I'll Be Home...

“I’ll Be Home…”
Written for and Published by Johnstown Magazine

By Dave Potchak
Photos by Jacob Koestler
            As Union General William T. Sherman so eloquently and succinctly stated, “War is Hell.” 
            For many servicemen and women the hell subsides when they return home. But for others, it may actually get worse, heightened by the controversy surrounding a war that is not popular with the general public.    
            At this time of the year, during the holiest of all holidays, many veterans and their spouses will fully embrace the spirit of Christmas. Others will just be happy to be home, fortunate to leave the hell behind.
            “My emotional well-being is great, but I am definitely changed from my experiences,” explains Sean Keefe, of Coon Ridge Road in Johnstown.
            Sean served as a captain with the PA Army National Guard, 2nd Brigade 28th Infantry Division and relates a summer baseball story after returning from his tour in June 2006.
            “My roommate from Iraq and I took our families to an Altoona Curve game complete with fireworks. As the booms were going off, we just looked at each other and smiled. It was reminiscent of the rockets and mortars that pelted our camps a few weeks earlier in Ramadi, Iraq.”
            He admits that the acclimation to civilian life can be slow, as personal questions about his own assignment lingered for some time. “After about three months of being home, your mind starts to wonder about how your actions and decisions affected the war effort (both positively and negatively). You begin to ponder on occasion too, how effective you were at saving the lives of Americans and Iraqis. Recently we received positive news about coalition efforts in Anbar, so it appears, at least in the near term, our efforts did help improve Iraq.”
            Memories of those that did not make it back alive are more prevalent. “Eighty-three heroes from our combat team died during our year in Iraq and I think about them and their families every day. My boss, mentor and friend [LTC] Mike McLaughlin was killed on January fifth, 2006 by an insurgent wearing a suicide vest. I especially think about him and his family every day.”
            In general, Sean finds that many of his neighbors and friends can’t comprehend what servicemen and women have gone through. “It is sometimes mentally taxing to explain some of the events we lived through to non-veterans. I am often met with blank stares. I guess I should understand that because as some of the heinous insurgent acts occurred around me I, too, was in disbelief.”
            Sean prefers to keep his political views to himself regarding the participation of the United States in the war in the Mid-East. But he elaborates on one general observation.
            “Sometimes you sense that not all people are grateful of our sacrifices. You get the feeling that people are not at all impressed with the intestinal fortitude of the American service member. Most significant is that I feel that Americans do not realize we are truly a nation at war.
            “I am torn … and I would love to see a greater unity, as there was in America during my grandfather’s war (World War II). Our politicians have done too good a job of polarizing this nation. We are not at all united on the notion of how to achieve national security or on how to get out of the conflict. Political leaders must become more united on how to complete the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
            Sean recalls his thoughts about his wife and family back in the states, while serving his yearlong obligation. “I prayed constantly that my family would be okay and that I would return home normal and in one piece. I wasn’t concerned about my own pain, but the thought of placing my wife and kids in extreme mental anguish bothered me. I often pictured soldiers in dress uniforms pulling into my driveway only to deliver bad news. That thought played in my mind constantly.”
            As for the holidays, he admits to a little anxiety during the Christmas season last year. “I realized I was a little agitated, mostly because I noticed an over abundance of joy in others during the holiday season. And it was compounded by the anniversary of LTC McLaughlin’s death. I could not let go of the fact that I was happy to be home, but still concerned about those who lost so much.
            “My father’s untimely death while I was deployed was also a factor. He died at age 52 from a heart attack and had I been home, maybe I could have challenged destiny.
            “My wife tried talking me into seeking some help, or at least getting an assessment of what I was going through. I almost went to counseling, but backed off because I am a self-help kind of guy. Through some self-education and attempting to keep busy, I was able to beat the effects brought on by post-traumatic stress.
