The road back

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“This generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen have volunteered in the time of certain danger. They are part of the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” President Barack Obama said this week at the memorial service in Fort Hood. “They have served tour after tour of duty in distant, different and difficult places. They have stood watch in blinding deserts and on snowy mountains. They have extended the opportunity of self-government to peoples that have suffered tyranny and war.”

While Obama was speaking before a nation at attention, Michele and Robert Jersak stood before a nearly-empty classroom at Century College in White Bear Lake on Tuesday to finish his sentence.

“When they come back, they are not the same,” Robert Jersak, a communications professor at the college said.

“I come from a military family,” his wife, Michele, a counselor at the college, added, “and I naively believed that once you’re home, you’re safe.”

Their talk, “Returning Home After Combat: Challenges and Contributions,” was part of a week-long celebration at the school, where about 200 former soldiers are enrolled. A handful of faculty attended along with a man whose son is due home soon. “I want to know what to expect,” he said.

A single student said he was there because his best friend is ex-military and lost. “I need to figure out how to help him,” he said.

The apparent lack of interest by the student body in the topic, however, was matched by the absence of any recently deactivated veterans. There’s more to supporting soldiers than waving a flag or putting a yellow ribbon magnet on the car. You have to actually talk to them.

“This war is so different,” Michele Jersak said. “People forget about it. We can switch it off.” She trains Minnesota state college counselors to understand returning soldiers, and is, herself, at the front lines of the war. As a counselor, she handles the “re-entry” shock of veterans. And every one has it, she suggested. Most don’t like to talk and non-veterans aren’t anxious to inquire and — when they do — they often ask the question Ms. Jersak says they should never ask: “Did you kill anyone?”

“We’ll take a citizen and turn them into a warrior,” her husband said. “They go from security to chaos. From trust to mistrust.” It can take six months to train them but they can go from a war zone to civilian life in a matter of hours, not always successfully. She laments one student in her class who was only days removed from fighting in Falujah, Iraq. “He didn’t stay in class because I didn’t catch him early enough,” she says.

She made it clear to me and the few others attending that she wasn’t referring to post traumatic stress disorder. Instead, she was talking about, “normal reactions to abnormal events.”

I thought about that this afternoon when a Facebook e-mail from an old high school classmate arrived, telling me about the priest who married her and her husband and who was a Marine chaplain with service in Vietnam and Iraq. He also suffered from depression, the outgrowth of post traumatic stress syndrome.

A month or so ago, he jumped off a bridge in Rhode Island.

Nobody comes back the same.

  • Robert Jersak

    Thanks again for attending and commenting on this, Bob. It’s important to understand the challenges, but also to celebrate the profound contributions veterans make on our campuses and in our communities. As we’re learning, sensitivity, concern and contact can make the difference for soldiers who are transitioning from military culture into their civilian lives. It’s up to all of us to recognize their service and to listen to their stories and their needs..

  • say no more

    //As we’re learning, sensitivity, concern and contact can make the difference for soldiers who are transitioning from military culture into their civilian lives. It’s up to all of us to recognize their service and to listen to their stories and their needs..

    especially for those who are not transitioning so well.

    Great piece all around. Thanks to all.