Postwar soldiers try to readjust
FORT STEWART, Ga. (AP) -- Army Sgt. Joe Dombrowski did not see the worst of the war, but he witnessed some pretty bad stuff: the sound of enemy artillery as his unit crossed the Tigris River; the bloodstains on a Humvee after one of his commanders was killed; the soldier who survived a grenade blast that blackened even the whites of his eyes.
Now, when the latest news from Iraq comes on his big-screen TV back home, Dombrowski looks away.
"I listen to it, but I don't want to see it again," says Dombrowski, 31, who recently returned from Iraq. "Some of that stuff I want to push away, and I don't want to talk about it."
Dombrowski is still working through his feelings, just as many of his comrades are doing.
As part of an Army-wide program, all 16,500 soldiers from Fort Stewart's 3rd Infantry who fought in Iraq have undergone mandatory counseling to deal with the war's aftermath and the return home.
One of the most surprising things is how many soldiers have set aside the military machismo of the past and sought additional help, attending optional counseling sessions offered by the Army.
"The soldiers and battalion commanders are asking for this -- 'How can I talk to my wife?"' says Susan Wilder, a soldier's wife and head of Army Community Services counseling programs at Fort Stewart. "We couldn't even get in the door hardly after Desert Storm. The soldiers were like, 'We're big, tough guys. We don't need that."'
The Army beefed up its postwar counseling programs after three soldiers from commando units at Fort Bragg, N.C., were accused of killing their wives in the summer of 2002 after returning from fighting in Afghanistan.
"There were certain indicators there that we need to do better," says Lt. Col. Frank Emery, a Pentagon branch chief who oversees the postwar counseling program. "Our goal was to get them back to the way their lives were before the individuals deployed and reduce the stress, the anxiety."
Before returning from the Persian Gulf, the 3rd Infantry soldiers had mandatory sessions with their chaplains to discuss readjustment to civilian life, alcohol problems and suicide prevention. Their spouses back home attended meetings on what to expect from returning troops -- fatigue, unwillingness to discuss the war, perhaps sexual dysfunction.
Mandatory counseling continued once the soldiers came home. They underwent physical and psychological evaluations, attended training on how to handle postwar changes in their marriages and classes on drunken driving and even swimming and boating safety.
"Safety, safety, safety -- anything that has to do with safety you can possibly think of," says Dombrowski, who joined the Army 13 years ago. "The Army does real good. They really take care of us."
The 3rd Infantry, which led the assault on Baghdad, saw 21 straight days of combat during the war. Wilder says the close-in fighting, some of the heaviest U.S. troops have seen since Vietnam, has made some soldiers realize a need to talk. She says a battalion commander at one of her group sessions broke down in tears.
"For his people, he set the precedent that it's OK not to be that ironclad man all the time," she says.
Chaplain Timothy Sowers says he definitely notices a change in Fort Stewart soldiers since they returned from war, sometimes just by driving through the post's front gate.
"You can see it, it can just be how soldiers drive down the street, not as courteous. A little more aggressive. People cutting others off," says Sowers, the post's family-life chaplain.
Fort Stewart plans to offer new courses on anger management and stress management through the holidays. Chaplains also are planning soldier-spouse retreats that combine counseling sessions with a romantic getaway.
"Probably the trickiest thing for families right now is getting reacquainted with each other," Sowers says. "You can talk to any soldier and they'll tell you they're not quite as patient anymore, and they can get quite easily frustrated or upset due to the deployment."
Soldiers and their spouses also are seeking help off-post in neighboring Hinesville.
At the Fraser Center, which provides private counseling, almost 95 percent of current patients are from military families, says Dr. Alan Baroody, executive director. He says his 10 therapists are booked solid.
The center recently had one of its largest classes ever for children coping with divorce -- and most of them came from military households.
"We're seeing a lot of divorces, separations, the toll some infidelity has taken on families throughout the long deployment," Baroody says. "It's tragic."
Hinesville police saw reports of domestic disputes jump in August, when most of the 3rd Infantry had returned. Police responded to 76 such calls in August -- 43 percent higher than any other month this year. But police Capt. Johnetta Reid says the increase does not appear related to soldiers.
It has been more than two months since Dombrowski came home to his wife, Michelle, and their two young daughters. They say their reunion has been smooth. He has not sought counseling outside of what the Army has required and says many soldiers saw worse things than he did.
When her husband talks about Iraq, Michelle Dombrowski listens hard. She usually refrains from asking him questions.
"I just saw his pictures about a week and a half ago, and he's been back since July," she says. "And there's 20 questions going through my head that you want to ask, but you don't."