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.
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 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.
Feelings of guilt, anger, and frustration nag Batson these days as he attempts to settle back into life at Fort Stewart. Awaiting screening at a base clinic, he speaks repeatedly of his inability to save mortally wounded fellow soldiers.
Just after midnight on April 3, Batson was sorting out pork-free MREs for Iraqi war prisoners when the ground shook with a tremendous "boom."
"We knew it was way too loud to be enemy artillery," he said. A US pilot had apparently dropped a 500-lb. bomb less than 500 yards from his unit's position north of the city of Karbala, demolishing a Humvee and two other vehicles. Batson rushed to aid the wounded, carrying one soldier away on a litter.
That soldier and two others didn't survive, a tragic loss he still thinks about.
"I've trained all my adult life to close with and destroy the enemy, and here were my guys, and my skills could do nothing for them," Batson says softly. "I felt so helpless."
It's too early to tell how many of the tens of thousands of US ground troops like Batson who were exposed to war's horrors in Iraq will carry mental burdens from the experience. Already, at Fort Stewart, returning soldiers are getting help for a range of symptoms.
"The referrals have been for mental-health issues, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, that kind of thing," says Rose Mullice, assistant chief of social work service at the base hospital.
Younger soldiers, those engaged in frontline combat, as well as medics and mortuary affairs personnel are more vulnerable to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), experts say. Affected troops can relive events involuntarily, feel detached from their surroundings, or be overly anxious. Apart from classic combat stress, time in a war zone increases troops' risk of other problems, from aggression and substance abuse to shutting down socially.
"War is a terrible breach of innocence," says Brett Litz, associate director of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder under the Department of Veterans Affairs. "It's about belief, it's about morality, it's about right and wrong. For some, it can be maturing. For others, it has a scarring influence - on how you feel about your future, your world, your relations with people."
At Fort Stewart, soldiers like those from the 1-39 Artillery Battalion, which fired missiles and rockets that killed hundreds of Iraqis, are wrestling with whether they should keep silent about their actions - in effect isolating themselves - or take the risk of confiding in people outside their unit.
"Soldiers have come up to me and said: 'I'm worried what my family will think of me when they find out what happened over there,' " says Susan Wilder, deployment manager for the fort's Army Community Service. She advises spouses not to probe soldiers for information, but simply to listen.
"In war, you are crossing a line you never expected to cross," says Lt. Col. Spencer Campbell, an expert on combat stress at Fort Bragg, N.C., who was wounded as a marine in Vietnam. "So you question, If my wife knew what I was capable of, would she show affection for me? And having done what I have done, how do I nurture my children?"
In essence, troops must grapple with the way their role in missions of death has changed their very identities.
"Grunts are required to kill," Colonel Campbell says. "But in walking with death, there [still] has to be meaning in life."
Lt. Col. Gary Mauck, an Army chaplain, looks out a window at the moss-draped trees of this Georgia garrison and describes "as if it were yesterday" his March 17, 1969 return from the jungles of Vietnam.
"I got on the jet and in 24 hours I was at Fort Dix, and in another 24 hours I was on the plane home. There was no debriefing and no decompression," he says with a note of bitterness. Once back in rural Danville, Ill., the 25-year-old Mauck was at loose ends. "Home wasn't home anymore, because no one understood."
It wasn't until decades later, during a 1991 parade for Desert Storm veterans, that Mauck discovered what he had missed. "I marched as a National Guardsman, and up front they had a bunch of Vietnam vets. I realized that's what I should have had, a parade. I didn't. Nobody cared."
Vietnam veterans like Colonels Mauck and Campbell are powerful advocates for ensuring a better homecoming for US troops in Iraq. Above all, they want to prevent the sense of isolation and alienation that they believe contributed to the high rate (50 percent) of full or partial PTSD reported by veterans from Vietnam.
"The worst thing that can happen is people come back and feel like the Lone Ranger," says Mauck.
Since the 1970s, the understanding and treatment of postwar trauma have improved dramatically. Meanwhile, the creation in 1973 of an all-volunteer military has led to more professional, better-trained and educated, and cohesive units. All these factors point to "greater resilience, even in the face of grotesque trauma," says Dr. Litz.
After the brief 1991 Gulf War, surveys of veterans showed an increase in trauma, depression, and substance abuse compared with those who did not deploy - but the overall rates were far lower than those among Vietnam veterans. Estimates of PTSD among Gulf War veterans range from 1 to 8 percent.
Today, a new mandatory, Army-wide program aims to identify at-risk soldiers early and intervene quickly to lessen war-zone stress. It involves social workers, mental-health experts, doctors, and chaplains reaching out to troops and their families at each stage of deployment. The policy is driven by a stark reality: With today's rapid-fire deployments, easing stress on soldiers and families is crucial to retention.
