Coming Home

A Guard unit struggles to get over its heavy losses.

They still lose sleep, still get antsy in a crowd, still flip out occasionally and bark at the next guy in line at Wal-Mart.

Three months after returning from Iraq, where six of their comrades were killed, several men from a hard-hit National Guard company based in Northeast Philadelphia say that, mostly, they are doing all right in adjusting to civilian life.

But coming home, though a joy and a relief, has had its burdens.

"I just haven't been feeling like the old Dave," said Sgt. David Jock, 33, of Oxford in rural Chester County. "The old Dave had a good sense of humor. My patience is not what it used to be. The amount of anxiety that has built up is incredible. I have never felt this way before. "

A whole new generation of American war veterans - more than 1.2 million - has emerged from the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The men of Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry were told upon returning to Fort Dix in late October that they, like combat veterans of all wars, would be apt to have at least some symptoms of post-combat stress. These can include sleeplessness, anxiety and panic, anger and irritability, a feeling of being emotionally cut off, and excessive drinking.

Unlike regular Army troops, who stay together as a unit after a tour of duty, guardsmen face the added stress of being cut loose all at once from military routines and buddies.

"There is nothing exciting; everything is kind of boring," said Jock, a small, lean, muscled man who has kept his red hair cropped close.

Jock said he was not ready to go back to his job as an emergency medical technician. He's not sure, right now, that he could deal with more blood and death.

Capt. Anthony Callum, the Alpha Company commander, said that since coming home "a few" of his 60 men had separated from the wives they had so longed to see. Others have phoned him feeling a little lost or adrift.

"I think the majority of them are adapting well," he said.

But with six deaths in their small unit, the men have wrestled with the meaning of their sacrifice.

"Before we left," Callum said, "I think a lot of our soldiers were questioning whether our whole deployment was worth it. "

A deadly August night

Spec. Robert Jackson was driving the last of four armored humvees mounted with machine guns. The small patrol had gone out to look for insurgents who had been taking potshots with mortars or rockets at the main highway near Beiji. It was after 11:30 p.m., Aug. 9, another 100-degree night in Iraq.

Only three days earlier, a bomb killed two Alpha Company soldiers coming back from a supply base.

Jackson recalled having "a really bad feeling" as he turned onto a back road with a dark open field to the right.

"We heard an explosion. The vehicle in front of me, I actually saw it explode and catch fire. All the shrapnel and dirt fell on my vehicle. "

Some survivors recalled rocket-propelled grenades whooshing overhead. Tracer bullets streaked like lightning bugs in the field. It was an ambush.

The Americans fired into the dark but couldn't see what they had hit. They never found the insurgents, who slipped away. But four of their own were dead.

Jackson, 36, a barber from North Philadelphia with a compact build and a soft-spoken manner, said the night would forever remain with him.

"I went through a numbing period for, like, two weeks. I didn't sleep at all. It was like my adrenaline was stuck in high gear. They gave me medicine. It didn't work. "

Five months later, the loss of his roommate, Spec. John Kulick, 35, still hurts the most, Jackson said. Kulick was a firefighter in Whitpain Township.

Jackson and Kulick had shared one of the steel boxes the size of shipping containers that the Army uses to house its troops in Iraq. After Kulick was killed, Jackson said, he turned his back to Kulick's side of the room and tried not to even look at it.

At home, he said, he prefers being alone. Divorced, with three children living elsewhere, he shares a rowhouse with two brothers whom he sees mostly coming and going on weekends.

During the week, he lives in a barracks at Fort Dix, where he is on "medical hold. " He has to stay around to see doctors. He has nagging injuries in his back, shoulder, knee and feet.

Being on base is good, he said. It helps him ease into civilian life. But he said he had no interest in making friends with his new roommate.

"I don't want to know anything about him," he said. "I don't want to open up. It's not anything against him; he's a nice guy. "

Old friends from home call and want to talk, Jackson said. But if he doesn't call back, they get angry.

Not long ago, he got into an argument with a SEPTA driver over a transfer pass. He had to get off the bus in order not to loose control of his anger. That wasn't like him, he said.

He and his old girlfriend have split up.

