The 182nd Infantry Regiment of the Army National Guard landed back in the U.S. in March, after a year-long deployment to Afghanistan. The unit returned home to Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
After two months of leave, however, their official transition time is over and the deployment paychecks have stopped. It’s now time to get back to regular life, and for the Massachusetts members that means a mandatory check-in with the unit’s leadership.
From Soldier To Civilian
Lt. Col. Tom Stewart — the commander of the 182nd — greeted his soldiers recently at a hotel ballroom in Boston. For most of them, it was the first time they’ve put on a uniform in months.
Some sat with families; wives, children and a few parents. Others cornered themselves off with their old squads. Units in the Army National Guard generally meet one weekend a month, two weeks a year for training. But this weekend is different.
The military created the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program in 2008, as a way to help guard and reserve members make the transition from soldier to civilian.
“You’ve had some time off, [and] now you’re ready to get back to the business of … getting your life back in order and moving on post-deployment,” says Maj. Michael Greene, who coordinates the Yellow Ribbon events for Massachusetts.
There are two big concerns facing returning guard members. First, there’s financial stability. The guard is a part-time job, so these soldiers need other work to support themselves and their families.
The second issue is psychological. After leaving home for a war zone, these soldiers have to learn how to relate to their families, and to live as civilians again. Guard officials say now that these troops have been home for a while and had a chance to decompress, that this is actually when things start to get hard.
Finding Civilian Work
The day before the Yellow Ribbon event, Spc. Brian Cannava, a member of the unit, prepped for a job interview at his home in the small town of Shirley, Mass. Cannava started looking for a job while deployed with the 182nd in Afghanistan. Now that he’s home he’s going on interviews.
Unlike a lot of his fellow soldiers, Cannava has been frugal with his military pay and he’s saved up a financial cushion. So at this point, he thinks he can afford to be picky about what job he takes.
Cannava was interviewing for a position he heard about at a veterans job fair as a financial advisor, but he’s not sure he even wants the job.
“I don’t know why I’m going. I guess just to entertain the idea,” Cannava says. “I guess that’s why I’m not nervous.”
Cannava knows he needs a job since he has 9-year-old son with diabetes. There are medical bills to pay, let alone basic living expenses. But there’s a sense of apathy hanging over him and it’s hard to think about taking a desk job after being in a war zone.
“That’s part of the reason I don’t want to do a regular job like financial advisor,” he says. “I don’t get pumped up … I haven’t really been pumped up since I’ve been home.”
After the interview, Cannava is a little more energized and says he’s going to go back, check out the office and see if they can sell him on working there.
In some ways the job search is a helpful distraction from the culture shock of coming home. Cannava is separated from his son’s mom and they share custody, so Cannava has set up an extra room for when he sleeps over. But most of the time, he’s alone.
“The first like, week or so, it was kind of awesome,” he says. “[But] when you’re by yourself for a longer period of time … [you] kind of like, miss having people around. So, it’s kind of lonely, I guess.”
That’s the other big pillar of the Yellow Ribbon program. Besides the financial issues, there’s also the far more personal side of making this transition and helping the soldiers learn how to be back home again.
Re-Learning To Communicate
For some soldiers the Yellow Ribbon event is just about ticking a box. Others take advantage of the resources offered like free acupuncture, seminars on networking and even relationship counseling.
At the event in Boston, Dr. Justin Hill, a psychologist at the Boston VA in Jamaica Plain, led a therapy seminar for couples in a small conference room at the hotel. He stands in front of about a half-dozen couples.
“We’re not going to get too touchy feely in here, we’re going to be talking more about how to talk to one another and how to identify what feelings are actually going on,” Hill says.
Maj. Matthew Porter attended the seminar with his wife Jennifer, and their 3-month-old daughter. Some of the problems they face are universal, like communication.
“Her method of dealing with a fight is we’ll fight about it a little bit, and then she goes into a silent treatment,” Matthew Porter says. “That angers me, because I want to work it out.”
Dr. Hill says some problems are directly linked to the deployment, including comparing the small problems of everyday life to being in a life-threatening situation like a war zone.
“That can be very invalidating to your significant other,” he says.
Only a handful of couples decided to go to the seminar, so Matthew and Jennifer Porter are the exception. After the session, they say most families in the 182nd will end up grappling with their problems behind closed doors.
“It’s hard,” says Jennifer Porter. “You don’t realize people are going through the same thing. It’s more private.”
‘What Do I Do Now?’
The Porters are taking steps to keep their marriage healthy, but other families didn’t survive the deployment.
When Sgt. Paul Cruwys went overseas, he was engaged and had a young son. The stress of the separation caused constant arguments between him and his fiancé, and when he came back, the fighting didn’t stop.
“We just woke up one day and decided we should really [part], for the benefit of our son, not to fight around him,” Cruwys says. “It wasn’t working out, so we decided to call it quits. So it was like, ‘what do I do now?’”
That’s the question a lot of soldiers are asking themselves right now. They can get some guidance at the Yellow Ribbon event, but after the weekend seminar they’re kind of on their own.
Maj. Michael Greene says at least the soldiers at the event are getting some help.
“But where are they in 2014, 2015 [and] 2016, when maybe we don’t have a deployment?” Greene says. “Well, there’s no Yellow Ribbon program for three years after you deploy.”
The Guard is counting on informal bonds in the unit: unit members staying in touch and spouses or parents checking in with each other. The problem is that those informal links are about to get even more informal.
The 182nd that deployed to Afghanistan won’t exist in the same way much longer and some soldiers are leaving to join other units; they’re moving out of the state or dropping out of the military entirely.
As for Spc. Brian Cannava, he didn’t end up taking the financial advisor job. He’s still keeping his options open, and part of him wants to renew his Army contract and just re-deploy.