July 1, 2007
Returning soldiers face a new reality
By Brandon Stahl
Derek Eckstrom served on the front lines in Iraq,
working 18-hour patrol shifts often filled with insurgent attacks.
“It seemed like every time we left the wire
we got contact,” he said.
So when time came for him to come home to Minnesota,
“I thought, ‘This is going to be so awesome.’
But you get back, and it’s not.”
Eckstrom said he had problems readjusting. As
anxiety and depression set in, he started taking sleeping pills
to battle his insomnia, had bouts of rage and became detached from
his wife and family. He said he wasn’t the only person from
his platoon who returned home and had problems.
“A lot of guys who I came back with started
getting in trouble,” he said. “Three friends have been
in jail, some hooked on alcohol or drugs.”
Eckstrom’s story and those of his fellow
soldiers are far from unique. It’s common for soldiers coming
home from war zones to have problems reconnecting and reintegrating
with their families. In some cases, problems can escalate into lost
friendships, shattered marriages and split families.
“Their lives have changed, their whole world
has changed,” said Durbin Keeney, regional director of the
Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. “It’s not
what happens when we pat them on the back, it’s what happens
in the quiet times. That’s when the problems begin.
“As a community,” Keeney said, “are
we ready to help and support them?”
Nightmares won’t fade
Of the more than 229,000 U.S. troops who served
in Iraq and Afghanistan treated at a Veterans Affairs hospital or
clinic between 2002 and 2006, almost 37 percent received a diagnosis
of or were treated for a mental health disorder, the second most
treated condition, according to a VA study.
Of those suffering from a mental disorder, 17
percent were treated for post traumatic stress disorder, 14 percent
for non-dependent abuse of drugs, and 12 percent for depressive
disorder, according to the VA.
“What you learn to survive, you don’t
just shut that off.” said Jeff Hall, an outreach coordinator
and social worker for the Twin Ports VA clinic. “It’s
easier to adapt to war than it is to adapt back from war.”
That has sometimes been the case for Steve Fosness
of Knife River, who described his experience as a medic in Iraq
as “mild.” He said he crossed the gate to leave his
camp near Baghdad only a handful of times.
But what he saw and did on those occasions was
grisly, including trying to revive two people who ended up dying.
Even though he returned from Iraq in February, the 25-year-old said
he still has nightmares about those he tried to save.
“It’s difficult to talk about,”
he said, holding back tears.
Talking about their mental health is difficult
for the majority of soldiers. According to a survey taken by the
U.S. Army Surgeon General’s office, 59 percent of the soldiers
and 48 percent of the Marines deployed in Iraq thought they would
be treated differently by leadership if they sought counseling.
Another survey found that over half of deployed soldiers who met
criteria for a psychological health problem thought they would be
perceived as weak if they sought help.
“It’s tough enough for a vet to admit
he has an issue, let alone say they need counseling,” said
Phil Ringstrom, a counselor with the Duluth Vet Center, which is
funded by the VA to support combat veterans.
Eckstrom, who grew up in Duluth and went to Denfeld
High School, said that if it wasn’t for Ringstrom’s
counseling, he wouldn’t still be married.
Eckstrom’s difficulty readjusting to his
life back home was partially due to his responsibilities in Iraq,
where he said he was part of an elite unit in Mosul, charged with
gathering intelligence and being the security detachment for the
“He liked to fight,” Eckstrom said.
“Our platoon was a bunch of cowboys out there.”
He remembers those moments fondly, but there were
also many sobering moments. He wears metal wristbands with the names
of two of his best friends: Sgt. Ben Morton, who was killed in a
raid, and Sgt. Adam Plumondore, who was killed by unoccupied car
bomb in Iraq.
“That thought sticks in your mind,”
he said. “I think about it all the time. You start blaming
Because Eckstrom was deployed with a unit out
of Washington, he returned home quietly without a celebration. Readjusting
was almost immediately difficult.
