Our new generation of veterans

New challenges face those coming home from Afghanistan, Iraq
By Beth A. Birmingham | May 31, 2014
Photo by: Beth A. Birmingham Veteran Gerald Willey peruses a scrapbook of wartime events.

Rockland — Lying in a bunker as a mortar whizzes through the air; seeing others being shot; holding a compression on a wound; taking a life; handing an American flag to a friend's mother — how would these situations affect you?

For our new generation of veterans, it has taken a toll. The soldiers of the most recent wars, Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, battle a different kind of injury — invisible wounds.

Psychological and neurological injuries confront our newest veterans, according to a study by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The study further states that understanding these types of wounds has drastically improved thanks to screening and treatment.

"Nearly 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans screen positive for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or depression," according to a 2008 RAND study. The study said troops also face neurological damage since Traumatic Brain Injury has become the signature wound of the Iraq War.

The study revealed that about 19 percent of troops surveyed reported a probable brain injury during deployment. It is estimated tens of thousands of troops suffer from some or all of these conditions, and as service members deploy on longer and repeated combat tours, their risk increases.

And a poll conducted by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found 30 percent of this new generation of veterans have considered suicide, and as many 40 percent know of a fellow veteran who has committed suicide.

In honor of May being National Military Month, The Courier-Gazette sat down with three local veterans of this generation to give them a chance to let the area know how their experience at war has affected them.

Stephen Noyes of Waldoboro was with Bravo Company 2nd Tank Battalion in the Marine Corps stationed in Camp Lejuene, N.C. before being deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. His responsibilities included making sure everything in the tank was in its place.

"The tanks got a little cramped at times," said Noyes, who is 6-foot-1, and the tank's span was 6 feet. This was especially difficult one time when he was stuck in the vehicle for 63 hours. "Tankers are a different breed," joked Noyes.

He said the average temperature outside was 133 degrees, and the interior of the tank varied 10 to 15 degrees. In fact, he said, a water bottle would get so hot he could add Ramen noodles to it and eat them.

"We were trained to fight for the guy to our left and to our right," said Noyes, who did that the one time he had to fire his weapon. One evening, during a briefing for the next day, Noyes' battalion was hit by mortar fire in a place called, "The Triangle of Despair."

Noyes saw three of his friends bleeding to death, and one other who died. "This was just one month and three days into it," he said.

He has never thought of committing suicide himself, but Noyes knows of three attempts and one successful suicide among those he knew.

Survivor's remorse is Noyes' only regret.

"I had a friend who died over there. He had been married one year and had a 2-month-old daughter," he said. "It would have been better if it was me because I don't have anybody like that."

Noyes, who now works at Fisher Engineering, received a Navy Commendation Medal with Valor for saving the lives of two of his fellow soldiers. He said he would fight for his country again if he were called back.

Gerald Willey of South Thomaston was with a mechanized infantry stationed in Fort Stuart, Ga., before being deployed to Iraq in Desert Storm. He was a driver and gunner in a tank unit.

Opening the hatch of an Iraq vehicle and seeing someone inside staring back at him was one of the worst things Willey saw in action. What he did next — in self-defense — was the worst thing he had to do.

Willey has been diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome, which causes memory loss and muscle fatigue. "It is the unofficial 'agent orange' due to the chemicals used in warfare," he said, adding that the Veterans' Administration has never acknowledged it as a syndrome.

One of the oddest things Willey witnessed during his tour of duty was when his infantry was in the desert of the Euphrates River Valley. "We were riding in the middle of nowhere when all of a sudden these two doors appeared," he said. "We thought we were seeing things."

Upon investigation, they discovered one door led down into an underground tunnel where there was an abandoned station wagon. It was being used as a field hospital.

Another strange occurrence was in Dhahran, outside of Basra, where the opposition was setting fires to the oil refineries. "In Kuwait City the wind would shift and daylight turned to night because of the black ash covering everything," Willey said.

Willey, who is married and has two sons, received a Combat Infantry Badge, Army Commendation Medal, and a couple medals of achievement. He said he would serve again. He works at North End Composites building boats.

Destiny Poole of Thomaston was a paratrooper and quartermaster in the Army and was stationed in a variety of places such as Oklahoma and Virginia before being deployed to various locations in Iraq, South Korea, Japan, and Thailand. Her responsibilities entailed proper packing of parachutes, perimeter watches, and as a squad leader she was in charge of a handful of other soldiers.

"I am a military brat," said Poole. "My mother, father and grandfather were in the military and I wanted to follow in their footsteps," she said.

Poole said some of the hardest things to see were homeless kids running after their Humvees asking for food, and burying her fallen comrades.

"I buried my best friend," said Poole. "She gave the ultimate sacrifice."

Poole, who was on mortuary detail at the time of the burial, said she had to fold the flag and hand it to her friend's mother while the woman begged for her daughter back.

Poole said she is still adapting to civilian life, always looking over her shoulder. "I don't think any soldier will ever fully adapt," she said.

She said she learned respect, honor and loyalty. "What brother and sisterhood really meant, and what trust meant," she added. And she got the opportunity to sit in Saddam Hussein's chair at his palace.

Although she is upset with the benefits that soldiers were promised and either did not receive or had taken away, she would serve again "in a heartbeat."

"Don't thank me," she said. "It was my part as an American. It's an honor to have served."

It has been debated that older veterans — pre-9/11 — had it harder than this new generation of veterans. The one thing that is certain is, "All gave some. Some gave all."

And as a side note, a recent study by Wallethub shows Maine as being in the top 10 best states for military retirees. The study compared the 50 states plus the District of Columbia in 18 categories ranging from taxes on military benefits to veteran job opportunities.

Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at bbirmingham@courierpublicationsllc.com.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Robin Gabe | May 31, 2014 11:52

Thanks for an insightful article. The medals referenced are the Navy and the Army Commendation Medal (not "Accommodation").

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