Soldier-to-civilian transition rough

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The "Support our Troops" signs are starting to fade from spring rains, television attention has shifted from 24-hour coverage of the war in Iraq to regular programming and the first rotation of soldiers are on their way home.

For many, the transition into civilian life will be easy. Their old jobs will be waiting. Their families will be supportive. For others, the hardest battles of the war will be fought from the peace and safety of their hometowns, as they struggle quietly with their memories.

"When they come back, they go through psychological debriefings to help them understand where they just came from and to help them deal with post traumatic stress disorder," Routt County Veterans Affairs Service Officer Michael Condie said.

The transition from life as a soldier to life as a civilian can be a hard one, and Condie knows it firsthand.

A veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Condie didn't go to fireworks displays for two years after he got back and even today doesn't like the sound of snow-making machines.

"It sounds like the burning oil wells -- that muted roar," Condie said.

He was 39 when he went to Kuwait. He had served in the Marines for 20 years, but it was his first war. He stayed stateside during Vietnam, serving as a military police officer.

Condie flew into Saudi Arabia on Dec. 30, 1990, as the first sergeant for a Marine light-armored infantry company. He returned home in April 1991. It was only five months on the calendar, but in the desert it felt like an eternity of dodging artillery and rockets.

Condie returned to his life in Southern California with the mind of a soldier trying to fit back into the life of a civilian.

His dog was dead. His job was gone. He had no family, no house and both of his feet were broken from jumping into a foxhole during an attack.

Over the next year, he needed two surgeries on his right foot and one surgery on his left to repair the damage.

"When I got back, I took a left turn out of that parking lot and just went on with my life," he said. Like most service men and women, Condie chose not to dwell on what had he had seen in the gulf war.

To any family welcoming the next batch of veterans home, he suggests "don't ask them things about what took place over there. If they want to talk about it, they will."

Any veterans in need of psychological care are referred by Veterans Affairs to Steamboat Mental Health Center.

"We typically find, with retired soldiers, they are experiencing a lot of trauma from being in war," program director Tom Gangel said. "We take it slow and let them go at their own pace without inputting our own feelings about the war.

"It can be a difficult transition. They were trained to kill people and then they are supposed to come back and be the same way they were before with their family," Gangel said.

The best therapy for a veteran, Gangel said, is to be around others who went through a similar experience.

"They don't even have to talk," he said. "They just need to know that they are OK."

All veterans are going to be affected, Gangel said. It's the ones who don't feel depressed or hyped up that he worries most about.

"They should expect depression and moodiness," he said. "Don't fight the symptoms."

Gangel agrees with Condie that family members should not force the returned veteran to talk, "even if you're incredibly curious," he said.

News cameraman Joe Klimovitz returned from Iraq a couple of weeks ago after being embedded with a Marine unit for NBC. He keeps in touch with the families of several Marines he traveled with.

The soldiers he met were 18 to 21 years old.

"They were fighting on the front lines," he said. "They saw their friends die. I would hear them talk about it. They didn't know if they were going to live through the war to see their families again."

Local soldiers will leave the sand, heat and danger of the Iraqi desert for the melting snow of the Yampa Valley.

"It's going to be a hard transition," Klimovitz said.

Condie's job at Veterans Affairs is to help veterans get back into civilian life, a job he takes very seriously because of his past.

Of the estimated 1,700 veterans in Routt County, only a small percentage use Condie's services.

"Most vets wait until they are old and falling apart before they come to Veterans Affairs," he said. Before veterans return to civilian life, they take a government-sponsored 'separations' course, which explains the health benefits and college money they have earned.

"When I took the course in 1975, it went in one ear, gained speed, and went out the other ear," Condie said. "My advice is: Don't wait. Take advantage now."

Condie said older veterans are not being cared for properly and that sends a message to new veterans.

"We have a new crop of veterans, but we are not taking care of the older vets," Condie said. "The young ones are going to look at how the older vets are treated and use it as a (gauge) to define how much the government values them."

In Colorado, there are three VA hospitals -- in Grand Junction, Pueblo and Denver. If any of Routt County's veterans require medical care, they must travel 185 miles one way.

Transportation provided by the hospital in Grand Junction does not go outside of Mesa County, Condie said.

Condie calls veterans "the silent minority."

"They do their jobs and hope their legislators will help them," he said.

But with a multibillion dollar price tag on the war in Iraq, little money seems to be left for the veterans back home.

To get veterans to Grand Junction, Condie had to apply for a $6,000 grant because there was no money in his budget. He uses the money to rent a van and hire a veteran to drive. The van stops in Steamboat, Hayden, Craig and Meeker and returns the same day.

Condie hoped to set up a contract with a closer hospital to provide services for area veterans. The hospitals were interested, but Veterans Affairs was not, he said.

"Heroes today. Forgotten tomorrow," Condie said.

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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