The Iraq War lasted 10 years. Now, many of those who served are back home.
But it’s not all a bed of roses. A Pew Research Center survey, using a base of about 1,800 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, shows 47 percent rated their adjustment back to civilian life as difficult. Half of those who saw combat reported signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares and/or flashbacks of combat experiences.
Along with the return home comes the reality of a sluggish economy and the housing crisis. Jobs are a main concern for many veterans. To help them locate work, job fairs are scheduled across the country.
John Lundberg, event director for RecruitMilitary, oversaw the Jan. 26 job fair at the Las Vegas Speedway.
“Somebody who may have joined the military four years ago, they come back now, and Las Vegas is not so fruitful,” he said. “We’re in a bowl, OK? It’s knowing where to go. It’s knowing how their skill sets lined up with what employers are looking for. The biggest challenge they have is being able to articulate how those (military skills) translate.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans fell significantly in January to 9.1 percent. For veterans of all ages, the unemployment rate in January slipped to 7.5 percent. It had been 7.7 percent in December. In comparison, the national unemployment rate was 8.3 percent for January. It had been 8.5 percent in December.
Part of that is credited to President Barack Obama, who put in place several initiatives resulting in tax credits for companies hiring veterans and creating roughly 3,000 One-Stop Career Centers across the country.
What’s it like to reconnect with families and get on with their lives? View spoke with several area veterans to find out how they are faring.
STAFF SERGEANT CAME BACK WITH CHRONIC, TERMINAL ILLNESS
Dan Meyer was a staff sergeant in the Air Force. He did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. His return to America meant nonstop visits to doctors and relying on Veterans Affairs’ special transportation vans.
He worked as a construction electrician before he joined the military. The Air Force made him a helicopter electrician. Meyer married just days before being sent to the Middle East.
“We had no communication the first two weeks,” he said of his bride, Harmonie. “They finally put in a morale tent, so I was able to call her.”
A couple of his fellow soldiers were killed on base by insurgents who were posing as Afghan National Army members.
“That put us into high alert, where we started working in full body armor, with our guns nearby,” Meyer said. “Working on a helicopter in full body armor is pretty awful, very hot.”
He also did a couple of side duties. When bird strikes were causing problems for jets, soldiers would go into the “burn pit” to shoot them with BB guns. Burn pits were how the military took care of garbage where he was stationed.
He was sent into the smoking pit with no respirator and no oxygen. Because of that, Meyer said he now has a chronic, terminal illness called bronchiolitis obliterans.
“It’s got into my bronchial tubes, and it’s scaring them closed,” he said. “And now it’s spreading into all my other organs … it’s not treatable, not curable, and I have a lot of secondary issues. Those are the ones we try to combat.”
No one can tell him how much time he has, he said.
Meyer may be on oxygen practically 24/7 and has to use a wheelchair to get around, but he is upbeat and looking forward to starting a family. His wife quit her job to be his caregiver.
“I love the military, and I would do it all again,” he said. “I would never trade it.”
RETURNING TO APPLAUSE,
PLANNING TO MOVE
Grant Fowler, a sergeant first class specialist in the Army, returned home to applause in the airports. An infantryman, his main job was to train the Iraqi forces to fend for themselves and take them out on patrols. He lived in a tent and often ate boxed meals that were heated, making him miss his mother Michele’s homemade meals.
“My mom’s a great cook, and I love her food,” he said. “It was just microwavable meals over there.”
Keeping in touch with family was sketchy. At one point, the troops were provided with eight Internet phones for 200 people. There were some days where it was 130 degrees and tough wearing all his gear. Hearing gunfire was commonplace, he said.
“You learn to sleep through it,” Fowler said.
When he arrived back, how did he celebrate?
“I went out and had a big steak, a fancy dinner, played a really expensive round of golf and basically just did the things that you don’t get to do (in the theater of war),” he said. “Being back, it was a transition, it was weird having freedom again and being able to set your own schedule and do whatever you wanted to do. It was different, not having to be up at a certain time, not having to do certain things.”
Before joining the Army, Fowler worked for outside services at the Bear’s Best Las Vegas golf course, 11111 W. Flamingo Road. He said he had no illusions that his job there would be waiting for him, so Fowler began looking for a job. He expected to find something in security work, but nothing materialized. He moved into his mother’s house.
“I really expected, for some reason, to get a job immediately, but I found out real quick that wasn’t the case,” he said. “It made it tough, I couldn’t really move out. I was planning on being here for a week, a couple weeks, and use the money I’d saved for getting a place. But the money is now money I use to live on.”
He said he plans to move to Virginia, where his father lives, and wants to be a firefighter.