            “I also maintained contact with several veteran friends from my deployment. By February of 2007, I had no real emotional or mental issues. Today, I focus on the positive aspects of going to war to liberate a country and tend to not discuss anything negative.” 
            In addition to the emotional issues, there are, of course, medical and physical adversities that some vets must face.
            We sent many wounded soldiers out of Iraq for medical treatment,” explains Major Angelo Catalano, serving with the Pennsylvania National Guard in Johnstown. “I know they received the best possible care while in transit back to the states.” But, “it also troubles me to hear about the recent care and treatment problems I hear about in the news. Those men and women are true heroes and I would hope, as a nation, we can work through those issues and give them the recognition and treatment they deserve.”
            A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in engineering, Major Catalano served 18 months in total deployment. Being single, his perspective was somewhat unique while overseas. “My concern has always been that others do have it much worse than I … Besides missing out on an entire skiing season, I have a passion for cooking and eating. I think I missed cooking pasta and sauce on Sunday afternoons while watching the Steelers games the most,” he muses.
            But he, too, is a changed person. Today he views the holidays much differently than he did prior to his tour. “For me, everyday is a holiday. I think, emotionally, I returned home in a better state-of-mind than ever before. Whereas I once got frustrated at each little curve that life threw at me, I now find myself much more relaxed. I also realize that I could have it much worse.
            “Now, I don’t take anything for granted and I try to spend as much time with family and friends as possible. A few weeks before last Thanksgiving, my girlfriend was killed in an automobile accident, so the holidays were quite somber. But I believe her death brought us (my family) all closer.        
            “My biggest challenge was returning to my job and working through the issues that had occurred while we were away – nothing insurmountable, just challenging.”
            Companies that employ veterans can make a huge difference regarding the transition to life back at home, implementing a few sympathetic policies to curb much anguish.
            My body was somewhat fatigued, but overall I felt fine physically. I was not injured in Iraq and feel very fortunate to have returned home in the same physical condition in which I left,” says Gregg Wilson.
            The Richland School District teacher adds, “Emotionally, I was exhausted. Most soldiers in Iraq deal with a great deal of stress and responsibility. I felt mainly relieved that I returned home safely, but also that all of the soldiers I had been in charge of on missions returned home safely as well.”
            A sergeant E-5 and combat engineer, Gregg recognizes how fortunate he is to have a cooperative employer. “I was hired as a teacher at the Richland School District in the fall of 2004, and left [for deployment] in January 2005. When I returned home in June 2006, the same job … was given back to me.
            “As far as work was concerned, a lot had changed in the 18 months I was gone. I hadn’t been in the classroom for nearly two years and I felt like a first year teacher all over again. Richland was wonderful and made life for my wife easier while I was gone.   They did everything in their power to ease the transition for me when I returned home too.
            “I hope all returning vets have the same experience with their employers as I did. They kept my wife on their health insurance while I was gone and also volunteered to make up the difference in pay. When I came back they made me feel right at home and gave me everything I could have needed to adjust.”
            His wife Heidi, while grateful to Richland School District, still has some reservations regarding servicemen and their return home. “For me, Gregg’s return was not what I pictured,” she states. “You spend all the time you’re alone, preparing for the time you will be back together. But it turns out to be much different when the time finally arrives. When Gregg came home all my everyday tasks seemed insignificant. Any complaints I heard from others seemed crazy and irrelevant.”
            Naturally, Heidi’s most pronounced fear was that something might happen to her husband during his tour. “My second biggest fear was how can I help him adjust when he gets home? How do I make him feel like he didn’t miss out on a Thanksgiving and Christmas?”
            While Gregg was gone, “It was hard to have fun and enjoy the holidays, knowing that he was in a terrible place every day for a whole year. Through this whole experience it makes you very thankful to wake up in a safe place every morning. You learn very quickly not to sweat the small stuff and just appreciate the many luxuries we have and to complain less.”
