Denfeld News

July 1, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

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 battalion commander.

“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 yourself.”

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 improving.

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.”

Strong support

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 with freedom.

“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.”

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