When Andrea Hoffelt, 27, found out her husband Zak’s medical residency meant a sudden move to Columbia, she knew what to expect.
Growing up in Vermillion, S.D., home of the state’s flagship university, life in a college town was nothing new. She could handle the skateboarding teens on downtown sidewalks, traffic jams on football weekends and other vagaries of life in a college town.
Far more difficult was getting used to the eternal calm of the suburbs without mortar shells flying over her head.
“When the deployment was over, it felt as though a tornado had picked me up, spun me around and dropped me into a completely new environment, she said.
“I had to start over from scratch,” she said.
Nearly a year after returning home, Hoffelt is still struggling to catch up with the life she left behind. A 1999 graduate of her hometown university, she’s enrolled at MU for the fall semester and plans to continue with the psychology graduate studies that were interrupted by her deployment. In the meantime, she works as a Mo-X dispatcher and at Superior Garden Center.
Hoffelt joined the U.S. Army National Guard in 1996 at the age of 18. After her enlistment was up in 2002, a battle buddy persuaded her to re-enlist for another year. Two months later, she was deployed to Iraq.
While in Iraq, Hoffelt worked within a supply section of her company and traveled the country on transportation convoys. Several trucks got destroyed on these missions, and several of Hoffelt’s comrades were injured — including one soldier whose truck was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade that caused severe damage to his leg.
Hoffelt said she “loved the excitement” she encountered while stationed at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, in a converted Iraqi air force base. What she didn’t — and doesn’t — love are the politics behind her tour of duty.
“It’s obviously a country that needs help — some sort of intervention, but probably war
wasn’t the way to go,” she said. “I think Americans overall just have a very skewed view of people over there. They’re the ones getting killed by the thousands.”
The physical dangers and the impact of her involvement in Iraq didn’t really hit Hoffelt until after she returned home. Suburbia was a far cry from the desert.
There was the day she and Zak went on a drive down a country road. When he pulled off the road to turn the car around, she panicked.
“In Iraq, you just don’t drive off the road because there are bombs,” she said.
Then there was the night she saw a Domino’s Pizza delivery person drive down the dark street. She initially thought the light with the Domino’s logo on top of the car was a machine gun.
Out for dinner, she would return to the table in search of a vital possession. Not her car keys or cell phone, but the assault weapon that just a few months ago was her constant companion.
“You get used to having an M-16 with you 24 hours a day,” she said.
Upon returning home, instead of excitement, adrenaline and fear, she faced emptiness, isolation and depression.
“It felt like (the war) was the big thing of my life,” she said. “I wanted there to be something coming, but I guess I worry that the best thing is over.”
“I look at it as a ‘lost six months,’ ” she said. “I don’t feel like I accomplished anything in that time.”
She did, however, say that this time of introspection gave her a new sense of direction.
After the first six months, things started to get better. Even though she longs for the next big event in her life, Hoffelt said she is happy to be home.
“It makes you thankful more for the things you have,” she said.
After war, aggression and anger
He has quit watching the news. Every time they read out the “death toll,” as he calls it, he would cringe at the mention of his, the 1st Armored Division. Hearing their faceless names read when they die seems unfit to Spc. Kernef Jackson. He considers the members of his platoon to be his brothers and sisters.
“Those seven people — we’re a family,” Jackson said. “We ate together, worked together, we could’ve died together.”
Jackson signed up for service in the National Guard right after high school. His mother is in the military, and even though she never pressured him into it, he could see her face light up when he told her his decision. The two weekends a month he spent training would pay for his tuition at MU, giving him financial flexibility after college.
He watched the war on Iraq escalate with indifference. He noticed the increasing amount of National Guardsmen being called into service and gave his possible induction some thought, but continued on with his life.
It was Valentine’s Day 2003, and his girlfriend was in town from St. Louis. The phone rang, he answered it, calmly placed the receiver back in its cradle and told her he was going to Iraq. She protested, arguing that he could back out if he wanted. He knew he wouldn’t.
The heat is what he noticed first— that, and the bugs. One stuck to you all day, the other all night. Jackson remembers his first few minutes in the Middle East as chaotic.
“I left my damn gun on the plane,” he recalled. “They were yelling from the start.”
The quiet of his plane ride over, Jackson said the noise was permanent. First stationed in Kuwait, he heard the sounds of planes, trucks and Humvees coming and going day and night. Jackson was an engineer with the National Guard, specifically learning construction and plumbing skills.
“We stayed right next to the landing strip,” Jackson said. “The planes fly so close and so big and so loud, I thought I was gonna die.”
He heard bombs throughout the day, the “boom-boom” sounds meaning people less than a mile from his base were dying.
Jackson thinks about the days he missed at home, how else he could have spent the 15 months he was fighting abroad. He won’t graduate from college until he is nearly 24. The war caused a hole in his life he can never replace and changed him in ways he never thought possible.
“When I first got back, people would look at me,” he said, “The first thing that popped into my head was a violent thought.”
In Iraq, people would get out of his way wherever he walked. His gun and his vest spoke for him, and he never gave the sense of power much thought. At home in the Columbia Mall, the anonymity of college life left him with angry thoughts on a regular basis.
“I had a lot of aggression,” he said.
His feelings came not from direct combat experiences, but from what he saw as undue American influence. The children bothered him the most.
“They speak English over there, and we’ve had a major influence on their lives,” he said.
Jackson remembered the dirty clothing and utter destitution of the children, the pleading faces as they tried to sell him pirated DVDs and bootleg copies of American movies still in theaters.
He also remembers the inside of the United Nations building after it was bombed, the splatters of blood making a zigzag pattern on what remained of the walls.
Alice Christensen, a psychologist with the VA, explained the criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder, including thoughts of violence in the aftermath of life-threatening experiences. She said she has seen few patients from the Iraq War, not because the war isn’t creating trauma, but because of the limited number of returning veterans.
Jackson said his feelings on the war are as strong as they were when he walked the streets of Iraq.
“I’m against it, opposed, whatever you want to say,” he said. “We need to get out of there.”
The first Gulf War took his mother from him for more than a year, and he sees this war as retribution for the mistakes made then.
“The people over there, they’ve been fighting since time eternal, and we can’t stop them from fighting each other,” he said. “They’re never going to like Americans. We leave their country.”