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The other battle: coming home

By Ann Scott TysonSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2003


On his first weekend home from Iraq, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Gilmartin was driving down a sunny highway in Kissimee, Fla., when something suddenly felt very wrong.

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In a panic, Sergeant Gilmartin stepped on the brakes of his black Dodge Dakota pickup, jumped out in the middle of the six-lane road and started searching around the truck. Then it registered: He was looking for his M-16 rifle.

"I had basically an anxiety attack," Gilmartin recalled. "I was missing something and needed to do something." A policeman who had served in Vietnam approached Gilmartin and took him to the side of the road to sit for a while.

Gilmartin, who returned here June 3 with his 3rd Infantry Division artillery battalion, is among the first American GIs to trickle back from the war zone. The troubles he recounts - anxiety, sleepless nights, depression - represent the mental and emotional toll experienced by many of those who fought in the Iraq war.

More soldiers have been exposed to more violence in Iraq than during the 1991 Gulf War. "The intensity and duration of ground combat" in the latest war may produce more psychological problems, says Charles Engel, director of the Defense Department's Deployment Health Clinical Center.

Indeed, the trauma from combat, combined with the stresses of long family separations, often make homecoming the most unexpectedly difficult phase of a deployment. "It's not easy to return from a place where you are surrounded by the obscenities of violence," says retired Army Col. Harry Holloway, a professor of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University. He warns against idealizing homecoming, comparing it instead to the trials of the Greek warrior Odysseus voyaging back from the Trojan War: "Things go wrong."

To be sure, the majority of returning troops are expected to reconnect successfully with their families and home communities.

Moreover, the ones who face serious challenges will have more support than ever.

The Army is mounting its most aggressive, head-on effort yet to deal with potential reentry problems. All returning soldiers are undergoing mandatory, face-to-face screenings with doctors and psychologists. A "cooling off" period is required to help troops decompress. Counseling and newly created hotlines are also available to soldiers and couples. Early intervention, officials hope, will lessen the amount and severity of post traumatic stress, depression, and substance abuse, as well as domestic violence and marital breakdowns.

Such measures are increasingly vital, given that today's military is being called on to do more with fewer people. The active duty Army has shrunk by nearly 40 percent since 1980, while missions overseas have burgeoned. Nearly 370,000 troops, or 35 percent of the Army's active duty, guard, and reserve forces are currently deployed in 120 countries around the world, according to Army figures. The upshot is more frequent separations from families that are hard on soldiers and their marriages.

While some troops may suffer severe problems, the need to decompress is virtually universal, says Lt. Col. Glen Tomkins as he screens returning troops from Gilmartin's 1st Battalion, 39th Field Artillery Regiment in a clinic at Fort Stewart. "Just being able to get in a car and drive around - things like that are a huge readjustment," says Colonel Tomkins. He says his priority in examining troops like Gilmartin is simple - "to make sure that this [soldier] isn't someone who I can't let leave this building today."

The trials of transition

The skating show at Wild Adventures amusement park in Valdosta, Ga., was supposed to be a special homecoming treat for his kids. But for Capt. Bryan Batson, it conjured such vivid images of men from his battalion killed in Iraq that he broke down in tears.

"It was surreal," says the rural Texan, recalling his reaction to the handsome skaters, who wore green camouflage leotards and waved American flags as they glided over the ice to strident, ultrapatriotic music. Then he heard the lyrics, "My Daddy served in the Army, where he lost his right eye...."

Instantly, Captain Batson thought of his comrade, 2nd Lt. Jeffrey Kaylor. Lieutenant Kaylor was blowing up a cache of enemy air-defense munitions southwest of Baghdad on April 7 when a single piece of shrapnel struck him just under the right eye, killing him. "It was the only wound on his body," Batson says.