While still in the theater, commanders use a new "Tip Card" to identify soldiers at risk. The card poses 14 wide-ranging questions on soldiers' alcohol use, unruly behavior, or conflicts with the chain of command during deployment, suicidal thoughts, anger, domestic violence or troubled relationships, financial difficulties, and combat experiences. Any checked item requires counseling by leaders, the chaplain, or health professionals.
During a "cooling off" period overseas, soldiers turn in equipment and may enjoy some R and R. In Kuwait, for example, troops from 1-39 Field Artillery rotated through a morale, welfare and recreation center known as the "marble palace" - complete with a pool, tennis courts, and miniature golf.
Once back home, soldiers remain on duty at the base for two to three weeks - partly as a "safety mechanism" as they adjust to a less regimented environment. During this time, they undergo physical and mental-health checks and attend "couples reintegration classes." Then, after two weeks of block leave, they return to work for more mental-health evaluations and stress-management classes.
Staff Sgt. John Dragoo is mostly mum about his wartime experiences as he files through a clinic signing papers and seeing health workers. A doctor asks him about his work clearing charred Iraqi vehicles, and explains possible exposure to depleted uranium. Sergeant Dragoo appears morose for a reason increasingly common to deployed soldiers: His wife, Sgt. 1st Class Andrea Dragoo, is still in the war zone.
"I won't really be able to enjoy things until she's home," he says, sunburned from a weekend building a deck to "keep busy."
Like the Dragoos, the growing number of dual-military couples - now more than 5 percent of the armed services - face distinct problems and advantages in deployments. Separations can be even longer, and providing for children, such as the Dragoos' 7-year-old daughter, Amanda, is challenging with both parents overseas. Still, shared experiences help the couples relate to one another. "It's always easier being married to a military spouse, because they understand what you have to do," Dragoo says.
Teams of social workers will revisit Dragoo and other returning soldiers after six weeks, 10 weeks, and four months. "We ask soldiers to go to war. Then we ask them to come back and push a button and be loving husbands and fathers again. It doesn't work that way," says Ms. Wilder. One reason for the aggressive counseling is concern that soldiers will avoid bringing up problems for fear of jeopardizing their careers in today's more professional and competitive Army.
"All of these [problems] have enormous stigma associated with them," says Dr. Engel of the deployment health center. "Some folks feel terribly threatened by going through these evaluations. They feel it's a tremendous invasion of their privacy, with implications for their future in the military."
At Fort Stewart, some soldiers decline counseling, while others, such as Sergeant Gilmartin, welcome it. "It's all right to feel depressed or anxious or unable to sleep," he says. Gilmartin has already sought help from an Army chaplain, and encourages his soldiers to do the same.
Many are. Chaplain Mauck says that often the soldiers who come to him have undergone a spiritual awakening in the war zone, strengthening their inner resources for dealing with problems.
"They've asked the tough questions," he says. "And not surprisingly, they have the answers."
It was after midnight on June 3. In a heavy cloudburst, a formation of 3rd Infantry Division artillerymen marched from the parade stand across Fort Stewart's soggy Cotrell Field belting out the division's "Dog-faced soldier" song played by an Army band.
As the soldiers drew near the hundreds of cheering families clustered on one side of the field, children began leaping up and down. Wives, some wearing prom dresses and stiletto heels, screamed and dashed into the muddy downpour. Seconds later, the troops and loved ones converged in a drenched mass of hugs, squeals, and tears.
For young troops and their wives, separated by war for the first time, the homecoming was a moment of pure fantasy and overbrimming expectations. Yet beyond the lipstick banners and yellow ribbons, the parades and high-heeled embraces, couples must often struggle to reconnect and rebuild their lives together after long, hard separations. For many, a return to normalcy proves elusive.
Army reservist Staff Sgt. Christian Hofeller finally set eyes on his wife last month after more than a year in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the brief reunion in Boston ended painfully, in separation. Married in July 2000, Sergeant Hofeller has been deployed virtually nonstop since Sept. 11, 2001, when he was called into action in New York the day the twin towers fell. "This is the hardest and the worst part of everything, when it's time to come back," he says in a phone call from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he is now living with his mother and aunt. "I pictured it like the movies: They are at the airport with their arms wide and smiles - and she was. But in the movies they don't tell you what it's like after that, with the doors closed."
Hofeller had rushed through his redeployment screening at Fort Benning, Ga., declining to talk with a chaplain or counselor in order to return more quickly to his wife. But he remains focused in significant ways on the war zone he left behind. He says he's still on edge, looking up every time he hears an aircraft. And he is haunted by images of the dead and wounded from his days in a special task force. "You see the faces before you go to bed, but you learn to say goodnight," he says. Now, he prays for a second chance to revive his marriage.
Hofeller's case, though extreme, underscores the challenges faced by many. Family separation is now the third most important reason - after pay and benefits - that soldiers consider leaving the Army, says Bruce Bell of the US Army Research Institute.