‘YOU GO FROM A POSITION OF HAVING ALL YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW…’
Sgt. Gary Ruc always wanted to be a pilot. Joining the Army seemed a way to achieve that. But instead of flight school, the military sent him to Iraq as a scout. Scouts are highly maneuverable advance teams sent to scope out a target’s location. It was a prestigious position but a dangerous one. As an advance team, they were always on the front lines.
“If you watch movies, war movies, with shells flying over your head and shrapnel falling on you, it’s pretty close,” he said. “There were always helicopters shooting rockets at something.”
A single child, he’d always enjoyed a good relationship with his mother, Xenie. That relationship got stronger when he was deployed. She was in the Czech Republic while he was in the Middle East.
Whenever he was on base, he was able to email her. For her part, she sent him letters, “snail mail” made even slower as military logic routed it to the U.S. first.
Like Meyer, his return to America meant dealing with health issues. He was injured twice. After the first injury, it took a couple of weeks before he rejoined his unit. The second injury was far more serious. An improvised explosive device exploded just a few yards in front of him. A large piece of shrapnel tore through his abdomen. He underwent emergency surgery and was flown to Germany. His mother visited him there at the hospital before he was shipped stateside.
What was it like to be back on American soil?
“It was rough because my unit, all my guys, were back there,” he said. “When you’re such a tight group, especially because all your leadership is gone, you have to figure out what you’re going to do.”
What he had to do was wade through a medical quagmire that, at first, denied him a hospital bed. Despite having two Purple Hearts, he had to be his own advocate. Returning to life as a civilian took a back seat to recuperating.
“You go from a position of having all your ducks in a row, you’re building your future, when all of a sudden it stops like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.
His condition caused a rift with his girlfriend and they split up. He said he could understand.
“It’s a rough thing, to ask a person to put up with that at such a young age,” he said.
He focused on getting better and credited his drive to have a “nice, productive life” with seeing him through. He said whatever it took, no matter how many doctors he had to see, he would do it until he was fully recovered.
What’s it like to see an America where people are without jobs?
“You do a lot of comparing. You see people struggle everywhere,” he said. “Everybody’s problems are big for them, but I think we’re a country that can overcome a lot.”
Ruc has overcome a lot. Once he was healed, he had to learn to walk, not easy after weeks in the hospital and without any sensation in the legs.
He added a best friend to his household: Jake, a malnourished pit bull/Laborador retriever mix he rescued.
Ruc plans to complete his engineering degree. He now works in U.S. Rep. Joe Heck’s office as a case worker for veterans with medical and social issues.
VETERAN RETURNED TO VALET JOB
BUT STRUGGLED TO ADJUST
Bruno Moya knows the meaning of semper fi first hand. The Marine sergeant comes from a military family and was a machine gunner “in the thick of things.”
Because he was on the move a lot, he seldom got to be in contact with family. He looked forward to seeing his mom and sisters most. They were all set up to meet him at the airport.
“It was funny because I missed my flight, actually, on the way back,” he said. “I had a bag, like this one, and my plane stopped somewhere, and I went to a bar, and the bartender saw my bag, and he actually gave me a couple of beers. And he didn’t even card me. He said, ‘You coming back from the war?’ He said, ‘Cool, here you go.’ So I got a little bit intoxicated. And I missed my flight.”
Soon after, he met and married Iris, who was a new mother with a daughter, Ix-chel, now 2. He liked the military so much, he wanted to go back to active duty status, but his unit was not scheduled to deploy right away, so he joined the Army Reserve as a combat instructor.
His service meant that he missed Ix-chel’s first steps and her first word.
“My wife told me it was ‘Dad,’ but I think she kind of made that one up to make me feel better,” he said.
Before enlisting, he’d been a valet parker at Treasure Island. He was able to return to that position, but his military training kicked in almost his first day back.
He forgot where to write the date and time on the valet ticket, and his supervisor shrugged and told him, “Anywhere.”
But military men are used to taking orders, not making up the rules.
“So, I stood there staring at him for what seemed like an hour, but it was probably like 20 or 25 seconds,” Moya said. “I think it scared him a little bit. He took a step back, and he said, “Hey, man, are you all right?’ “
Moya said he would find himself checking for IEDs under the cars parked on the valet lot. He said being out and about can propel his thoughts back to the war.
“I think my daughter (is a trigger),” Moya said. “She’s not the one that triggers it but the situations around her. There were a couple of times that I can remember seeing kids in Iraq (injured), so I worry a lot about her. We had a lot of fire fights with civilians involved, so thinking about that, and having a kid now, it’s a little terrifying.”
Moya is earning his psychology degree. He said he wants to one day counsel veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at email@example.com or 387-2949.