The veterans with whom I spoke talked about feeling a little lost after leaving the military. Mostly, they didn’t know what they wanted to do next, or how they fit in.
Cassondra Flanagan didn’t have much of a life plan after she finished serving 8 years in the U.S. Army.
“On a whim, I just applied to a bunch of colleges because I knew, not because I wanted a degree at the time, specifically because I knew I could have income from my G.I. Bill,” the Army veteran said.
After receiving an Associate’s Degree in forensic science, Flanagan said she felt more motivated to get her Bachelor’s. She graduated from Temple University and started working at Philadelphia’s Veterans Multi-Service Center (VMC).
But Flanagan’s transition wasn’t just about finding a job, it was also about finding herself and figuring out how and where she fit in.
In 2003, not long after she joined the Army, Flanagan deployed to Iraq. But before she deployed, she gave birth to a baby girl. Her daughter wasn’t even 3 months old when she left; Flanagan’s mother looked after the baby while she was gone.
“At the time, I really just wanted to serve my country because we did just have the towers fall … I really felt invested in the idea of let’s help my country,” Flanagan said of her mindset at the time when she deployed with her Army unit from Fort Hood.
The supply clerk for the engineering brigade came home a year later in 2004. Just a couple months after returning home, she hopped on another plane back to Iraq for her second year-long deployment. When she came home the second time, it was 2005 and she was in New York, stationed at Fort Drum, subsequently deployed to Afghanistan again for just 30 days and she finally left the military in 2006.
“It’s now 2016 and I’m just able to package everything up and verbalize it, in my head, to myself,” she said. Flanagan did not suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the soldier said a big challenge, if not her biggest, was coming home to her now 3-year-old daughter.
“As a mother, you’re supposed to be loving and caring and like, ‘Awww,’ you’re the soft place for your family, but there’s nothing soft about me when I returned home,” Flanagan said frankly. “My patience is thin. You know, if i said, ‘Put it down,’ put it down, thank you. Like when I tell my soldiers put it down, they put it down and they close their mouth.”
But toddlers don’t always follow orders. Parents know the toddler years are hard, to put it lightly, but most parents didn’t just come home from what was essentially a 2-year deployment. Flanagan, who barely knew her child, had only been home for two weeks and all of the changes just got to be too much.
“I called my mom crying because it was just me and my daughter in my apartment,” she said. “I had just kind of let her do whatever she wanted, just as long as she didn’t kill herself, because I recognized so much anger inside of me, that I was scared.”
Flanagan asked her mother to come and help.
“It gave me a chance to transition my own self into mommy-mode. That is hugely scary and it’s one of my major fights for women in the military because everyone wants to talk about women in combat and women deserve equal rights [in the military], but nobody addresses the role that we play for our families,” Flanagan said.
Now, the Army vet helps coordinate the Women’s Veterans Center at VMC.
“I thought for a long time that it was me trying to find myself again, but then when I really looked at it, I joined the military when I was 17, I don’t think I ever found myself to begin with,” Flanagan said.
Realizing he didn’t have to patrol his street from Muslim extremists was the hardest part of readjusting to life stateside for Jason Hassinger, the decorated Marine in last week’s story.
“It’s definitely a different mindset. You’re still all hyper-alert with everything,” Hassinger said. “Not trusting individuals, not trusting people, not being sure of who they are, what they’re going to be doing, what their intent is, what their plan is, what they’re thinking, what they’re scheming.”
Like Flanagan, Hassinger did not have PTSD. He just had to get used to the significantly slower tempo of life back home after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and after he left the military in 2011. “I just dealt with it,” he said, of reconciling his new role at home while thoughts of his time in the Middle East ran through his head constantly.
On the job front, Hassinger filed for unemployment. He was a stay-at-home dad for about a year, all the while he was sending out job applications. He eventually landed at the veterans service organization, Disabled American Veterans.