            Heidi gladly gives some advice for other spouses in situations similar to hers.  “When you have a loved one come home, take things one day at a time. Don’t be in a hurry to try to get things back to normal quickly. Also, be thankful everyday for what they have sacrificed, no matter what your beliefs are of the war.” 
            She adds, “The only thing I would suggest to those responsible for our servicemen is that they make provisions to make sure they are ready and prepared to return to their lives here at home. We were fortunate, with our family and Gregg’s employer, but not everyone is so lucky. Gregg is a very strong person who has always adapted well, but everyone is different and I think that adjusting to civilian life could be hard for some men and women.”
            Doug Danilson, of Woodbury, is another soldier who considers himself fortunate that he didn’t have many workplace concerns. He came home to his job as a civilian for the U.S. Army at AMSA (Area Maintenance Service Activity) 104 in Johnstown. “There was no need to adapt to a new situation because my employer really didn’t change from what I did during my deployment.”
            While serving for 18 months, “I worried about my wife’s ability to cope with my absence and worried, too, that my son would not remember me since he was only 3-years old when I was deployed,” Doug states.
            His wife Jennifer talks candidly about attempting to keep the family together without her husband in the picture. “It was an emotional roller coaster while he was gone. I avoided the media the entire time. It was tough enough for him to be gone and keep life normal for [our son] Calvin and myself. But to watch the news about the attacks, shootings and suicide bombers would have pushed me too much.”
            Jennifer, who works full-time as a hair stylist and is enrolled at Allegheny Community College part-time, admits to constantly worrying while Doug was serving. 
             “I think I could take care of the finances, the outside work and the usual everyday stuff. The issue that concerned me most was what if my son would lose his dad? They are very close and very much alike. How would I fill that loss for him? They always do ‘men’ stuff together – they work on cars, ride the ATV and build things like his monster truck wagon. They also go on 4x4 mud trips together. I could try to do those things or have friends take him on those outings, but it wouldn’t be the same,” she says.
            Jennifer does not hesitate to proclaim her devotion to her husband and all those who serve in the military. “The one thing I have always done is to support Doug 100 percent. He was in the Army before we were married so the loyalty and oath that he took and swore to uphold is something I respect. I never question the decisions he makes when it comes to the military.”
            She echoes the sentiments of many spouses of veterans when it comes to celebrating this special time of year. “I value the holidays more now than ever. Doug was serving last year over Thanksgiving and Christmas and it wasn’t the same. … During Thanksgiving dinner, when all our family was sitting around the table, we were thankful that we could be together, but most thankful that Doug was safe.”
            For Christmas, “Calvin and I bought Doug gifts and wrapped them up and shipped them over so he would have presents to open on Christmas Day. One of the most important things that I sent him was a homemade DVD of our family and entire church congregation wishing him a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I wanted him to feel like we were there with him on Christmas even if he wasn’t here with us.”
            It is not surprising that with all of the controversy surrounding the U.S. involvement in the Mid-East Conflict, some veterans prefer to remain quiet regarding what they are now going through. Others only give details after some prompting, as many veterans are not comfortable opening up and discussing their experiences.
            One such veteran is Rodger Miller, of Johnstown. “Although I had no injury or accident, I will never be the same. I acquired a 52 percent hearing loss with tinnitus as a result of living and working near an airstrip and a generator field. I live daily with joint pain that cannot be explained, and I do not sleep well.”
            Rodger is a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army Reserve, and was a member of the 323rd Military Intelligence Battalion. Throughout his deployment, certain questions were constantly on his mind: Will I be okay? Will I return? Will I see my family again? Will they be okay? And will they understand?
            “During my tour on December 21, in Baghdad, I pulled a night shift and was able to make a morale phone call (this occurred about every 14 days) using the HQ phone. I called my wife Diana. When she answered she asked me to sit down. My first response was to let her know that there were no chairs by the phone. After she apologized several times she informed me that my father passed away that morning. … Anyhow I was granted an emergency leave and I made it home on Christmas Eve to say goodbye, albeit late, to my best friend. I returned to Baghdad in January.
