Mike Hoss remembers a time when, in a split-second, he jumped from Michigan back into combat in Afghanistan. A bag of trash lay under the Stadium Drive overpass on US 131 as he and his wife drove past.
"When I looked up and saw that, I screamed 'IED!' at the top of my voice. She twisted the wheel; it scared her. Luckily, there was nobody beside us. My heart came out of my chest because that's a sure IED right there."
Hoss' experience is one that many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can relate to. The nation increasingly faces the challenge of reintegrating veterans into civilian life and helping those who have trouble resuming their former lives.
On a Thursday evening at the VFW Post 1527 in Portage, a handful of middle-aged men sit at the bar under patriotic banners and sip domestic beer, giving fleeting looks to the ballgame on the TV. They talk about the stuff guys do: baseball, their wives, fishing, trouble with the cable company, the weather.
But they also talk about coming home from war. Mike Hoss is one of them. At 58, he has more than 30 years of military service, including deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq as an Army reservist. America’s involvement in Iraq ended in December 2011. At the end of this year, combat operations in Afghanistan will cease. But even though the nation’s longest wars since Vietnam are over, and a veteran may have hung up their uniform, the war often remains – in reflexes, reactions, strength and forward-looking resolve, the kind that shuns help. Some vets get lost in the red tape of the benefits process. Others feel like strangers when they come home, those who they left behind unable to understand their experiences.
A lot has been made of what the mental health establishment calls Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in returning vets. Hoss says it’s not a disorder at all. In fact, he’s offended by that term. “I don’t believe that because we have some kind of post-traumatic stress from an event that we have a disorder. Society has enough issues with veterans already, not understanding us, to label us as having a disorder just now says, ‘damaged goods.’”
While deployed in Iraq in 2009, Hoss knew that if the night was cloudy, insurgents would begin firing rockets. While on patrols or in convoys, the threat of IED explosions or sniper fire was constant. Many vets have experienced things unimaginable to the everyday civilian, but they’re not “damaged goods,” Hoss says.
Some employers have told him they won’t hire vets because they’re worried about them snapping under pressure, or that they might make customers nervous. “Very few people in society understand what the vets go though. They don’t know and I don’t blame them. Why should they? Here’s the problem with society. Either society doesn’t understand what we went through or thinks we’re one event away from becoming a raging lunatic.”
Hoss says that’s a function of ours being an all-volunteer military. No one is forced into service, and that means the nation’s fighting’s been performed by a sliver of our population. The further away we are from the harsh realities of war, the less we understand about the needs of those who’ve fought in them. And the easier it is to forget.
Tracey Quada, the director of Western Michigan University's Military and Veterans Affairs Program, says returning vets face a number of hurdles. “Even if someone is stable, feeling good, proud, ready to be in civilian life, the transition is just that – it is a transition that takes time.”
While some of his friends were heading off to college, Sean Nagle was deploying to Iraq as a 19-year-old a member of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Nagle was in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, and again in 2008 and 2009. Now a business student at WMU, he spent his formative years in a war zone.
“The only analogy I have is that for guys who’ve deployed and been in a combat zone and been in any kind of combat action whatsoever is that when you come back it’s almost like you feel like a wolf among sheep because you know what it’s like to be in those environments but you come back here and it’s never like that.”
In some ways, America was a foreign country to Nagle when he came home. Some of his friends had a hard time understanding him, and he couldn’t get why so many people wore their emotions on their sleeves. It was just the way he was. Younger guys would say things not knowing that Nagle might take it completely different, everyday talk sometimes lost in the translation of vastly different life experiences.(P) “You run into some 20 year old guy who says, ‘I’m gonna kill you, man.’ When you say that to me, I take it as a whole different…that means a whole different thing to me. Maybe somebody who’s been in school their whole life or in college they might take that as, oh we’re gonna fight. Whatever. It’s a whole different thing. When I first got home I thought I was gonna be in jail within a year.”
Nagle has never been to the Battle Creek VA for healthcare even though he admits he probably should have gone by now. And even though he believes he’s OK, he’s known comrades who needed help dealing with the stress of war. Help is readily available and some seek it out on their own but others hold back. There’s also a culture in the military that can shun such cries for help, something the military is working to eliminate. Nagle says he understands why some vets hold it in. “Sometimes you're afraid to go because you’re afraid of finding out something bad. You don’t want to be 'that' guy.”
Nagle has had few problems with his benefits. Sometimes his GI Bill money comes a bit late but overall he’s satisfied. Mike Hoss is a different story. His time in the service left him completely disabled. But it wasn’t the military or the VA that let him know what benefits were due to him. It was a friend at the VFW. And that frustrates him. “There’s no one at the VA who sits me down and says, here you go, you’re 100 percent disabled, let me explain to what that means. They just sent me a packet in the mail and said, ‘here you go.’“ Hoss says the VA is so overwhelmed by the influx of veterans needing help that it's "breathing air through a long straw.”
It’s not news that the VA has long backlogs of benefits claims. Hoss has high praise for the medical care he receives in Battle Creek but he wants the agency as a whole to do better. He says the recent scandal over long wait times for those seeking medical care doesn’t help the VA’s image. In the meantime, Hoss says his VFW post is organizing a list of services and contact information for any vet who needs assistance.
But Hoss also wants us to do our part. He says supporting the troops is much more than putting a yellow ribbon on your car. It’s about, in his words, “having skin in the game.”
“Instead of donating a dollar on your tax return why don’t you join some program and help out. Give an hour a week of volunteer time instead of donating a dollar. Instead of sticking a ribbon on the back of your car, actually go down and help a vet somewhere.”