View Neighborhood Newspapers interviewed three southwest-area military veterans who recently returned from deployment. From Iraq to Afghanistan, they share their stories of returning home and reassimilating into civilian life.
Call to service
At 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Austin Slate was a 15-year-old at Bayshore High School in Bradenton, Fla. He and other ROTC students were practicing drills they were supposed to perform for President George W. Bush, who was visiting nearby Booker Elementary School in Sarasota.
Shortly thereafter, Slate saw Air Force One flying overhead. He would not get to perform for the president that morning. He and other students were soon rushed inside the school and found out why.
Upon graduation, Slate joined the Navy and was deployed to Iraq. The events of
9/11 played heavily in his decision to join the military, Slate said.
“I didn’t want revenge or whatever,” he said. “I just wanted to serve my country.”
After 7½ years and six deployments, Slate is an emergency medical technician for a medical transport company in the Las Vegas Valley. The southwest-area resident also is a medical assistant at a Veterans Affairs hospital and a reserve in the Army National Guard.
Slate was one of the last Americans to leave Iraq in December. He also has helped after a hurricane devastated Haiti and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Before his last deployment, Slate was unable to find work and spent about seven months homeless in Virginia.
“Finding work is the toughest thing,” Slate said. “I was struggling. I slept in my car, stayed at my friend’s house.”
He drove to Las Vegas in January, hoping to find work in the medical field. It took him six days to find a job this time.
Slate said he would like to work as a nurse practitioner at the VA hospital as a career.
“I like working with vets,” Slate said. “I transported a World War II vet the other day. A lot of vets just want to talk. Not enough people give them the opportunity to.”
Longing to return
Veteran Nathan Doffing moved to Las Vegas in 2006 from Minnesota. He joined the Army in 2008 and was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan.
Doffing, a southwest resident, is an assistant manager for HMSHost Corporation, a food service company at McCarran International Airport.
He returned from Afghanistan in June 2011 after a year of service as an information technology specialist and a transporter.
All he wants now, he said, is to return.
“I’ve been trying to go back since the first week I got back almost a year ago,” Doffing said. “When I got back, it was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I like the whole idea of you knowing what you’re going to do every day, the whole structure.
“I’m kind of sick of babysitting people at this point. In the military, everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing at all times.”
Doffing has not told his parents of his plans to return to the war-torn country. They were not supportive the first time because they worried about his safety, he said.
It is not easy to return, Doffing said. He has to hope to find a unit with a spot available for his specific job.
Doffing’s favorite memory of his time in Afghanistan was when he and other troops helped build and renovate some of the few schools for girls.
He also misses the food.
“By far they have the best bread,” Doffing said, referring to the country’s naan bread. He said he has not been able to find a comparable replacement in Las Vegas.
“I guarantee you when I go back there, the first thing I’ll try to do is find some naan bread.”
‘A foreign country’
Veteran Russell Cameron was raised in Las Vegas and graduated in 2001 from Durango High School. He joined the Marine Corps and worked on foot patrols in some of the most hostile villages in southern Afghanistan. He fought the Taliban almost daily.
“The Taliban would wait for you on foot patrols,” Cameron said. “You know it’s coming. You know you’re going to take contact.”
Cameron watched his unit’s medic step on an improvised explosive device hidden in the dirt and lose three of his limbs.
Cameron said he was relieved when he could return home, where his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Ethel, waited for him.
“After taking contact nearly every day, you’re pretty excited to come home where it’s safe,” Cameron said. “You could just go through your business and not have to look over your back all the time.”
Old habits die hard, though.
Cameron said he instinctively checks his surroundings wherever he goes, even at school. Hissing construction equipment on the freeway sometimes reminds him of a rocket-propelled grenade whizzing by his head.
“I heard backfire from a bus once and almost dropped to the floor,” Cameron said.
Cameron called it a “surreal” feeling to be back in America after spending less than a year in combat.
“It’s almost like coming back to a foreign country,” Cameron said. “You have great things here at home, but you’ve gone so long without it. It takes time, but you’re slowly able to adjust.”
Cameron enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas last fall and is majoring in criminal justice. He said he wants to work for the Department of Defense or another government agency upon graduation. Cameron, like the other veterans, said he looks back fondly on his time in the military.
“In general I keep quiet about what happened,” Cameron said. “It’s nothing to brag about. It was an opportunity to serve. Fortunately, I came back alive, and I was very grateful for that. I don’t have the attitude that America owes me something.
“It’s just nice to know you did something worthwhile.”
Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at email@example.com or 224-5524.