200,000 troops re-enter civilian life each year
When Bob Curry came home from Vietnam, he stepped off the bus into a crowd of Americans shouting “baby killer” and throwing chicken guts. When Joe Naylor came home from Iraq in the dark hours before dawn, strangers from the local American Legion waited in the airport tunnel with cell phones so the incoming veterans could call their families. After three tours in Afghanistan, Seth Bruce drove straight from his last day of active duty to his first day at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Jennifer Sluga also went to college after her deployment to Kosovo, determined to earn her counseling degree and help other survivors of military sexual assault.
These local residents are four of about 20 million veterans living in the United States today—an estimated 375,000 in Wisconsin and 26,237 in Dane County. Throughout the years and through changing times, veterans have come home in different ways. Some got parades. Some quietly slipped back into families that no longer recognized them, into communities that couldn’t possibly comprehend where they’d been or what they’d seen. Most had wounds, but only some wounds were visible.
Many transitioned into service jobs—police, fire, EMT, counseling, veterans’ affairs, outreach—because once that mission to serve is ingrained, it’s embedded forever. Some became outspoken advocates for veterans. Some never said a word about their service again.
Curry, Naylor, Bruce and Sluga do not claim to speak for all veterans, but they have chosen to share their personal stories—what it’s been like to serve during a shifting U.S. military landscape, the challenges they’ve faced and the support they’ve found—to help keep veteran issues at the forefront.
The number of World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans is declining, but new veterans are coming home every day. Over the past 16 years, 2.7 million service members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest foreign conflict in U.S. history. There are currently 200,000 active duty U.S. troops stationed in 177 countries. Wisconsin has 15,504 military and reserve personnel on active duty statewide; just this August, 270 airmen from the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing left Madison for Korea. American schoolchildren younger than 17 haven’t lived a moment when their country wasn’t at war, between the five official operations and multiple missions since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Bruce, who was in fourth grade on 9/11 and comes from multiple generations of service members, went on to fight in the same conflict his stepfather fought in. Others will serve in a war that essentially started before they were born.
Although care for veterans has evolved and there are more resources, both government and grassroots, than ever before, the system is not without its serious challenges. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, started in 1930 and structured to serve large numbers of veterans from wars that were much different than today’s, suffers from public scrutiny over long wait times, budget shortfalls, controversy over privatization and federal funding cuts, like those forcing the closure of two Wisconsin veterans’ homes by the end of this year. America has fewer boots on the ground than in previous wars (16 million served in World War II, 9 million throughout the Vietnam era), but advances in technology and medicine translate to more troops making it home, and with more complex health care needs. Of those 2.7 million service members, 970,000 have some degree of officially recognized disability status, and more than half have deployed more than once.
“We’re creating more veterans with disabilities, more families with hardships. Some of these soldiers have been overseas three, four, five times,” says David Kurtz, department adjutant for the American Legion Department of Wisconsin. They’re subjected to stress that extends from the combat zone to the home front, rippling through generations of families. For veterans returning home and the families that support them, just getting through the day can be hard enough without the added burden of seeking help for something they may not even recognize.
“We see these young people coming back from service in Iraq and Afghanistan and they have unique needs they’re not even conscious of because of this mental conditioning in the military,” says Kurtz. “You adapt, you innovate, you overcome, you don’t admit weakness. You soldier on.”
In the recurring dream that Joe Naylor has had at least once a month for the past 13 years, he makes it all the way back to Iraq before he wakes up. Though some details change, the idea is always the same: Uniformed military personnel show up with the news he’s redeploying. He gears up and boards the plane. Steps into Iraq and onto a tank. Rolls out.
“I very rarely have flashbacks or waking nightmares,” says Naylor, who remained on inactive reserve for three and a half years after his first four and a half years of active duty with the U.S. Army, and completed his service commitment in 2008. “My nightmare is about going back.”
In September 2000, Naylor spent his 21st birthday on a bus to Fort Benning in Georgia, headed into the Army after experimenting with college and work at the local steel mill. He was no stranger to service; his dad, Dan Naylor, was a Vietnam-era military policeman who helped start Vets House in Madison (a precursor to Madison Vet Center), ran an alcohol and drug treatment facility for veterans in Minocqua and moved his family to Waupaca, where he serves on numerous boards at nearby King Veterans Homes and has spent more than 40 years in human services; Naylor and his siblings had grown up volunteering with veterans, particularly those who struggled.
