Home Front: 'Citizen Soldiers' Start A Transition
A few days ago, a plane carrying members of the 182nd Infantry Regiment touched down in Indiana. The 303 soldiers who were on board are members of an Army National Guard unit that has just finished a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
The soldiers, dressed in their combat uniforms and carrying their weapons, bounded down the stairs from the plane. They shook the hands of the generals who had gathered there to welcome them home. It was the middle of the night and raining, but none of them seemed to mind. It had been a long trip and a long year.
Trying To Cope
For the past decade, the National Guard has been called on to be a major part of the fighting force both in Iraq and Afghanistan. These so called "citizen soldiers" have deployed to the war zones multiple times, leaving families and careers behind.
Now, as the wars draw down, many Guard soldiers are facing new challenges. They don't have the same level of resources or support networks that active duty soldiers have when making the transition back to civilian life.
And their transition can be a rough one — sometimes they don't have a job to come back to, family dynamics have changed — and some end up trying to go back to the war zone as quickly as possible as a way to cope. Others don't cope at all. According to the Pentagon, the suicide rate among National Guard soldiers is higher than the active-duty force.
The 182nd Infantry Regiment is based in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but before the soldiers return home, they go to Camp Atterbury, Ind., for what's called the demobilization process. The process consists of seven to 10 days of medical screenings, behavioral health assessments and lots of briefings.
Soldiers are told how to maximize their military benefits. They are given advice on how to find jobs if they don't have them, and there are conversations about how to navigate changes in their personal lives — a divorce, a death, coming home to a family that may not understand what they have just been through.
Most soldiers here are counting the days, even the hours, until they can fly home and see their families — and restart their lives. Others are more reticent. The experience they have had has changed them. And while they want to go home, they are afraid to leave behind the strange sense of security — the strong bonds of camaraderie that they have developed in the war zone.
Members of the 182nd "Yankee Division," as they're called, will leave Camp Atterbury and return to New England sometime next week. Their families will meet them at the airport, and that will begin the next chapter.
SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:
A few days ago, a plane carrying members of the 182nd Infantry Regiment touched down in Indiana.
(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE)
STAMBERG: This regiment of the Army National Guard has just finished up a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, and over the next year, WEEKEND EDITION will be spending time with the 182nd as they make the transition from soldiers to civilians. It's a series that we are calling Home Front. WEEKEND EDITION host Rachel Martin is with the 182nd, and she joins us from Camp Atterbury in Indiana. Good morning, Rachel.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Susan.
STAMBERG: You were there when these soldiers landed on American soil. Describe what the scene was like.
MARTIN: Well, Susan, it was a rainy night and the flight got in around 2:30 in the morning. And what was so striking to me was how unscripted this event felt. There was no time to kind of think about how to present themselves. They just bounded down the stairs of the airplane. And they seemed to be taken off-guard by the fact that there were two generals at the foot of the stairs, at the bottom there to greet them. And most of the soldiers just grinned widely. The generals gave them a warm handshake or a hug and told them welcome home.
STAMBERG: Well, that deployment is over but they're not really home home yet. What are they doing while they're in Indiana there?
MARTIN: Well, this unit is based out of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but whenever a military unit comes home from the war zone, they have to go through what is called the demobilization process. They have about seven to ten days to go through a whole bunch of medical screenings. They learn about all of their different benefits. And also, you know, if there were concerns about a certain soldier, he or she would be able to get a mental health assessment to make sure that they are healthy enough to go back to their families.
STAMBERG: What can you tell us about these soldiers? Obviously, they're really looking forward to getting home.
MARTIN: That's right. And they understand that this transition time is important, but some of them see it as an obstacle. They just want to get it over with. And this is a risk, because commanding officers are always trying to reinforce to them: this is the time when you really need to pay attention. You need to take stock, understand what we're trying to teach you about ways to cope in the next year, because it could be difficult.
And I did speak with one soldier who said that he's actually pretty nervous about going home, and he's afraid that it may take a while to reconnect with what is supposed to be normal life. But right now, that normal civilian life back home is what feels a little foreign to him. And that's one of the issues that we're going to be looking at during the series; how these soldiers, how these guardsmen are reintegrating with their families.
STAMBERG: Well, you will be spending a lot of time this year with the 182nd. Why this particular unit?
MARTIN: We wanted to focus in on the National Guard. The Guard has been stretched thin during the past 10 years of war in Afghanistan, in Iraq. It used to be that signing up for the Guard meant doing your monthly training exercises and then going on with your life. That's not the case anymore. The Guard has been called on to be a major part of the regular fighting force. And the difference is that these soldiers, unlike active duty, they don't go back to military bases where they might have built-in network of support. They go back to being a regular civilian, and that can be difficult. They don't have the same level of support as their active duty counterparts. We talked with General John Hammonds of the 182nd that night that the flight came in, and here's what he had to say:
GENERAL JOHN HAMMONDS: The active duty folks will go home and they're in their community. When we go home, they may be the only soldier from their town that was in Afghanistan, you know what I mean? And their support network isn't in place anymore.
MARTIN: We should also note, Susan, the 182nd is the oldest National Guard regiment in the country, has a long history. A lot of generations of families have been part of this Guard unit. So, our series will give us a chance to explore all kinds of issues that this latest generation is facing as they come home from war and try to restart their lives back home over the next year.
STAMBERG: WEEKEND EDITION host Rachel Martin. You can learn more about this new series, Home Front, at NPR.org. Thanks again.
MARTIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.