“When I got back, it was depressing, I had
been going mach one — there wasn’t anything for me to
do,” he said.
He tried to reconnect with his friends, but found
that both he and they had changed. His family, which he said was
supportive when he was in Iraq, grew distant, he said, and didn’t
understand what he was going through.
“My stubbornness and their stubbornness
kind of clashed,” he said. “I wanted to find a happy
medium, instead of them throwing me under the bus and acting like
everything was OK.”
Eckstrom’s wife, Amber Torgerson, said that
before her husband came home, “I had an idea that everything
would be perfect and life would go on as before,” she said.
About a month after he returned, however, she
knew something was wrong.
“Just because he was home, it wasn’t
over,” she said. “They don’t forget and there’s
a long path to healing.”
Torgerson, who also grew up in Duluth, pushed
her husband to see a counselor, and Eckstrom began seeing Ringstrom.
Ringstrom said Eckstrom made a connection with
a Vietnam veteran, who was able to identify with Eckstrom’s
problems. That’s when Eckstrom said he opened up and started
Now, the couple said they are on their way to
living more normal lives.
“For the most part,” Torgerson said,
“we’re actually starting to have fun again and enjoy
each other. It’s nice.”
While almost all soldiers have some problems reintegrating,
most cases are short-lived and don’t require professional
help, said Shelley M. MacDermid, M.B.A., Ph.D., director of Purdue
University’s Military Family Research Institute.
“Everybody is affected by combat,”
said MacDermid, who for the last four years has helped study quality-of-life
issues for military families. “Relationships that were strong
before deployment will in all likelihood be strong after deployment.
But all relationships will take some work.”
That’s been much of what Major John Morris,
a chaplain with the Minnesota National Guard, has seen in his role
of working with returning vets and their families.
Morris is the organizer of “Beyond the Yellow
Ribbon,” a program designed to help vets and remind “communities
the support of soldiers cannot end when they return from deployment
and the yellow ribbons are untied.”
Morris said it’s not only soldiers that
have a problem readjusting to a new life, but families.
“This is an all-volunteer army. Families
can feel rejected when a soldier wants to go serve,” he said.
Eckstrom said what he’s seen from other
soldiers he served with has been unsuccessful attempts to reclaim
the rush of being in a war zone. According to the U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services, recent returning soldiers have slightly
higher rates of heavy drinking, drug use and driving under the influence
of drugs or alcohol than comparable non-veterans.
“It’s like you become addicted to
being over there,” Eckstrom said. “When you do come
home, you’re on edge. You’re always on alert. When you
come back, you’re always thinking about being back there.”
For a soldier like Fosness, even the small day-to-day
details of life that he never thought of before are difficult to
readjust to. One of his biggest challenges, he said, is “living
“Over there, I can’t go out at 3 a.m.
and get a burger. I can’t jump in my truck and go to Canada
… things were easier over there. You got rules that you knew
you needed to follow.”
He also had to learn how to be a dad. While he
was deployed, his wife, Simbre, gave birth to their first daughter,
Ava. When he came home, she was 9 months old.
Fosness said he and his wife butted heads for
a few months, but eventually their lives got on track. While his
wife manages Duluth Pack in Canal Park, he watches his daughter.
He also tends bar at a nearby restaurant and plans to go to school
in the fall to study nursing.
“Yes, I was happy to be home, but when we
were apart for 18 months, both of us changed,” he said “It’s
not something where you go back and everything is normal.”
Fosness advises soldiers and families to be patient
with each other.
“You can’t force it,” he said.
“When I came home, I wanted to be in the role of the father
and husband. You get worn out really quickly.”
Eckstrom and Torgerson also said patience was
the key to readjusting, advice they give to families learning to
live again with returning soldiers. They also said it’s important
to admit when you need help for a problem and to seek professional
help from veterans services.
“You have to be patient. Let me come around,
listen to me,” Eckstrom said. “Don’t try to understand
what I’ve been through or say you’ll understand, because
they won’t and they never will.”