“I was 6, 7, 8, 9 years old, so that responsibility was ingrained,” says Naylor. “My parents did a wonderful job of giving back to the community, and they included us in that.”
Although his father was proud of his service, he didn’t talk much about it—until one night when Naylor was feeling uncertain about his future. His dad told him that of all his accomplishments, he was most proud of his military service because it offered him purpose. The next morning Naylor enlisted. By April 2001, he was a medic stationed in Korea, and his little sister Laura, who wanted to be a teacher, had just joined the Army National Guard to pay for college. Then, the attacks. She was called up first, in 2003, to Baghdad; he a few months after, to Ramadi, Iraq.
“I remember getting [a pack of] MGD and going back to the barracks and sitting there trying to come to grips with the fact that I was being deployed, and having to tell my parents that, knowing that my sister was already in the middle of it in Baghdad,” says Naylor, who worried even more about the impact on his brother, Laura’s twin, Andy, who was still in college. (Andy Naylor is now a mental health liaison officer with the Madison Police Department.) In Iraq, Naylor’s platoon completed more than 300 combat missions in the first six months, and engaged in humanitarian work, too.
“We felt like we were making connections and strengthening relationships between the Iraqi people,” says Naylor. Then the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was revealed, and overall attitudes toward American soldiers changed. In response, America released prisoners—in Naylor’s view, the same people his comrades had died capturing. Multiple times Naylor and his sister’s deployments were extended, Naylor’s often at the last minute with little to no warning. Naylor hitchhiked on American military convoys to Baghdad so he could be with his sister on Christmas, spending four days with her and her fellow soldiers from the 32nd MPs. Some of them, he says, were the “toughest women I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Ultimately, he served in Iraq six months longer than expected, and she was deployed there 16 months. By December 2004, both were back home with their grateful families—a support system Naylor says made all the difference. He’d also crossed paths with a former high school classmate, Tasha, who crashed a wedding he was attending while on leave. Eleven years of marriage to Tasha and two kids later, Naylor is clear that not all veterans do as well as he has. Without his family, the transition would have been so much harder.
“You’re cranked up for so long, this hypervigilance. There’s a certain level of anxiety that I’ll always carry with me,” he says. Today, he helps other veterans through his job as Veteran Health Education and Outreach Coordinator at the Madison VA, and through numerous volunteer efforts aimed at supporting veterans, including an annual golf benefit. “One tour changes a person,” says Naylor. “I can’t imagine some of these service members with three tours, four tours.”
On a dazzling fall day in 2014, U.S. Army veteran Seth Bruce rolled up to Union South on his motorcycle for freshman orientation at UW–Madison. Windblown and wild-eyed in his ripped T-shirt and combat boots, the 22-year-old joined his fellow incoming freshmen in their flip-flops and sundresses, their head-to-toe Badger red. There was a weird energy about him, though his cohorts couldn’t name it. The uneasy fathers of the 18-year-old girls he’d been assigned to sit next to stood up and switched places with their daughters to flank him.
“I don’t talk much about my experience, and it’s not because it’s a sore subject to me,” he says. “It’s just not a good intro conversation. Any sort of normal, casual, flowy conversation goes out the window when you’re talking to an 18-year-old that is experiencing life outside of the home for the first time, and you say, ‘Hey, by 19, I’d been blown up three times.'”
For two days, the group learned about campus safety. They learned how to use their meal cards in the dining hall, and about the challenges of transitioning to college life. But Bruce was navigating the challenges of transitioning from three deployments to Afghanistan in the past four years. At that point, Bruce had endured so many explosions that he suffered a traumatic brain injury. He was out of the Army now for good, having just driven his truck packed with his motorcycle and all his belongings straight from base camp in Georgia to Wisconsin. He’d managed to score an impressive 31 on the ACT he took in Afghanistan, and his last day of active duty technically would be his first day of college, Sept. 1. It marked four long years since finishing high school with a 3.96 cumulative GPA. By the time his cohorts sang “Varsity” together at the end of orientation that second day, he found himself feeling outside the circle, and not for the last time.
“And I’m like, I don’t even want to be here anymore,” he says, then laughs, admitting: “I totally deserved it. I was a nutjob when I got out of the military and didn’t really understand social contracts and social faux pas and stuff.” Although he jokes about it today, it’s been rough acclimating to college and civilian life while managing his brain injury and its side effects, like depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and memory loss, or just remembering how to behave in society.
