A young veteran of the National Guard drove home alone on Independence Day.
As he made his way down Route HH on the outskirts of Columbia, the night sky burst open in lights like flares from a looming helicopter. He heard the booms of enemy-blown mortar.
“Oh, crap,” he thought.
It was July 4, 2010, and the young veteran had been home from an Iraq deployment for less than month. Earlier that day, he had visited his children, who were with the mother he separated from during deployment.
As he drove home, fireworks exploded across the darkness and jarred him into the panic of flashback. His first thought was swerving off the road, as he would have done back in Iraq, intent on dodging the potential attack.
He slowed his car. He took a deep breath.
“Wait, I’m OK,” he told himself. “I’m back home.”
Spc. Ryan Post, 29, watched deployment take a toll on many of his friends in the National Guard — civilian soldiers thrust into active duty who returned to find themselves or their lives back home changed.
Thousands of those part-time soldiers are coming home after the U.S. completed troop withdrawals from Iraq and makes plans for withdrawals from Afghanistan.
Upwards of 300,000 U.S. National Guard troops have landed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the nine years since the U.S. invaded those countries. The National Guard and Army Reserve made up 43 percent of front line forces in Iraq and 55 percent in Afghanistan — the highest of any U.S. wars.
More than 11,000 members of the Missouri National Guard were deployed over the past decade in an unprecedented mobilization following the 9/11 attacks and ensuing U.S. war on terror.
Missouri has about a thousand Guard members still deployed, including more than 400 Air and Army National Guard in Afghanistan, 500 in Qatar and 100 in the Sinai Peninsula.
The last of Missouri's 30 Air National Guard troops stationed in Iraq returned home before Christmas.
As those Guard members came home, they returned to the challenges that have come to mark the part-time soldier — strained family, a struggle for civilian work, higher rates of post-traumatic stress and a disconnect from military services that provide support for regular troops.
Unprepared for impact on families
Ryan and Cynthia Post were married seven years before he left for a yearlong deployment in Iraq. They had two children: Aiden, now 8, and Natalia, now 4, whom Post was visiting the night the fireworks startled him on his drive home.
Post left that family, his mother, father and sister behind when he voluntarily deployed for Iraq in 2009.
“Are you crazy?” his mother, Rita Howard, blurted when he told her he’d volunteered.
Post explained that deployment was inevitable. It was either go then, on his terms, or another time when he had no choice about his assignment. He’d be in less of a combat role in the unit he volunteered for.
While he was gone, he assured his mother he was safe. But every evening, Howard sat down to read the news. For that year, much of the news she read was about Iraq. When she spoke to her son on the phone, she heard the turmoil of war in the background.
“I knew there was a very real chance my son would not come back alive,” she said.
When Post left for Iraq, his marriage was already strained. By the time he returned, he and his wife agreed to divorce.
“It can make or break a marriage,” Post said of deployment. “It’s very stressful. You’re separated from the person you’ve been with for so long.
"You really can’t take care of things at home. It’s hard having those things linger on you while you’re gone.”
Post knows of fellow Guard members’ divorces that were much messier than his.
National Guard families often aren’t ready to handle deployment, said Bob Whalen of the Department of Veteran Affairs in St. Louis. Whalen, a veteran of the Army Reserve, works as a patient advocate, helping Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ transition into civilian life after deployment.
"These are civilian workers — husbands, wives, family people,” Whalen said. “And then they just uproot and go away.”
Regular military families are more used to mobilization and the lifestyle that comes with it. They also have a closer connection to other military families, who know what they’re dealing with. When the National Guard deploys, civilian friends and family seldom understand.
Unemployment high among returning troops
As a high school graduate who worked in painting and home maintenance, Post joined the National Guard in 2006 for the financial incentives. After his return from Iraq, he spent the first three months unemployed.
Federal law prevents an employer from firing a soldier who deploys. But that doesn’t guarantee a job is waiting, said Julie Heese, a social worker at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital who works with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some Guard members may return to significant changes within their company or a rift with their past employer, Heese said. The company may have downsized or gone out of business, or the Guard member may be injured or disabled from combat and unable to work.
“There is an adjustment, because they’ve been wandering around in the sand with bombs and guns, and they’re supposed to just plunk right back into their community and work the next day, and that’s just extremely hard,” Heese said.
Post, for instance, had gained a temporary civilian position working for the National Guard in 2009, spending five months there before going to Iraq. That job was gone when he got back.
He had a brief but loathed stint working the help desk at Schuyler House Laboratory Information Systems and eventually caught on again with the National Guard, this time in a full-time job. In the meantime, he dipped into savings and relied on his parents to help with bills.
The unemployment rate for Gulf War Era II veterans of the National Guard and Army Reserve was 13 percent this year, compared with the national rate of about 9 percent. For young veterans, ages 18 to 24, the jobless rate averaged nearly 30 percent.
“You’ve got all these soldiers coming back,” Post said, referring to the troop withdrawals.
“They’re going to be looking for jobs. There are programs for them, but it’s still pretty difficult, even with all the resources.”
Returning Guard members lack support
Those challenges often are heightened by a sense of isolation. In the three months Post spent without work, he had little contact with his previous unit. Friends he had seen every day overseas were suddenly gone.