Indeed, couples at Fort Stewart say that after a short "honeymoon," the struggle to readjust begins.
"There's that euphoria and 'I love you - you're safe.' But that stops pretty quick, and those dishes left on the table after three days start annoying you," says Laura Batson, who as the wife of Captain Batson, a battery commander, helps counsel other spouses.
Many men come home exhausted, thinner, hungry, and unable to sleep normal hours, Army officials say. Women are also tired, and sometimes bitter about being left alone for months. Add to this unrealistic expectations about sex, and arguments are almost inevitable, experts say. "I talk about flight to fight time," says Lt. Col. Jeffrey Kingsbury, a medical expert who briefs returning Army soldiers. "From the moment I get off the plane, how long will it be before we have our first fight."
When Laura Batson's phone rings these days, she says it's often because reunited couples are in conflict. "Most of the calls right now we're getting are: "I don't understand. We are fighting constantly. He doesn't like how I cut my hair.' It's not the hair. It's the fact that she's changed."
Sitting in her Hinesville living room, Laura explains that just as the war zone affected her husband, the battlefield at home changed her. "As a wife, you are doing your own little private war here. You are not facing Iraqi soldiers and grenades and artillery. But you are facing rumors, fears, self-esteem issues, finances, and children," she says.
Laura, a teacher, tried to shelter her children, telling 7-year-old William and 3-year-old Megan that Batson was in Kuwait. But when William came home one day asking "Is Daddy at war?" she had no good answer. She limited herself to 10 minutes of television coverage each morning or night, when the children were in bed. "You will lose your mind if you don't limit your intake of news," she says.
And while Batson had the companionship of his men, Laura, too, created her own "family" with close friends Valerie and Kelly. Several times a week, they had potluck dinners together. They bathed their six children and read them bedtime stories together. Once, they also kicked up their heels together. In an evening of escape, Laura and a group of female spouses watched the Lady Chablis drag show at downtown Savannah's Club One - an establishment off-limits to their active-duty husbands.
The growing independence of spouses, most of whom are women, can give rise to tensions when husbands return. He's used to giving orders. She's been coping alone for months and knows she can make it on her own. Under such circumstances, arguments can escalate into domestic violence. Soldiers and spouses meeting with Chaplain Mauck have acknowledged problems with domestic violence as well as concerns it might happen, he says.
Divorce is also more likely after a deployment, especially if the relationship was already troubled. "Dear John" situations are common, says Mauck, where the wife will find someone else, initiate divorce, and grant custody of the children to her husband. Indeed, the percentage of single parents in the military has risen 60 percent since 1990, with most of them men."
"Some of these guys have been gone more than they've been home. What surprises me is that marital breakups don't happen more," Mauck says.
More widespread than divorce or domestic abuse, Laura says, is a feeling of bitterness among wives over their husbands' prolonged absence. "The unfairness of life bubbles up, and the husbands come home, and the woman says - OK, I'm gone," she says. "They go to have time for themselves, to the mall, to the movies, and meanwhile the kids are climbing all over Dad and sucking the oxygen out of him."
To overcome such problems, couples must often "renegotiate" their entire relationship. Those with sound marriages, such as the Batsons, are better able to do this. "In the past, I probably didn't do my fair share around the house," Bryan Batson admits, saying he is willing to wash more dishes. Laura, also, says she must remember to let Bryan make decisions regarding the children again, after she's played the role of mother and father for so long.
Meanwhile, both realize it will only be a matter of time before he deploys again. "This has to be a calling," says Laura. "I have to make peace with that, and sacrifice."
Sgt. Maj. Robert Howell shakes his commander's hand, salutes, and steps off a stone platform following his promotion ceremony. Dew glistens on the parade field, and the June air feels steamy in the mid-morning sun. He smiles and embraces his wife, Monique, and their two sons.
It is a proud yet bittersweet moment for Sergeant Major Howell, who returned from Iraq in early June.
Surrounding him is the "rock garden" of boulder-like monuments to fallen 3rd Infantry Division soldiers from the last century's major wars. Soon, Howell knows, another stone will be placed here to honor men, his comrades among them, who died in Iraq.
Howell carries his share of "emotional baggage" from the war, Monique says. The fear, the regret for innocent loss of life, the guilt over soldiers still facing daily attacks in Iraq. And while he's changed, so has his family. His boys are taller, and his wife more independent than ever.
Indeed, like many soldiers, Howell realizes that he'll never truly come home to life as he left it.
Still, having risked death, he and many others return with a deeper appreciation for living. Gilmartin enjoys watching sunsets over the beach. Batson is more grateful for the resourcefulness of his wife. And, today at least, Howell looks ahead to a future full of potential.
"You take a big, deep breath, knowing you hit the ground," he says.
"You appreciate being an American. You appreciate freedom. It's kind of like a rebirth."