Help And Hope, From Soldiers, For Soldiers

Jun 10, 2012
Originally published on June 10, 2012 4:43 pm

The 182nd Infantry Regiment of the Army National Guard landed back in the U.S. last March after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.

After two months of leave, however, their official transition time is over and the deployment paychecks have stopped. It's now time to get back to regular life, and for the members from Massachusetts, that means a mandatory check-in with the unit's leadership.

From Soldier To Civilian

For most of the soldiers, it was the first time they've put on a uniform in months. Instead of a camp, however, they met at a hotel ballroom in Boston.

Some sat with families: wives, children and a few parents. Others cornered themselves off with their old squads. Units in the Army National Guard generally meet one weekend a month plus two weeks a year for training, but this weekend is different. This weekend it's a Yellow Ribbon event.

The military created the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program in 2008 as a way to help Guard and Reserve members make the transition from soldier to civilian.

"You've had some time off, [and] now you're ready to get back to the business of ... getting your life back in order and moving on post-deployment," says Maj. Michael Greene, who coordinates the Yellow Ribbon events for Massachusetts.

There are two big concerns facing returning guard members. First, there's financial stability. The National Guard is a part-time job, so these soldiers need other work to support themselves and their families.

The second issue is psychological. After leaving home for a war zone, these soldiers have to learn how to relate to their families and to live as civilians again. Guard officials say this is actually when things start to get hard — now that these troops have been home for a while and have had a chance to decompress.

Finding Civilian Work

The day before the Yellow Ribbon event, Spc. Brian Cannava prepped for a job interview at his home in the small town of Shirley, Mass. Cannava started looking for a job while deployed with the 182nd in Afghanistan. Now that he's home, he's going on interviews.

Unlike many of his fellow soldiers, Cannava has been frugal with his military pay, and he's saved up a financial cushion. So at this point, he thinks he can afford to be picky about what job he takes.

Cannava was interviewing for a position he heard about at a veterans job fair as a financial adviser, but he's not sure he even wants the job.

"I don't know why I'm going. I guess just to entertain the idea," Cannava said. "I guess that's why I'm not nervous."

Cannava knows he needs a job. He has 9-year-old son with diabetes, so there are medical bills to pay on top of basic living expenses. Yet there's a sense of apathy hanging over him, and it's hard to think about taking a desk job after being in a war zone.

"That's part of the reason I don't want to do a regular job like financial adviser," he said. "I don't get pumped up ... I haven't really been pumped up since I've been home."

After the interview, Cannava was a little more energized. He said he planned to go back, check out the office and see if they can sell him on working there.

In some ways, the job search is a helpful distraction from the culture shock of coming home. Cannava is separated from his son's mother and they share custody, so Cannava has set up an extra room for when his son sleeps over. But most of the time, he's alone.

"The first like, week or so, it was kind of awesome," he says. "[But] when you're by yourself for a longer period of time ... [you] kind of like, miss having people around. So, it's kind of lonely, I guess."

That's the other big pillar of the Yellow Ribbon program. Besides the financial issues, there's also the far more personal side of making this transition and helping the soldiers learn how to be back home again.

Re-Learning To Communicate

For some soldiers, the Yellow Ribbon event is just about ticking a box. Others take advantage of the resources offered, like free acupuncture, seminars on networking and even relationship counseling.

At this event, Dr. Justin Hill, a psychologist at the VA Boston Healthcare System in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, led a therapy seminar for couples in a small conference room at the hotel. He stood in front of about a half-dozen couples.

"We're not going to get too touchy-feely in here, we're going to be talking more about how to talk to one another and how to identify what feelings are actually going on," Hill said.

Maj. Matthew Porter attended the seminar with his wife, Jennifer, and their 3-month-old daughter. Some of the problems they face are universal, like communication.

"Her method of dealing with a fight is we'll fight about it a little bit, and then she goes into a silent treatment," Matthew said. "That angers me, because I want to work it out."

Some problems are directly linked to the deployment, Hill told them, including comparing the small problems of everyday life to being in a life-threatening situation like a war zone.

"That can be very invalidating to your significant other," he said.

Only a handful of couples decided to go to the seminar, so Porter and his wife are the exception. After the session, they say most families in the 182nd will end up grappling with their problems behind closed doors.

"It's hard," Jennifer Porter says. "You don't realize people are going through the same thing. It's more private."

'What Do I Do Now?'

The Porters are taking steps to keep their marriage healthy, but other families didn't survive the deployment.

When Sgt. Paul Cruwys went overseas, he was engaged and had a young son. The stress of the separation caused constant arguments between him and his fiancee, and when he came back, the fighting didn't stop.

"We just woke up one day and decided we should really [part], for the benefit of our son, not to fight around him," Cruwys says. "It wasn't working out, so we decided to call it quits. So it was like, 'What do I do now?'"