“I was busy looking for employment or spending time with my family. But (fellow guardsmen) are the people who understand,” he said. “They’re going through the same thing you are.”
Therein lies the difference in the National Guard, Whalen said.
“When you come back from being in a high intense combat situation, you just go back home,” he said. “You’re not in a military regimented environment anymore. You don’t have the support of comrades to watch your back.”
The National Guard puts on “yellow ribbon” events for returning soldiers, meant to ease the transition and educate veterans on available services. Heese and others in her department — which serves 44 counties in Missouri — reach out to armories across the state.
But there is still a gap, she said. Many National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers are unaware of what Veteran Affairs can offer. At the same time, social workers are unaware of veterans until they sign up for eligibility. Of the Guard members she does see, she deals most often with post-traumatic stress.
“I have people come in and they’ll be turned inward and embarrassed and can’t believe they are behaving this way,” Heese said.
“Sometimes, when they’re isolated, they think something is wrong with them. But it’s a very normal physiological and psychological reaction to high trauma for an extended period of time.”
PTSD, suicides higher among returning Guard members
The National Guard once recruited with the slogan “one weekend a month, two weeks a year.” Before 9/11, National Guard members served no more than one year of active duty, with six months overseas, for every five years of service.
After the U.S. launched its war on terror, the limit increased, first to 18 months of mobilization with a year overseas, then to 24 months.
In 2007, the lifetime limit for active duty in the National Guard and Army Reserve was lifted altogether. That same year, President Barack Obama made a campaign promise to restore the 24-month limit and reduce lengthy deployments to one every six years.
Each deployment has now been capped at 12 months, but still no lifetime service limit exists. It’s not uncommon for Guard members to have six or seven tours overseas.
The National Guard’s role has also changed from one of support to more front-line combat; the Army Reserve is now the primary support unit.
But even as the mission shifted and mobilizations intensified, pre-mobilization training for reserve forces shortened from three months to four weeks, with the idea that more training could be implemented gradually throughout the year.
Heese speculated that because of the distinct factors facing the Guard members — family strain, unemployment, more isolation and a shorter training period — rates of post-traumatic stress disorder might be higher in National Guard veterans than active duty soldiers.
She said she sees symptoms of PTSD in most National Guard veterans she works with: young veterans off their first tour, older veterans who have been in the Guard for years, women and men.
“Their irritability is sky high. They don’t sleep well. They don’t like crowds. They are usually surveying their perimeter,” Heese said. “High anxiety, and it can be really difficult to relax and be back around civilians.”
A 2010 study from the Archives of General Psychiatry, a journal of the American Medical Association, found that rates of PTSD increased dramatically among National Guard soldiers between three and 12 months following deployment.
Meanwhile, rates of PTSD were relatively stable in full-time soldiers. The reason, the authors concluded, “likely does not have to do with differences in the health effects of combat but rather with other variables related to readjustment to civilian life or access to health care.”
The number of suicides in the National Guard also rose over the past decade, raising the military’s suicide rate despite fewer suicides among full-time soldiers.
Suicides for the National Guard and Army Reserve forces reached a record 146 in 2010 — seven of which were Missouri soldiers — and tallied 106 this year through November.
The military goes to great lengths to educate about suicide prevention, said Whalen of Veteran Affairs. As a member of the Army Reserve, he remembers sitting through many presentations focused on recognizing signs and symptoms in comrades.
But in the Guard and Reserve, rarely are stateside comrades together for more than a weekend at a time.
A woman from Whalen’s Army Reserve unit had missed a few training weekends. They assumed she’d called in sick. None of them saw the signs before she committed suicide.
“We all knew what to look for,” Whalen said. “But we only saw her once a month.”
A long adjustment period
Ryan Post considers himself among the lucky ones. His unit was spared from any bad combat. Even so, the constant sounds of gunfire and mortar took their toll as did the rockets frequently aimed at his base.
He had trouble sleeping when he first returned home. Loud noises used to make him jumpy, even in his own home. He would find himself reaching for his gun, putting his hand to his hip only to realize he didn’t carry a weapon anymore.
He wore T-shirts to his first job back and never liked it. He felt more comfortable in uniform.
A year and a half later, he said he feels as if he’s transitioned back to civilian life. He now wears a uniform for the Guard and does administrative work. Once unemployed, he finds himself putting in long hours helping Missouri National Guard members overseas.
Columbia’s unit is stationed in Qatar, and Post helps facilitate correspondence between there and home.
He has shared custody of his children, Aiden and Natalia, who needed some time to get used to Daddy being home.
“You miss birthdays, events, and just normal stages in your kids’ life growing up,” Post said of his time away. “You can’t get that back. It’s gone.”
When he first came back, time with the kids was constant excitement for a while, which made it difficult for Post, who was always the disciplinarian. But they still climb on him like they used to. He swings them over his head.
He takes them to Cosmo Park where they make him slide down the slides. He takes them to Stephens Lake Park and down to the Missouri River, where Aiden loves to throw rocks in the water.
Post sees his mother a few times a week and helps her and his sister out with work around their houses.
He lives with a new girlfriend, Natalie, and their 4-month-old son, Brycen.
He spent July 4, his second since deployment, in his backyard with his kids, setting off fireworks.
The first one startled him a little, but he was fine with the rest. The day came and went, uneventful, spent with his family back home.