The things they carry

A new generation of veterans faces life after the service

As a soldier in the Army Reserve 282nd Engineer Company, Andrew Mangold saw many Iraqi landscapes driving an armored vehicle in convoys across the country during the latter stages of the war. He now studies at Fort Lewis College. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

As a soldier in the Army Reserve 282nd Engineer Company, Andrew Mangold saw many Iraqi landscapes driving an armored vehicle in convoys across the country during the latter stages of the war. He now studies at Fort Lewis College.

Local veterans return

Editors Note: This four-day series looks at the experiences of returning veterans and the challenges they face.

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Timothy Oliver is haunted by the fact he survived when the rest of the team he led died on a bloody battlefield in Afghanistan.

Bob Brammer wonders what would have happened if he and his fellow marines would have been allowed to take out Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War.

Michael Long regrets being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as his wife slowly succumbed to an illness that would eventually kill her.

These are some of the things these local veterans carry.

In the last 10 years – the longest period this country has been at war in its history – millions of men and women have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands – 6,481 by latest count – have been killed. Nearly 50,000 have been wounded.

Not one has come back unchanged. This series starts with their stories.

Some carry regret. Some carry pride. Some carry ghosts. Some carry medals. Many carry all these things.

They carry these things as they return to being husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, students, bureaucrats or laborers. Some return to the void of not knowing who they are outside the military.

Some talk about what they have seen and done, but many don't.

As a cohort, they are almost invisible. The Veterans Administration estimates that 660 veterans between 17 and 44 years old live in La Plata County of about 4,550 vets total.

The number of young people who graduated from Fort Lewis College this May is likely greater than the number here who have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan. But their small numbers belie their large presence in local and national safety nets. Durango's crisis center and homeless shelter report seeing veterans at much higher rates proportionally than the general population. And a Harvard researcher's study found that the cost of providing disability and medical care to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the course of their lives could cost up to $700 billion.

This generation of veterans is unique from its predecessors. Advances in battlefield medical care have made it possible for soldiers to survive injuries that would have killed them in the past. But these injuries are likely to affect them throughout their lives. And while significant proportions of soldiers in Vietnam and World War II were drafted, recent wars were fought with an all-volunteer force. Because of this smaller pool, many of the men and women who went to war went not just once, but twice or more. Military historians say the amount of combat some recent veterans have seen is unprecedented in U.S. history.

The toll that this has taken on many of them is immense. The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof in an April 14 column decried the high rate of suicide among veterans, which has been estimated at one battlefield death for every 25 suicides.

But to only talk about the damage inflicted by war doesn't tell the whole story.

It also creates bonds among soldiers that have no counterpart in the civilian world. It pushes men and women to commit heroic acts and accomplish things they never believed possible. It takes them to places they never would have seen. It stops bad people from doing bad things to innocent people.

“War is hell,” wrote Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried, a collection of semi-autobiographical stories about Vietnam, “but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”

In his book, O'Brien enumerates the items soldiers toted as they “humped” from mission to mission in the Vietnamese jungle. Some were necessary – guns, grenades – others were talismanic – love letters, a girlfriend's pantyhose.

“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried,” he wrote.

This weight, both awesome and terrible, remains long after soldiers doff their uniforms.

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