That's the question many soldiers are asking themselves. They can get some guidance at the Yellow Ribbon event, but after the weekend seminar, they're kind of on their own.

Greene says at least the soldiers at the event are getting some help.

"But where are they in 2014, 2015 [and] 2016, when maybe we don't have a deployment?" Greene says. "Well, there's no Yellow Ribbon program for three years after you deploy."

The Guard is counting on informal bonds in the unit: unit members staying in touch and spouses or parents checking in with one another. The problem is that those informal links are about to get even more informal.

The 182nd that deployed to Afghanistan won't exist in the same way much longer. Some soldiers are leaving to join other units. Some are moving out of the state or dropping out of the military entirely.

As for Cannava, he didn't end up taking the financial adviser job. He's still keeping his options open. Part of him wants to renew his Army contract and just re-deploy.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME FRONT INTRODUCTIONS)

MARTIN: And these are the voices from the 182nd Infantry Regiment of the Army National Guard. It's a unit we're following all year as part of our ongoing series Home Front. When we last saw the 182nd back in March, they had just landed in the U.S. after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. The unit returned home to Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But after two months of leave, their official transition time is over. The deployment checks have stopped and it's time to get back to regular life. For the Massachusetts members, that means a mandatory check-in with the unit's leadership.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL TOM STEWART: Where's Hammer Company today?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MARTIN: That's Lieutenant Colonel Tom Stewart. He's the commander of the 182nd.

STEWART: Keledon(ph) Company.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

STEWART: Dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

STEWART: Excellent, you're all here.

MARTIN: The hotel ballroom just outside Boston is filled with Stewart's soldiers. For most of them, it's the first time they've put on a uniform in months. Some are sitting with families, wives, children and a few parents. Others have cornered themselves off with their old squads. Units in the Army National Guard generally meet one weekend a month - two weeks a year - for training. But this weekend is different.

STEWART: Today, I want to welcome you all to the post-deployment - we're finally using the word post-deployment - Yellow Ribbon weekend.

MARTIN: The military created the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program in 2008 as a way to help Guard and Reserve members make the transition from soldier to civilian. Major Michael Greene coordinates the Yellow Ribbon events for Massachusetts.

MAJOR MICHAEL GREENE: You've had some time off, you know, spent time with your family, now you're ready to get back to the business of getting your life back in order and moving on post-deployment.

MARTIN: There are two big concerns facing returning guard members. First, financial stability. The guard is a part-time job, so these soldiers need other work to support themselves and their families. And the second issue is psychological. After leaving home for a war zone, these soldiers have to learn how to relate to their families, and to live as civilians again. And guard officials say now that these troops have been home for a while and had a chance to decompress, this is actually when things start to get hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN BLOWING)

MARTIN: The day before the Yellow Ribbon event, we checked in with one of the guard members we had met a couple of months ago when the unit first got back from Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CREAKY DOOR OPENING)

MARTIN: Home for Specialist Brian Cannava is the small town of Shirley, Massachusetts. It's quiet, aside from the train tracks nearby. Cannava started looking for a job while deployed with the 182nd in Afghanistan. Now that he's home, he's going on interviews. And when we caught up with him, he was prepping for another one.

SPECIALIST BRIAN CANNAVA: I couldn't find my brown belt that went with my shoes. So, substituting and my neck got fatter. So, these are kind of things I realized this morning.

MARTIN: He settled on a light brown suit, a white button-down and a gray tie. Cannava's head is completely shaved - a preemptive strike against early hair loss.

CANNAVA: Yeah, like hide my baldingness, I guess.

MARTIN: Better to take control of the situation, which is what he's trying to do with his job hunt as well. Unlike a lot of his fellow soldiers, Cannava has been frugal with his military pay and he's saved up a financial cushion. So, at this point, he thinks he can afford to be picky about what job he takes. A copy of his resume sits on a coffee table.

CANNAVA: Employment history says U.S. Army National Guard 1-182nd Infantry Regiment, Braintree, Mass., serving as a team member of Provincial Reconstruction Team for Afghanistan. Security force...

MARTIN: He's interviewing for a position he heard about at a veterans job fair as a financial advisor, but he's not even sure he wants it.

CANNAVA: I don't know why I'm going. I guess just to entertain the idea. But, I guess that's why I'm not nervous.

MARTIN: We went along with Brian for the half-an-hour drive to the interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

MARTIN: Cannava knows he needs a job. He's got a 9-year-old son with diabetes. There are medical bills to pay, let alone basic living expenses. But there's a sense of apathy hanging over him; it's hard to think about taking a desk job after being in a war zone.

CANNAVA: I guess, like, coming home, like, that's also part of the reason I don't think I could do just like a regular job like financial advisor. I don't get, like, pumped up on, like, making a sale or, I don't know, I haven't really been pumped up since I've been home.