“When it comes time for you to say I’m done, I’m getting out, there’s certain things that don’t fly in the civilian world,” says Bruce, like “when you can’t be as direct with people.” Skills that kept him alive and became second nature overseas no longer applied to professional or interpersonal situations back home. It’s tough, but, he says, “Ultimately, it was something that I wanted to do for my country, because I love living here. I love America. I love the idea of ‘you do you, as long as you don’t hurt anybody else.’ And so I wanted to stick up for that.”
Bruce is doing much better now, thanks to a therapist utilizing dialectical behavior therapy at the Madison VA, the Student Veterans Group on campus, and two “awesome” fellow veterans on campus, John Bechtol and Joe Rasmussen. Together, Bechtol and Rasmussen created UW–Madison’s first Veterans Services & Military Assistance Center in 2014 and have gone to bat for Bruce multiple times. Most of his fellow students still have no idea what he’s been through—even his girlfriend didn’t know he’d been to war until several dates in—but he hopes speaking up will help others like him.
“You really do need advocacy for veterans,” says 25-year-old Bruce, who says he would not be as successful today without the therapy he received. “Because the last thing a veteran is going to do is go to bat for themselves.”
Although some veterans may struggle with the idea of benefits, they have earned them. A veteran is entitled—to a paid college education, among forms of aid—and only about 70 percent of eligible students at UW–Madison are currently using them. In the 2016-17 school year, Rasmussen and Bechtol helped 702 students navigate the 11 federal and state financial aid programs available to active duty military personnel, veterans and veteran-dependents.
Although not an official “center” (Bechtol and Rasmussen are independent staff members who work together in a corner of the registrar’s office with an annual operating budget of $3,800), it processed 2,200 benefits transactions last year alone. They say that despite the evidence of military tradition all around them—Memorial Union, Camp Randall, the Red Gym, for starters—most students and faculty on campus don’t realize the person sitting next to them in class might be a veteran.
“We have students coming in and off active duty that just got back from putting bombs on aircraft, working 20-hour days. People on campus, they have no idea that we have troops overseas in all these places,” says Bechtol. Not only that, adds Rasmussen, they could get called up again at any time.
“Can you imagine stopping school in the midst of your junior year to go on deployment for a year?” says Rasmussen. “I mean, that’s crazy. And people don’t appreciate that.”
That’s how it went for Jennifer Sluga, who’d just finished her first year of college when she received notice that in 10 days she’d be deploying to Kosovo for 16 months. She’d only boarded the first airplane of her life a year and a half earlier, in 2005, when she’d flown to basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina at the age of 17. Raised in a single-parent household in rural Wisconsin with little money or prospects, Sluga was a “little town chick” who’d always wanted to see the world. The U.S. Army, with its $10,000 signing bonus and promise of paid college tuition, seemed like it was just the ticket.
“I was really excited to be part of something bigger,” she says. “Coming from a small town, it just felt like for once I had an extension of my family. These people are your battle buddies, they’re your brothers and your sisters, and that was really, really cool.”
Three weeks into basic training, Sluga felt as if her body was “ripping completely apart” due to the extremely rigorous workouts. She gave in and visited the sick call medic—who sexually assaulted her.
“I’m a pretty big advocate for myself,” says Sluga, who immediately reported the assault to her chain of command. Her drill sergeants moved quickly and the medic was discharged from the service with a bad conduct discharge after court martial, according to a military court report.
Sluga says during the trial that the medic admitted to assaulting other patients prior to Sluga’s attack. The Army’s support through her ordeal only strengthened her bond with her battle buddies, but she’d soon learn that her positive experience in the wake of military sexual assault was not typical.
“Growing up in a small town, I knew that sexual trauma was an issue even outside the military,” says Sluga. She decided to stay, completing advanced individualized training, then returning home to college until she was called to Kosovo. Sluga experienced the Serbian and Albanian cultures and volunteered to teach English at several schools. She also “sat in a cage for 16 months” guarding the weapons and ammunitions room, where she was regularly visited by “at least 20” males and females who’d also been sexually assaulted while serving. According to Department of Defense annual reports, 14,900 service members (8,600 women and 6,300 men) were sexually assaulted in 2016. Most more than once, resulting in more than 70,000 assaults that same year.
