Veterans Coming Home: Cookie cutter soldiers [photos]

Whether you’re a soldier, a Marine, a sailor or an airman, our service members are unique individuals.

But those tearjerking videos of military members coming home from deployment and surprising their kids at school or news videos of those struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have created, for many civilians, a narrative that doesn’t ring true for all service members.

I introduced you to Army veteran Cassondra Flanagan in last week’s story. She currently works in Philadelphia for the Veterans Multi-Service Center. She applauds the military’s efforts to increase awareness about PTSD, period. But, she said that awareness backfires sometimes.

“I’ve actually had some staff at [Philadelphia] City Hall say to me, ‘Well, we can’t allow soldiers to work in the office because you just never know what they’ll do,'” Flanagan recounted. “I guess the idea is that you’re so fragile that at any moment you’ll just turn into Rambo.”

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Flanagan admitted that scenario is possible, but said it’s not fair to assume anyone who comes home from a deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan and is trying to transition to life back home is automatically experiencing PTSD.

“It could just be experiencing a major life transition, which is what [the case] would be for anybody who’s served in a long career and now has to figure out a new career.”

Patrick Edouard was active duty Army and then joined the New York Army National Guard. When he worked with the Guard, which is part-time, he said his coworkers in the corporate world expected him to be stoic, like a robot, because that’s how they perceived soldiers.

“They don’t understand why you can’t keep your composure. At the end of the day, I’m still human,” Edouard said. People also assumed since he was Army, that he was a workaholic. Much like everyone else, he explained that he too needed a healthy work-life balance.

But certain aspects of the veteran stereotype — early-riser, hard-working, strong leader — did work in Edouard’s favor. He said sometimes his veteran status would bump his resume up to the top of the pile. Sometimes. 

“When you’re in [the National Guard], it’s difficult because people don’t want to hire you. And I’ve had a guy tell me that, ‘You had everything we needed, the reason I couldn’t hire you was because you’re still in.'”

National Guard training typically requires one weekend a month and two weeks a year, but your unit can be deployed at any time. And that employer, Edouard said, didn’t want to take that chance.

Happy homecoming… sometimes

I admit, I’m a sucker for those soldier homecoming videos. You think, “Awww, mommy/daddy is home and they lived happily ever after.” But those videos only give a brief glimpse into these families’ lives. What happens after the tears are gone, what happened during that year or more when their soldier was deployed?

My husband, Neal, was active duty Army for 10 years before joining the Delaware Army National Guard. He was stationed overseas in S. Korea, deployed to Afghanistan twice and most recently deployed with his Guard unit to Kuwait, about 18 months after our son Levi was born. Neal was gone for about a year during his last tour. 

When he came home, we immediately went to my son’s daycare to pick him up. The school administrators and teachers knew we were coming, so there were hand-painted banners everywhere, children from the other classrooms were standing at their doors waving American flags and all eyes were on Levi, waiting for him to presumably run into his father’s arms screaming, “Daddy, Daddy,” because that’s what kids do, right?

That didn’t happen. When we walked in and Levi saw his father for the first time, he just stood there, looking confused. He didn’t run to him or hug him. He didn’t do anything. He just turned back around and almost seemed to be ignoring Neal. It was the craziest thing. But I think this scenario might actually be the rule, and those tearjerkers are the exceptions.

Neal wasn’t surprised though. He said more often than not he’s seen kids crying, trying to get away from their deployed parents at homecoming ceremonies because after having been gone for 12 to 15 months at a time, they’re practically strangers to them.

For us, it took several weeks for Levi to figure out how daddy got out of the phone (we kept in touch through Facetime during his deployment). I was trying to fit Neal into my routine and I know Neal had to adjust to life in “slow motion.” It wasn’t hard, it wasn’t easy, but it was this unspoken transition that we had to work through. 

“A lot of people do not understand that when you marry somebody in the military, you marry the military,” said Robin Linton-Turner, whose husband is Pennsylvania Army National Guardsman Jonathan Anthony Turner.

The couple was married in March 2008; Turner deployed to Iraq six months later in September. 

“[People] don’t understand all the sacrifices you make when your husband or your spouse is getting deployed, or goes away for annual training or gets sent away to school for six weeks and you have to hold everything down,” Linton-Turner said.

But she knew that marrying a soldier meant that his other spouse was the military, “So when they call, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Even though she knew what she was getting into, the life of a military spouse, she said, can be lonely at times. I can vouch for that. It can also be stressful because you might hear about a helicopter crash or a firefight on the news in the Middle East and not know if your loved one is safe. 

During Jason Hassinger’s third deployment he was critically wounded. A sniper ambushed his unit in Afghanistan and he was shot five times in the chest. When it happened, Hassinger’s wife Amanda was his girlfriend at the time.

The military doesn’t recognize girlfriends, only family members and spouses. So when Hassinger was hurt, Amanda never would have known, but for the fact that her brother-in-law was deployed too. 

“Before the phones went down, [my brother-in-law] was able to call my sister and tell her that Jay got hit. So then I’m, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on, how is he?’ You know, the worst goes through your mind.”

Even if Amanda and Hassinger were married, details would still be scant, especially at first, and the worry is the same whether you’re a girlfriend, fiancee or spouse.

I wouldn’t expect the general public to know these aspects of military family life. And that’s because even though life can be lonely and scary when your soldier, sailor, airman or Marine is deployed, most loved ones just muddle through. They serve on the homefront so their spouses, who have enough on their plates, don’t have to worry about that too.

Next week, the final theme that emerged from my discussions with these veterans deals with service.  

On July, 9, 2016, WHYY and NewsWorks invited Philadelphia-area veterans and their families to a day of fun at the Please Touch Museum. Seven took us up on our offer and spoke frankly with me about their service, what life was like when they came back home and the challenges they faced after putting away their uniforms for good.

This article is part of a web series looking at how some Philadelphia-area 9/11 veterans readjusted to life back home after serving in the U.S. military.

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