When coming home is harder than staying
Veterans return to routines just as tough as war zones
Published: Thursday, July 21, 2011
Updated: Friday, July 29, 2011 09:07
Asle Farah joined the Marine Corps in 2002 after graduating from high school, intrigued by a recruiter's message of intense physical challenges and teamwork. Her father thought the military would be too difficult for her.
She joined to prove him wrong.
Physically and mentally, the drill sergeants tried to break her down and insulted her for being Muslim, which made her angry but also pushed her to work hard.
"They picked on everyone, but I never cried," Farah said. "I would last through everything."
The hardships brought the squadron closer together and created a bond that allowed them to work as a team. In 2003, Farah's unit was sent to Fallujah, Iraq, where she was an intelligence-communication operator. She participated in convoys where her life was at risk. Farah's environment was hostile and her group was threatened by sudden attacks of enemy fire.
In 2006, Farah left the Marines to enroll at Texas State University-San Marcos, where she faced a different kind of challenge. Farah felt her classmates, the ones she called the "MySpace generation," did not see a world outside their own.
"You sacrifice so much and no one sacrifices anything," Farah said. "No one chooses to die."
Veterans Affairs Counselor Coordinator James DeMasi at San Antonio College said veterans who return to the college environment can find that earning college credit is a challenge. They are trained to follow orders, never question authority and follow all the rules the military demands.
Once out of the military, the framework for directives evaporates. College requires class work, a habit that may be foreign to some veterans. Studying outside and inside the classroom can be frustrating for some. Veterans with mental or physical disabilities are weighed down even more as their condition affects their interactions with people, DeMasi said.
DeMasi has made a career of helping veterans. In 2011, he helped 2,200 veterans attending SAC, the highest number in years. He assesses federal VA policies, supplies and equipment while processing files that entitle veterans to their benefits.
"Although they are all different branches, when they're together, they share stories and similar problems," DeMasi said. "They are glad to find out they are not the only one with problems like dealing with having not being told what to do. It's hard to adjust to civilian life. It's not the old military anymore."
DeMasi, a veteran of the Air Force and Army, says his office, primarily staffed by veterans, offers a sanctuary for former members of the military. Across the nation, colleges and universities are adding special offices to assist the increasing number of veterans enrolling in higher education.
Clay Thorp, a 26-year-old studying journalism at Texas State University-San Marcos, enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school. He had his own reasons for fighting. He said he was taken by the Bush administration's reasons for war and signed up to fight.
After Thorp's boot camp training in California, he was sent to work on aircraft in Florida. He said the service became his life and the squadron became his family.
He left after two years of active duty and two years in the reserves. Once he was out, the readjustment process was tough for Thorp, who was used to a military environment full of "structure, rules and arrogant personalities."
"It took a while to learn how to treat people again," Thorp said. "To even smile. To relax."
Rick Monroe, 61, dealt with some of the same issues Thorp experienced, but for Monroe, it was after two tours of duty in Vietnam. He enlisted in the Navy in 1971 after getting bored with the college lifestyle at Texas Tech University. He served aboard the USS Enterprise.
Monroe said the hardest part of leaving the military was talking to people. He was used to being on a ship of more than 5,000 males, and he found it hard to talk to women. In 1973, he returned to Texas Tech, where he eventually graduated, then married and got a job.
"Reassemble a successful life," Monroe said. "There are two roads ahead. You can either accept it or sit on the couch and fall deeper into your shell. Life is going to go on."
Gloria Gonzales, senior secretary in the college Veterans Office, said most colleges have a veterans affairs office that serves the emotional and academic needs of veterans.
The U.S. Department of Labor also offers a Transition Assistance Program, which includes a workshop for veterans to help ease the transition, help veterans find jobs and teach families how to cope with the transition.
As Farah tried to readjust to life after war, problems arose besides ones she was already dealing with.
The death of a friend overseas began to affect her and made her feel guilty about surviving. She felt depressed and had sleepless nights. She found it hard to interact with others, including her own family.
"War does a lot to you," Farah said. "You kind of lose your mind."