Although Sluga felt powerless to help her fellow service members then, she has since made a career out of supporting them. She came home in November 2007 and enrolled in the spring semester at UW–Madison, ultimately earning a three-year master’s degree in counseling. She also worked with Bechtol, before the center’s formation, on a failed grant proposal to create an academic adviser solely for military service members. The former straight-A student struggled with reentry so much that she nearly flunked out.
“That’s when I started finally going in and getting counseling and trying to take care of myself,” says Sluga, who is now a therapist at the Madison Vet Center, which is part of the Veterans Health Administration. But it didn’t start out that way. The original Vet Centers sprung up nationwide in the 1970s, created by Vietnam veterans who did not trust the VA and opted for peer-to-peer support instead. By congressional order, the majority of Vet Centers’ staff must be veterans, says Sluga. “Here in the Madison Vet Center, 100 percent of us are veterans.”
This is a big deal in part because the bond built among service personnel is so strong—amid life and death situations—that its absence can create a void larger than anything experienced before.
“I tell my clients that yes, I’m your therapist, but I’m also your battle buddy,” says Sluga, who was named 2014 Wisconsin Woman Veteran of the Year by Gov. Scott Walker. “And so it allows me to continue serving. Because I don’t think any veteran ever gets out of the uniform and says, ‘I’m done serving my country.'”
There were no Veteran of the Year ceremonies when Bob Curry came home from Vietnam in 1971. No vet centers providing veteran-led therapy, no veterans helping students on campus. Just those protesters hurling chicken guts and chanting “baby killer” that prompted him to run into the bathroom at the Seattle airport, stuff his uniform in the garbage can and his emotions along with it. He went to college in Milwaukee, married his high school sweetheart, started a family and built a corporate career. He was also suffering flashbacks, waking up to find himself outside crawling in ditches, and getting tickets for drunken driving.
“My wife said ‘Go to the VA and get help,’ and I looked at her and said, ‘I have all my parts.’ Because I truly believed that I had to be physically injured to go to the VA for help,” says Curry. “This alcohol, this mental stuff, I didn’t even know that was a real injury. So I didn’t.”
Of the 2.6 million Americans who fought in direct combat in Vietnam, 58,220 died—and thousands more took their own lives or went to jail. To this day, of the 22 veterans who commit suicide daily in the U.S., 69 percent are age 50 or older—in other words, the majority are Vietnam-era veterans who died by suicide decades after service. Curry kept it mostly together until the Gulf War in the 1990s triggered his PTSD, and he battled his demons alone until 2002, when he drove drunk and killed someone.
“I can’t express that feeling. You realize the monster that you have become is real, and now it’s reached out and affected other people. Not only did I destroy this other family, I destroyed mine,” he says. “And so I went away to jail and tried committing suicide that night.”
The attempt failed, and six months later Curry was found not guilty by jury trial for PTSD-related mental disease or defect. Believing that he was worth saving took far longer, and he says he owes his life today to those early veterans who raised his bail, put him in treatment, connected him with a VA doctor who understood PTSD and took him to Veterans of Foreign Wars posts to socialize with other vets. Slowly, he learned he wasn’t alone—far from it, in fact.
“When a person goes over to combat, whether it was World War II or nowadays, they change,” says Curry. “And that’s normal.”
Curry began to change for the better. He worked to stay sober, and helped advocate to bring veterans’ treatment courts to Milwaukee (there are now 220 such courts across the country, including in Dane County, started by circuit judge David Flanagan in 2014). In 2010, he founded Dryhootch in Milwaukee, and in Madison in 2012. Dryhootch is a nonprofit retail coffee shop run by and for veterans where they can gather informally or in support groups in a “safe, comfortable, drug-and alcohol-free environment.” The public can purchase specialty coffee flavors such as Marine Mud or Navy Destroyer, and vets of all eras and backgrounds can sit together and talk—or not.
Today, Curry accompanies reluctant vets to the VA or connects them with other community partners, such as NAMI and Mental Health America, he has piloted a program for family members of veterans and ultimately he hopes to help normalize and destigmatize what veterans go through.
“There is hope, and there is help out there. Whether a certain individual is going to get the help, that’s always the million-dollar question,” says Curry. “But if they do, chances are they can live a much better life. Not only for them, but for everybody they touch.”
