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Fort Hood Press Center

"I feel like a ticking time bomb"

Svenska Dagbladet Foreign

(Rough Translation)

Daniel Kederstedt
Industry Reporter

Since the U.S. left Iraq, the 45,000 soldiers turned homeward. Many of them have days where they feel physically ill and isolated from the rest of society. The gap between the military and the civilians have never been greater in the U.S. than it is now.

FORT HOOD, Texas -- It was only when I took a stranglehold on my girlfriend that I realized I had a problem and I actually needed help.

Steven Schirmer stares blankly down on the floor but open his eyes again. All around the little room remains colleagues who try to pretend not to listen. There is an equally futile attempt to claim that a soldier can go unnoticed by a war. In this case, his long time feelings revealed themselves. Someone nodded in recognition to the silent words, another has stopped fingering his mobile phone. Self-inclined Steven Schirmer back in his chair to take a new batch.

-The incident happened after my first service. Since then I have been away two more times. But I still feel like a ticking bomb.

The 25-year-old soldier is not alone to carry on such feelings.

When the United States withdrew its troops from Iraq, most of the 45,000 soldiers flocked to military bases or cities that they are linked to. In this case, called the base Fort Hood and the City of Killeen - arguably something of a haven for returning soldiers.

-I try to talk a lot with my family but I expect they’ll never understand what I've been through. That's why I have these people, says Steven Schirmer.

The gap between the military and the rest of society has widened and has never been greater. The gap is clear.

Earlier Almost everyone in the United States knew someone who had served in the Vietnam War, among other things, but today the situation is more or less the opposite. More than a third of last year's recruits came from only five states - California, Texas, Florida, Georgia and New York. Soldiers now returning home are primarily of two states: North Carolina, home to the 82nd Airborne Division, and Texas, home to Fort Bliss and Fort Hood.


One of the biggest reasons for the change must be attributed to the military, which in recent decades has chosen to focus its activities in the country. Today, for example, 70 percent of all military personnel are in ten states. A clear majority of them also live in very "safe havens" such as Fort Hood, where the military dominates everyday life.

There are special schools for children whose parents are serving, special churches and hospitals for soldiers and their families. There is even bowling.

Killeen, Texas, is also characterized the landscape of huge populations that greet the soldiers home. There they have a never-ending stream of discounted offers. They also have an unusually large amount of tattoo facilities.

Dragon Lady Tattoos is where Chris Santos was struggling against the pain of the needle.

-Many of us want something to remember what happened, to remember those we have lost, says Chris Santos.

After having served in Iraq twice, his body is heavily tattooed. Among other things, his tattoos contain the so-called Soldiers Cross - a picture of a pair of boots, a rifle and a helmet. In addition, Chris Santos is wearing a bracelet to honor and remember the five friends who were killed in an attack in Iraq four years ago.

He and his friend had just finished a mission and were on their way home in two vehicles. Suddenly, when I sat down to run, Santos said. I see the car in front of me explode. I do not remember much more than that bodies and body parts were flying around in the air.

Santos whispered, almost resignedly, “Although it is easier to talk about the traumatic events now, the memories which I will never get rid of.”

He said he started waking up at night and hyperventilating, and suddenly imagined dangers in a mall. Santos then realized that he needed professional help to work through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Three years have passed since the attack in Iraq.

“I was afraid of having to confront it all again, having to remember,” Santos said. “But I could not continue as if nothing had happened.”

PTSD is common among soldiers serving in war. According to data from the U.S. Pentagon, more than 17,000 troops come home every year to the U.S. with clear symptoms of PTSD. Not every soldier developing PTSD in connection with their time at war will be identified through their return screenings,  says Jerry Welsch, PhD at Fort Hood. One of the reasons is, according to him, that symptoms usually appear several weeks after returning home and the tests had already been made. And, another is that there is a culture within the military where help can be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

“One of the first things we have to do is to get soldiers to not be ashamed because they want help, to make them understand that it is normal,” Welsch said. “But we have a small reception here and receive only twelve soldiers every three weeks. We are working more closely with them on the other hand, it means that we only have helped more than 570 soldiers so far,” said Welsch.