"It's kind of tough," he said of his adjustment. "It really is. I don't want to sound like someone who is weak. I'm the strong one; I'm the muscle in the family. "

Still, he said, he is optimistic. He has started seeing a Fort Dix therapist. He loves to laugh on the phone about fun times with Alpha Company pals, whom he will see when the unit reconvenes for the first time Feb. 10. He looks forward to getting back to work cutting hair and hopes to open his own shop.

Every week, a group of Vietnam veterans drops by at Fort Dix. They assure him he will make it.

The sole survivor

To the others, Sgt. Dan South is a walking miracle. Of the five soldiers riding in the patrol's third vehicle - shattered by a powerful bomb apparently laid for a tank - he alone survived that August night.

What's more, he survived with only perforated eardrums, a broken jaw, and other relatively minor injuries, most of which have healed.

"Look!" he said, pulling up the right sleeve of a T-shirt that said "Damn dirty hippies" on it.

The pale skin on the underside of his arm showed a leechlike black blotch and several smaller red spots from pebbles of shrapnel. "That's it," he said. "That's all I got. "

This was at lunchtime at Smith's Hotel, a taproom that serves cheesesteaks and hoagies in the Susquehanna River town of Columbia, Pa.

South, 23, who has grown a light-brown beard, lives with his parents across the river near York. His father is a Vietnam vet. South was a student at Millersville University before being called up for 18 months of Guard duty, including six months of training in Texas.

The explosion, which ripped apart his humvee, somehow catapulted him over a wall beside the road. He was found walking in a daze.

A chaplain later told him, "God has a plan for you. "

"I don't know if it's God or Allah or Buddha," South said, "but crazy stuff happens. It's just luck, chance. "

His friends say he is lucky in an additional way - not to have recurring visions of that night.

"I still don't remember anything," he said.

South said he and his girlfriend planned to move to Manayunk this spring so she could work in an area hospital. Like Jackson, he's not working at the moment but has Army pay saved up. He expects to enroll at West Chester University in the summer.

One emotion that troubles him is a sense of being closed in - a common feeling among soldiers who have served in areas where civilians may be hostile.

"Crowded places still freak me out pretty bad," he said.

When in a bar, South said, he instinctively looks for the exits.

Sometimes, he said, he has anxiety attacks.

"You just get the really intense feeling that something bad is going to happen. "

His girlfriend has told him, "You need to go see somebody. " But South said that he knew the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that, if he needed to, he would go to a counselor.

"I'm fine," he said.

Counseling and support

The military's recognition of the need to help veterans cope with stress has come a long way since Vietnam.

"One of the things we learned is that the longer you delay treatment, the worse things are," said Steven Silver, who heads the in-patient PTSD program at the Coatesville Veterans Hospital.

Anger, anxiety and other symptoms have affected "a significant percentage" of combat veterans throughout history, Silver said. "It's a treatable, curable condition," he said. Most soldiers get through it if they have support at home or professional care.

Guy Vanderpool, a Vietnam vet, advised Alpha troops during a weeklong decompression period at Fort Dix to take advantage of the counseling available from the Department of Veterans Affairs if they need it. Otherwise, he said, "you're going to end up like guys from the Vietnam era, walking down the street talking to themselves. "

Jock, the former emergency medical technician, who lives in a twin house with a small white porch, has taken that to heart. He has started seeing a therapist.

The night of Aug. 9 has been "an image that never goes away," he said. He and his wife, Susan, who were married just a year when he went away, have fought at times "like two civilizations clashing," he said. He yelled at a woman in line at Wal-Mart. He said Susan thought he was drinking maybe a little too much.

But he's making progress, he said. He and Susan are expecting a baby and are excited about that. He has been watching the beer, and has picked up something to do. He'll soon start a job at night as a security guard.

He wonders why six men had to die. He believes he did an important job as a company medic, helping others. On the big question of whether Alpha Company's sacrifice was worth it - that may have to await the judgment of history, he said.

His mother, Shirley Manfield, who talks to him daily on the phone from her home in Newark, Del., has taught him since he was a boy that it takes a strong man to cry.

"He's calmed down a little," his mother said. "I can see each day a little improvement. "

Each day, she said, she asks God to help him - to help all of the soldiers.

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Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.