The VA is aware it isn’t reaching every veteran. Of the nearly 22 million vets in this country, only “about nine million of those have signed up for VA care,” says Madison VA hospital director John Rohrer. “So we certainly could do better.” It may be that some vets still don’t trust the system; others may not realize the breadth of resources offered.
“They do tell us, ‘Gee, I didn’t know about that, I didn’t know you had that available,'” adds chief of staff Dr. Alan Bridges. “So there’s no question there’s a gap between what we can provide and sometimes what they’re aware of.”
Madison VA Hospital & Clinics, which covers 15 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties and five counties in Illinois, served 43,360 veterans in 2016. Despite the challenges plaguing VAs nationwide, Madison is generally recognized as a leader in all-around patient care, due in large part to its shared staff with University Hospital. It’s one of only a handful of “quaternary care” hospitals in the United States (quaternary care is considered the rare fourth level beyond primary, secondary and tertiary, in which advanced levels of highly specialized medicine, surgery and research are practiced), and one of only four of the 145 VA hospitals in the U.S. to earn “magnet recognition,” a credentialed recognition for excellence in nursing leadership and outstanding patient care that only eight other hospitals in Wisconsin can claim. In the wake of a 2014 federal VA audit revealing the worst wait times in Wisconsin (an average of 51 days for a new patient primary care visit), Madison’s VA undertook $11.4 million in improvements, including a new intensive care unit, a women’s clinic, a call center and expanded roles for advanced practice nurses.
But it’s the “wraparound” services that have really evolved. They include residential treatment services, veteran justice outreach, homeless initiatives and compensated work therapy programs. In the past 10 years, Madison’s VA has more than doubled its mental health staff, now providing 18 mental health programs including military sexual trauma, suicide prevention, a PTSD clinical team and same-day access.
“If a primary care physician realizes [the veteran] requires some kind of mental health assistance, they will walk out of the room and go get a mental health provider and bring them into the room,” says Rohrer. At the Madison VA, the average wait for primary care is now 5.15 days and mental health is 1.56 days—with same-day access when it’s clinically indicated. (In the civilian health care sector nationwide, the average wait for both primary care and mental health appointments is up to 25 days.)
One of the most notable new programs is the My Life, My Story project led by Thor Ringler, who has an MFA in poetry and is fulfilling training hours to become a licensed marriage and family counselor. Ringler, who is not a veteran, took a temporary grant-funded position at the VA in 2013 to spearhead a pilot project collecting veterans’ life stories for their medical files. He interviews veterans during their VA visits, then rewrites the stories into narratives that can be shared with medical staff and the veterans’ families. The program has been so successful that it’s now in 15 other VA hospitals across the country, and Ringler’s team (which includes 15 volunteers from the community) has collected 1,425 stories so far.
“I open up every one of my town hall meetings with my staff by having Thor get up and read one of those,” says Rohrer. Bridges adds that the VA hopes to expand the project into creating individualized whole-care plans for each veteran. According to Sluga, Ringler’s project has prompted veterans to get counseling at Madison Vet Center for the first time, because it feels better than they expected to finally talk about their experiences. Ringler says working with so many veterans has profoundly changed his view of service.
“It’s a really complicated, diverse, huge population, where there’s just so much diversity of experience,” says Ringler. But there are key commonalities: Family is most important, and the idea of service runs bone-deep. While there’s an understandable divide between those who’ve experienced military service and those who haven’t, both within the VA and out in the world, people ultimately want the same things.
“The human story is really what these are all about, in the end,” says Ringler. “The most important thing is the sense of connection.”
Curry shares his story today because, although you don’t hear of any hostile welcome committees anymore, veterans are still coming home and stuffing their experiences. Bruce shares his story because he knows how dark it can get, and that it doesn’t have to. Sluga shares her story because she will never stop being there for her battle buddies. Naylor shares his story because he understands that complicated mix of pride in one’s service and inability to trust the systems in place to support veterans.
“It’s about connecting. Veterans helping other veterans. I’ll meet them at the front door of the VA, and I’ll walk them right through the whole process,” says Naylor. “What’s the public’s responsibility? I’d encourage them to educate themselves and realize that we’re still in this fight. There’s still veterans coming home to Wisconsin in large numbers. And we need to support them.”
Maggie Ginsberg is a senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.
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