“In my experience, I think everybody that goes [overseas], you see life from a different perspective when you come back,” said Elinton De Los Santos, who joined the U.S. Navy in 2000. “You learn to live with it, you learn to kind of manage those emotions … Sometimes you experience or feel it more at times. To me, personally, I don’t think it goes away, I think it stays with you at least at an unconscious level.”
De Los Santos served with the Navy for over five years. Originally from the Dominican Republic, he joined because his father was also a sailor.
The aircraft mechanic was on an aircraft carrier during his first two deployments in the Middle East and was stationed on the ground in Kuwait and Iraq for his third tour.
“When you’re in the military, you have a specialty. Then, when you’re out of the military, it’s hard to find something that matches exactly what you used to do,” De Los Santos described.
“It’s like going back let’s say when you got out of high school and you’re starting college. Which way do I go, do I try this or try that? But now you have bills and a family, so that makes it more difficult.”
De Los Santos said jobs fixing planes on the outside were scarce. Consequently, he ended up picking up odd jobs here and there to make ends meet.
His father, meanwhile, helped him navigate through the transition process and De Los Santos said he took advantage of the resources in place to help him re-assimilate to civilian life, chief among them his G.I. bill.
Three generations of Patrick Edouard’s family were in the service. Tradition is why Edouard enlisted in the U.S. Army.
“My dad kind of drilled it into your head. Either you were going to go to college or go into the military because no slouches in this house, very big on that,” Edouard recounted.
The Marines and the challenge of getting through recruit training at Parris Island attracted Edouard, but he already knew he wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in the military.
That’s why he ultimately chose the Army because he said the Army provided the easiest transition to civilian life.
“It’s a means to an end. I got what I needed. Boot camp was great for me. I was already an athlete in high school and college so it wasn’t a hard thing for me. But what I think it brings is, it teaches camaraderie, it teaches you how to deal with difficult people,” said Edouard, who added being a veteran can also help to bump up your resume to the top of the pile.
That being said, Edouard reminded me that when you leave the military, whichever branch, you still need to be proactive especially when seeking out what help the military offers to veterans returning to civilian life. He also thinks some type of physical and mental therapy should be mandatory post deployment and post service.
Jonathan Anthony Turner was only 18-years-old when he enlisted in the Marines. He was a unit level circuit switch operator, in other words, he dealt with telephone and communication lines.
He deployed through Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm during the first Gulf War in 1990-1991.
“I was a kid, I was scared, but I knew I had to serve my country. I was up for some good times and adventure,” Turner said. “Coming back, I was more concerned about how people would react to us coming back because i had friends who served in Vietnam.”
Unlike many Vietnam veterans, Turner was welcomed home warmly and respectfully. He has served his country honorably, and instead of re-upping, Turner said he wanted to give the civilian life a shot.
“I had top secret clearance. I was dealing with high-tech telecommunications lines, security lines, so I was job-ready. I was offered several jobs in that field as well.”
No, he didn’t have problems finding a job. Where he did struggle was finding his niche. With time, he realized his niche was back in the military, this time with the Army.
Turner joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 2000. He was working strykers (an armored combat vehicle), other large vehicles and generators.
He deployed to Iraq in 2008. His unit went on a lot of recovery missions for vehicles that were attacked. He recalled one such mission.
“It was a stryker and everything was black, it was burnt out. You could smell the burnt electricity, burnt equipment, burnt flesh. And that was just one mission. And to this day, I can still smell it.”
The law of inertia states something in motion stays in motion and it can be applied to many 9/11 veterans. After working almost nonstop for months on end in Iraq, Turner, like Jason Hassinger, had a hard time slowing down his mind when his deployment ended.
Turner said he exercised a lot to work off some energy, he went fishing and attended church as ways to help him readjust and reintegrate.
And while he admits he still thinks about his missions often, he doesn’t dwell, but rather acknowledges them and moves on. “I know I’m back here, I know my family needs me, I know my community needs me.”
The next installment in this series will focus on stereotypes civilians have about 9/11 veterans.
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.