From one battlefield to another: A military family called to serve others

Canton native Eric Hill was 18 when he decided to join the military. It was a quick decision. He wanted to get married and needed a way to provide support. What sprang forth from that decision was more than he could have envisioned.

Soldiers face a second battle at home

Citizen soldiers.

The National Guard’s moniker evokes the best of American values and hearkens back to a Greek ideal. The citizens of a nation, its moral fiber during times of peace, should be ready to take up arms during war.

Increasingly, though, the phrase also represents a contradiction.

National Guard soldiers returning home from multiple deployments face a complex world. The same instincts that served to protect them on the battlefields and roadways of Iraq and Afghanistan can shut them off from their families and their lives as civilians.

“I’ll be honest with you. As soon as we got the call that we were going back, I knew my marriage was over,” said Staff Sgt. Shane Trantham of Haywood County’s 211th Military Police Company.

Sgt. Trantham’s experience, as he will tell you, is not unique. National Guard soldiers returning from the combat zone are expected to resume the life they left behind as fathers, mothers, friends and co-workers, but in many cases they don’t have the support they need to transition successfully.

Episodes like the Ft. Hood shooting have instigated increased scrutiny into the psychological impact of two simultaneous wars on the men and women who execute them.

But while intentions are good, resources are stretched and, perhaps even more importantly, the military culture is still one in which psychological issues are thought of as weaknesses.

Nine years into the country’s war on terror, soldiers are starting to get the support they need, but for some of them the damage is already done.

A father at war

Staff Sgt. Shane Trantham learned his military police company was being deployed on Christmas Eve in 2002. He kept the news a secret until after the holiday. On Jan. 2 his youngest daughter was born. Newly married with a newborn baby, he left on Jan. 10 for his deployment.

“The first thing you have to think of as soldiers is what’s going to happen when you’re gone,” Trantham said. “You’re passing all of that to someone else, and that places a huge amount of stress on the family. I don’t know what’s worse. What we go through over there or what they’re dealing with at the house.”

Trantham, who graduated from Tuscola High School in 1995, spent most of his time in Iraq driving convoys on main supply routes, the principal targets for improvised explosive devices, in ragtop Humvees without armor. He remembers the scene after a U.S. Abrams tank was blown skyward by a homemade bomb fashioned from four daisy-chained 150 mm shells and a primitive detonation system. The blast killed two crew members and wounded two others.

“That stuff was everyday stuff,” Trantham said.

The National Guard experience is unique in that when soldiers demobilize they return home and resume life without the support of their comrades or the services of a base command.

“It was like, ‘If you need help here’s the chaplain’s phone number,’” Trantham said. “And that wasn’t even close to what we needed. It affected everybody, not just the young people.”

Trantham worked for a utility company in Asheville reading meters.

“For six months I lived in a bottle. I’d get off work and get a 12-pack and go after it ‘til it was gone,” Trantham said.

At the same time he was dealing with post-combat stress, Trantham was also trying to hold onto his marriage, a relationship that had stalled during his absence.

“I told my wife, ‘I left in January of 2003 and I came back in January of 2003.’ Life just passes you by and you’re trying to play catch-up,” Trantham said.

Like many soldiers, he had a hard time fitting into the household dynamic, and in particular sharing power with his wife.

“You know the saying –– staff sergeants run the army,” Trantham said. “Then you come home and someone else is in charge. I’ve seen so many soldiers lose their marriages over that power struggle.”

Trantham said he knew his marriage was doomed when he got word of a second deployment just a few months later. “There’s so much distance created in a family. You become a picture and a telephone,” Trantham said.

After he got back from his second deployment, Trantham wasn’t comfortable sleeping in a bed, he was quick to anger, he had nightmares. He realized how serious the situation had gotten during a summer thunderstorm.

“In my head I thought it was a mortar attack and it just froze me to the couch,” Trantham said.

In two years, Trantham experienced two wars, the loss of a marriage, the deaths of his uncle and grandfather then started a new full-time job with the National Guard. The transformation forced him to acknowledge his mental health issues.

“All that changed my life. I was talking to the doctor and I said, ‘Look, maybe there’s something going on,’” Trantham said.

Trantham got a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis and was prescribed an anti-depressant, but the drugs created new problems.

“I had no emotions. Being a soldier you have to be able to maintain yourself in any situation and something inside me was saying ‘This won’t work,’” Trantham said.

Ultimately, it was counseling that helped Trantham deal with his issues.

“The turning point was that counselor telling me that what I was feeling was normal, that most people would have cracked and I didn’t,” Trantham said. “It’s not been easy, but things are falling back into place.”

As a full-time staff sergeant in charge of the headquarters of Haywood County’s National Guard, Trantham said he has watched the system change for the better, but it has taken the bulk of eight years for it to happen.

Trantham’s grandfather, Rubin Inman, spent 30 years in the same National Guard unit, so the staff sergeant has a sense of historical perspective.

“This ain’t Vietnam and this ain’t Korea. This is a whole new thing, and the Army wasn’t ready for it but they’re catching up,” Trantham said.