            “I finally returned home from my assignment in June and I felt like I was picking up the pieces. To a degree it felt like life was put on hold then restarted. I now see life in a much better light. I do not seem to get as excited or upset with small, everyday life issues. And so far, three years later, I have not complained once about the cold weather in Johnstown.”
            Rodger is moving on, but still has ongoing issues. He says it may sound petty to non-veterans, but one concern has to do with some of the terminology being used. “As a U.S. Army Reservist, I truly dislike the word ‘reserves’ or its use. During my tour I witnessed ‘active’ units rotate through the theater while my unit, a ‘reserve’ unit, stayed the course. 
            “As for the importance of maintaining a reserve force, active units usually only take their military skill sets with them when they’re deployed. But reserve units take the same military skill sets along with several civilian skill sets. I was extremely grateful for the plumbers, electricians, mechanics and computer technicians that served with me. It was a true added asset. 
            “I also do not like to hear the word ‘bodies’ used in the military. ‘We need five bodies to get that job done.’ It makes me quiver. My fellow serviceman or servicewoman is not just a body.”
            Certain heart wrenching memories, thoughts of fallen comrades who made the ultimate sacrifice, will forever remain with them.
            “There are many things that I will remember for years to come,” adds Rodger. “As a field first sergeant, I had the honor to make sure that the personal effects of my fellow fallen heroes were properly handled and returned to loved ones back home. I also had the honor of sharing a C130 ride with two very young fallen heroes from Baghdad to Kuwait – a young private and lieutenant both killed by an IED. These kinds of memories are extremely difficult to deal with, and even harder to relate to the public.”
            The anxiety will no doubt continue for Rodger and his wife, as another member of their family has decided to join the service. “My wife Diana and I have been married since 1984. She picked up all the home tasks until I returned. My daughter Jennifer was 17 and a senior in high school at the time. She has since joined the military and is near completion of her ROTC program.”
            The couple’s son was younger during Rodger’s tour, and how well he has coped with the situation is still a concern for both parents. “My son Jake was 12 at the time of my deployment. He was most affected by my absence. It felt as if he was mad at me because I was absent in his life.
            “His schoolmates talked about me as if something might happen and I would not return. I can only imagine what a 12-year-old boy would be thinking about, with regard to losing his dad.”
            Other parents relate similar fears because a child’s emotional scars may not surface until years later. Some parents confess that these child-related issues are something they deal with daily. All agree that it is not easy.
            But help for the entire acclimation process is available. Tom Caulfield, director of Veteran’s Community Initiatives, Inc. in Johnstown, admits that not all veterans take advantage of the assistance offered by his office.
            “Our organization primarily offers job search and career counseling services, but we do recognize the fact that 50 percent or more of our veterans may suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome when they return home. This is especially true for those that have served in a combat zone,” Tom states. “Because of the stigma attached to these issues, only a very small percent of these veterans will seek out help.”
            Most veteran service organizations, like VCI, Inc., attempt to ease the transition to life at home for both the veteran and spouse in any way they can. But since they often work independently of each other, it can be confusing to veterans not sure of what is available to them or what they are eligible for. 
            “We strive to eliminate the bureaucratic red tape so that all veterans can obtain their entitled benefits in a timely and effective manner,” Tom says.     
            As a nation, we expect that our veterans will be fine, eventually. With the help of family, friends, politicians and veterans’ organizations, we anticipate that our servicemen and women will prevail. We try to envision a future where their concerns and anxieties will have waned with time.
            Locally, we seem more certain. If the residents of the Flood City can cope with adversity “come hell or high water,” we fully expect that our veterans will do the same. This holiday season, let us hope and pray that all members of our armed forces discover peace and heaven on earth – and may hell be left far behind.  

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA