Coming home, changed by war
Finding purpose, perspective
Voices from the survey