The problem

with multiple deployments

Ron Putnam, veterans service officer for Haywood County, is the guy many veterans turn to when they don’t know where else to go. He and county service officers like him all over North Carolina help soldiers get the benefits and services they have earned.

“Now days, for the first time in history, society, the medical field, the government has learned to try to get a hold of these guys early,” Putnam said. “We’ve finally woken up to the fact that we’re wearing these kids out.”

Putnam served in Lebanon and later in the Gulf War. He sees the issues facing current returning veterans as part of a broader shift in the military culture between Vietnam and the present. An all-volunteer army, rapid advances in communications, and a lightning fast workplace environment have created a new complex of issues.

The biggest challenge is dealing with the impact of multiple deployments on an individual and their family.

“The problem with these new kids is the multiple deployments allow for no relief at all from duty,” Putnam said. “In Vietnam, if you could get through it, you were done. Now you just barely have time to stand down, de-brief, and get relief. How in the world can you get back into any kind of home life?”

Putnam said the Internet and instant messaging have also added complexity to life in a combat zone.

“Let’s say you get an email that your baby’s sick and you gotta get up in the morning and go on patrol,” said Putnam. “That’s a two-edged sword.”

During the 1980s, that level of contact was unheard of.

“I called home from Lebanon one time and it was mandatory because our building had just blown up and they were trying to make sure we weren’t dead,” Putnam said.

Putnam said the economy has added additional stress. Many veterans come home to a life armed with a GED after spending three years or more with free housing and subsidized living expenses. Throw a young family into the mix and the worst job market in recent history and you’ve created an inhospitable environment that makes it increasingly hard for veterans to seek counseling help.

Veterans worry a mental health record will affect their ability to re-enlist or find work.

“Your new vet is just like your old vet in some respects,” said Putnam. “He wants a Chevy, baseball and apple pie. He wants a job. Does he want people to know he has mental health problems?”

Putnam sees veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, in addition to those from Iraq and Afghanistan on a regular basis. His experience has shown him that veterans share many issues, but each generation of soldiers has had to deal with a unique set of challenges. For this generation, the pressure of multiple deployments is brand new.

“Even the saltiest born-again hardest vet from World War II cannot say they’ve had five deployments,” Putnam said. “My analogy for the vets and the young families is it’s got to be like being on LSD. It’s just one extreme to the other.”

The World War II era military was about 12 percent of the country’s total population. During the Cold War, it contracted to about 2 percent. Today, the all-volunteer military is only about a half percent of the country’s population.

Because today’s wars are fought by a relatively small portion of society, Putnam worries that people treat the soldiers as if their war experience is their own problem, not the country’s shared responsibility.

He thinks that if veterans are to reintegrate back into their lives, they’ll need the help of the civilians around them.

“One issue is these young people being willing to ask for the help they need and the other part is society embracing them, and particularly the employers being willing to take a chance on them,” Putnam said.

Lessons from Vietnam

Putnam believes many of the strides today are a result of hard lessons learned during the Vietnam era. While there is no such thing as a typical war experience, Rick Strubeck’s tour in Vietnam was the kind you see in the movies.

Drafted at age 18, the Pennsylvania native landed in Vietnam in 1970 with an infantry assignment. He spent eight months in the jungle then drove an ammunition truck for four months.

Strubeck returned home at the height of the anti-war movement and remembers being spat on. He looks back on the experience with a sense of understated pain.

“I went through a pretty tough time for about the next 15 years,” Strubeck said.

Strubeck couldn’t sleep, so he drank himself to sleep. He ruined his marriage, wrecked three good jobs, and still didn’t care.

“I felt like I wouldn’t see the next sunrise, and I just threw caution to the wind,” Strubeck said.

At a John Denver concert in Madison Square Garden in the mid-’70s, Strubeck’s combat experience exposed him to a group of friends. The lights went out and the flash cameras set him off. He jumped out of his seat and fought his way through 15 rows to the exit.

“The people I went with were afraid to ride in the car with me on the way home,” Strubeck said.

He filed a disability claim with the VA for exposure to Agent Orange that never got recognized.

“I attributed all of my problems to Agent Orange and at the time if you mentioned Agent Orange, they didn’t want any part of you,” Strubeck said.

Finally, in the early 1990s, after being diagnosed with bone cancer, Strubeck also got a PTSD diagnosis that helped him move on with his life. He spent seven years in counseling.

“I thought I was crazy or an alcoholic and it turned out I had PTSD,” Strubeck said.

Strubeck credits the counseling with turning his life around.

“It gave me self-worth, and it made me realize I and my family were more valuable than I was giving them credit for,” Strubeck said. “I needed to live up to my responsibilities and stop hiding behind my combat experiences.”

After 20 years of sobriety, Strubeck looks back and wonders what life could have been like had he gotten the proper help upon his return from Vietnam.

“I’m glad they’re helping these guys now, but it still really hurts me to think of all the guys who are pushing up daisies because they ruined their lives,” Strubeck said. “War is hell and combat is bad. It’s something you never forget.”

Strubeck has a simple message for returning combat veterans.

“I just hope they have a good response to these programs, and I hope the guys are wise enough to take advantage of it,” Strubeck said.

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