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War Vets Try To Bridge The Divide Back Home

Jay White, the discussion moderator, looks on as veteran Aaron Jones, 28 (left), talks about his experiences in Iraq and back home in Connecticut.
Libby Lewis/NPR
Jay White, the discussion moderator, looks on as veteran Aaron Jones, 28 (left), talks about his experiences in Iraq and back home in Connecticut.
Patrick Montes, 29, of the Connecticut National Guard, wears bracelets engraved with the names of friends who served with him, and died, in Iraq.
Libby Lewis/NPR /
Patrick Montes, 29, of the Connecticut National Guard, wears bracelets engraved with the names of friends who served with him, and died, in Iraq.

Men have gone to war and come home from war since time began. Each time, they deal with a gulf between what they have seen and experienced, and what the rest of us have not.

That gulf has left a lot of men, and now some women, alienated from their communities.

Now, a group of Iraq veterans is trying a new way to bridge that gulf. They are talking to people from their hometowns, colleges and police departments about their lives at war and back home. They are hoping that their personal stories close the divide a little, between each other and those they have come home to.

Vets Meet the Law

On a recent day in Granby, Conn., five Iraq veterans gather at a police department to meet with police crisis negotiators.

Army veteran Michael Hawley talks to the group about his first days out of Iraq.

"The first night, I caught the clap. The second night I got into a fight with a white rapper and his posse. My friends and I got clubbed," he says. "Third night, nothing happened. The fourth night I impregnated a 38-year-old grandmother."

Moderating the discussion is counselor Jay White of the Hartford Vet Center, a facility funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Before becoming a counselor, White served two tours in Iraq. He wants to reach people who have no experience with war — especially people who deal with trouble.

"As you'll hear from these guys, it's a volatile crowd," White tells the officers about the soldiers.

Iraq Memories Linger

Jesse Cohen, another Army veteran, talks to the group about how he is still haunted by his first combat experience in Iraq. It keeps coming back in the middle of the night, he says, here in suburban Connecticut.

Cohen tells these police officers, all strangers to him, what he has never told anybody.

"My girlfriend, she hears me talking at night," he says. "And often I have to wake up, take a shower and change my clothes 'cause I'm drenched in sweat, and it's like I'm there again."

In his dream, there is a line of white dots that get larger and grow into trucks. A firefight ensues. Then brain matter splatters on a windshield.

"This time, it's more traumatic than it was the first time," Cohen says. " 'Cause the first time, it was like a video game. It was like, 'Oh wow, cool. It happened.' It doesn't hit you until you're back here and everything just downloaded and you're trying to process it."

The Mind Warp

When they left for Iraq, they were just regular guys. They enlisted for the typical reasons: to do the right thing for their country, to get ahead in life, to prove themselves. Before they went, their idea of war was gleaned from movies or video games.

Cohen says coming back was like a mind warp.

"For us to come back into civilization when everyone's just driving along, not a care in the world ... 'Oh, I got to get to work on time, I got to pick up my kids and this and that.' " Cohen says he couldn't deal with it.

He drove like a maniac, speeding everywhere. He says he had a lot of road rage. Some of his buddies say the same thing.

Police around the country say they are seeing more dangerous driving and road rage by veterans who have come back from Iraq.

Connecticut crisis negotiator Brian Killiany says it is important for law officers to understand these guys, especially if it comes to a worst-case scenario, like a hostage situation.

With the horrors a lot of these men have seen, especially young men without any life experience, Killiany says, "the chances of them becoming a target group for us to have to deal with as a negotiator is probably better than 50-50."

The goal for police, Killiany says, is to keep a bad situation from exploding. And the chances of containing a crisis are better when police understand the person they are dealing with.

VA counselors like White are tracking down combat veterans who might need help readjusting to regular life. These counselors are hoping that police who encounter troubled veterans will know to send them for help at a facility like the Hartford Vet Center.

Dealing with Rage

Aaron Jones is a beefy guy with tattoos all over his arms. He takes the police officers back to his first day in Iraq after training with the Connecticut National Guard. He heard a noise and walked outside to find his platoon sergeant on the ground, mortally wounded.

"He pretty much died in my arms as I was dragging him to the bunker," Jones says.

Patrick Montes helped Jones pull their sergeant's body inside. Two days later, they lost their friend Felix Delgreco in an attack. He was 22.

Montes says that is when he did the math in his head.

"There's 120 of us and there's 365 days. And we've been here three days, we're down two and two wounded," he says he remembers thinking. "What's the point? I'm not going to make it."

Montes did make it, and he served another tour in Afghanistan.

Jones says that when he came home, he found himself alone, without his buddies from his unit and with severe injuries from combat.

One of the first things he learned was that his wife was with another man. Jones had to move back in with his parents, who helped him through back surgery. It became increasingly apparent to Jones that he didn't fit in.

He says he came from a very religious family — one that told him the way to deal with combat stress was to pray. Jones turned to religion when he went to Iraq, but dropped it when he came back.

"When I came home," he says, "it felt like the whole world fell out from underneath me."

Jones says he had a lot of guns, which he carried with him when he got back. One day he pulled a .45 on a guy who was bothering him for change. He didn't pull the trigger, but says he got a huge rush.

"It sounds messed up, but I wanted so bad to kill somebody when I came home," Jones tells the police. "And I don't know why that is ... I'm not a psychologist. But I didn't do it over there, and my guys had. And I wanted to prove I could do it."

His wife leaving, Jones says, "chewed me up inside. One of the things you hear a lot about is domestic violence with guys coming home. I can see how easy it was. I wanted to just destroy her and the guy she was with."

Healing Together

Jones didn't explode. He attributes that mostly to counselor Jay White at the Hartford Vet Center, whom he stumbled upon when he was looking for a VA home loan. He's been going to the Vet center ever since.

All of the veterans at the dialogue group say they drank like crazy when they came home. They talk of benders that lasted weeks. There were plenty of bar fights and driving drunk. And they all say they dealt with a constant train of abnormal thoughts.

Montes was arrested and incarcerated for assault, public drunkenness and other charges. He says he mouthed off to a Hartford police officer who told him to move his car.

"I think I said the f-word," Montes says. "Not at him ... just saying like, 'Right, right, we'll f'ing move.' "

At the police station lockup, Montes handed over his wallet and keys. He was taking the laces out of his shoes when one of the officers saw his military ID and said, "'This is not Baghdad anymore. There's no dead babies here,'" Montes recalls. "It took every ounce of strength in me to not clock him."

The arrest is behind him now. A prosecutor threw out the charges in court. And Montes is back with his buddies in Connecticut.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Libby Lewis
Libby Lewis is an award-winning reporter on the National Desk whose pieces on issues of law, society, criminal justice, the military and social policy can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Saturday, and other NPR shows.