(SOUNDBITE OF GPS SYSTEM)

MARTIN: Cannava arrives at an office park right off of the highway.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

MARTIN: He's early because he's a military guy after all.

CANNAVA: All right.

MARTIN: He goes into the interview, and about 40 minutes later he comes out looking a little more energized.

CANNAVA: I'm going to come back and just go through the office, see how they do stuff, see if I can get sold on working there.

MARTIN: In some ways the job search is a helpful distraction from the culture shock of coming home. Cannava is separated from his son's mom. They share custody, so he's set up an extra room, but most of the time, Cannava is alone.

CANNAVA: The first, like, week or so, it was kind of awesome. And then, like, when you're by yourself for a longer period of time, you're actually kind of, kind of like miss having people around. So, it's kind of lonely, I guess.

MARTIN: That's the other big pillar of the Yellow Ribbon program. There is the financial side, but there's also the far more personal side of making this transition - helping the soldiers learn how to be back home again.

STEWART: Could you please start moving into your seats so we could start the program?

MARTIN: The next day, Cannava and the rest of the 182nd gathered at that mandatory Yellow Ribbon event. For some soldiers, this is just about ticking a box. Others take advantage of the resources here - free acupuncture, seminars on networking, even relationship counseling.

DR. JUSTIN HILL: My name is Justin Hill. I'm a psychologist at the Boston VA in Jamaica Plain.

MARTIN: Dr. Hill is leading a couples therapy seminar in a small conference room at the hotel. He stands in front of about a half-dozen couples.

HILL: When I give these talks, when we get to expressing your feelings, a lot of people, especially the guys, start rolling their eyes a little bit. We're not going to get too touchy-feely in here. We're going to be talking more about kind of how to talk to one another and how to identify what feelings are actually going on.

MARTIN: Major Matthew Porter is sitting near the front of the room. He's here with his wife Jennifer, and their three-month-old daughter. Some of the problems they face are universal, like communication.

MAJOR MATTHEW PORTER: You know, her method of dealing with, you know, a fight is we'll fight about it a little bit, and then she goes into a silent treatment. And that angers me, because I want to work it out.

JENNIFER PORTER: Some people shut down or they get so upset that they can't think rationally, which is what I do. So, walking away is my way of, like, coming back and being - with a clear head.

MARTIN: But Dr. Hill says some problems are directly linked to the deployment.

HILL: If, you know, your significant other just spilled coffee and he's now running late to work and he's freaking out, you can easily step back and say why are you freaking out over that? My life was just in danger for a year. You know, if you're comparing everything to that, that can be very invalidating to your significant other. That person...

MARTIN: Only a handful of couples decided to go to this seminar, so Matthew and Jennifer Porter are the exception. After the session, they say most families in the 182nd will end up grappling with their problems behind closed doors.

PORTER: You know, with a regular full-time military, a lot of people live together and you're in a community where everybody is used to everything and people can recognize these things. But when you live in communities where nobody is in the military or...

PORTER: Like the National Guard.

PORTER: Yeah, like the National Guard, or your closest person to you is 20 miles away that deployed with you, it's hard. And you don't realize that people are going through the same thing. It's just, it's more private.

PORTER: Right. Which isn't always good, you know.

MARTIN: The Porters are taking steps to keep their marriage healthy, but other families didn't survive this deployment. When Sergeant Paul Cruwys went overseas, he was engaged and had a young son. The stress of the separation caused constant arguments between him and his fiance, and when he came back, the fighting didn't stop.

SERGEANT PAUL CRUWYS: We just woke up one day and decided, you know, we should really, for the benefit of our son, not to, you know, fight around him and stuff like that. It just, it wasn't working out, so we decided to call it quits. So, it's like what do I do now?

MARTIN: And that's the question a lot of soldiers are asking themselves right now. They can get some guidance here at this event, but this is it. After this weekend's seminar, they're kind of on their own. Major Michael Greene, the coordinator of Yellow Ribbon events here, says at least the soldiers at the event are getting some help.

GREENE: But where are they in 2014, 2015, 2016 when maybe we don't have a deployment? Well, there's no Yellow Ribbon program for, you know, three years after you deploy.

MARTIN: The Guard is counting on informal bonds within the unit; Army buddies staying in touch, spouses or parents checking in with each other. Problem is, these informal links are about to get even more informal. The 182nd that deployed to Afghanistan won't exist in the same way much longer. Some soldiers are leaving to join other units; they're moving out of the state or dropping out of the military entirely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: As for Specialist Brian Cannava, he didn't end up taking that job he interviewed for. He's still keeping his options open, and part of him wants to renew his Army contract and just re-deploy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You can find out more on this series at npr.org or on our Facebook page, Facebook.com/NPRHomeFront. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.