Exactly how many people have sought help at the base was not disclosed. But it clearly is a huge need. Almost all the people we talk to for the three days at Fort Hood mentions PTSD.

“No one who goes to war comes back to the same. It's impossible. But our task is to heal the soldiers as soon as we can to make them combat capable again,” said Welsch.

The problems doesn’t stop there. When the 45,000 soldiers assigned to Fort Hood return home, it means increased pressure on their respective families. Marrying a military member is in a sense as to become self-military, argues Welsch.

Something Aloha Valverde is ready to sign up for. When her husband came home to the U.S., daily life for her and her family changed radically.

“A lot is about them learning to cope with life in a different way. He has been through a lot and I have to try to get him back into the world where he belongs. The world with us here - not the life that was in Iraq. It's a constant struggle to get him to get into the everyday life,” she said.

The risk of Military Forces experiencing a feeling of not fitting in is imminent. And the consequences can be fatal.

The Report Center for A New American Security Suicide, which is filled with criticism of how the military addresses the soldiers' health, it appears that 1,868 veterans tried to kill themselves in 2009. This means a suicide attempt every 80 minutes.

Just the number of suicides for last year were the worst so far for the Defence Forces when 164 active soldiers took their lives, compared with 159 the previous year. One reason for the many suicides and attempts is that the soldiers have not been helped to work through their problems, says Lori Hurlebaus.

She is the manager of the café “Under The Hood” in Killeen who collects war opponents, both former military personnel deployed. One of the priorities is to identify the barriers that stand in the way that the soldiers should receive help and then try to drive them.

“We would particularly like to see an end to sending soldiers to war if they still suffer from psychological problems. You cannot justify such action,” said Lori Hurlebaus that is obviously disappointed at not being more involved in the matter.

“Society must engage in these issues. For how else can you expect a soldier to get back into society if no one understands, or even want to understand what the person has been through? It's impossible. In fact, it feels like much of society seems to ignore the fact that the U.S. is at war and what it means for those who have enlisted.”

Steven Schirmer knows exactly what the three rounds in Iraq has done to him – both physically and mentally.

“There are not many when I am not thinking about what I saw and what I've been through. Some people are filled with hatred when they think back, but I try to keep an open mind. I know I've got to know myself better, but also know people have my back. The first time I got home I suffered example of survival guilt, and I don’t do that anymore. In many situations it was I who should have died instead of one of my comrades.”

Meanwhile, Steven Schirmer has another problem. After nearly three years in Iraq, his body got used to being pumped full of adrenaline – A high where he doesn’t experience anymore.

“Bungee jumping or skydiving is not working,” he said. “What is the point? I know I will survive.”

Instead, Steven Schrimer turn to paintball. The conditions are in themselves the same there - he could not loose his life - but with the dust on the field and pace of the event gives him at least some of the feeling of being at war, triggering.

He said he devotes much of his spare time to computer games, usually with a clear focus on war and strategy.

Two trips to Iraq for Chris Santos left its mark in other ways, primarily in the form of a broken back, which means that medical retirement is only weeks away.

At age 32, he's ready to take his family to Las Vegas to start a new life. Although both physical and mental injuries for Chris Santos stand in the way of newspaper printing, which he left to enlist in the Army.

“I find it hard to walk, to get up out of bed sometimes but I'm too restless for not working. What worries me, however, is when I get back to a regular life, I will suddenly be surrounded by civilians. It means a significant difference to life in the military.

Chris Santos is certain he will face reluctance from the environment he’s headed to to listen to his stories. But he has also promised himself to try to be as open as is humanly possible about what he has experienced. To try to make people understand what the military does, and how military life affects them.

“Some people simply do not know, and everybody of course will do what they want,” he said. “But I will try to tell them about life in the military and how it is to be at war. There seems to be many people that don’t know about it anymore.”