A Year at War
After Combat, the Unexpected Perils of Coming Home
Pvt. Johnnie Stevenson cleaned his truck one last time, scraping off the barnacle-like mud and pulling crushed water bottles from under seats. But deployment to Afghanistan was almost over, and his thoughts drifted elsewhere. Was his pregnant fiancée ready to be a mother? Facebook provided so few clues. Nor could it answer him this: Was he ready to be a father?
Capt. Adrian Bonenberger made plans for his final patrol to Imam Sahib. But inside, he was sweating the details of a different mission: going home. Which soldiers would drive drunk, get into fights or struggle with emotional demons, he wondered. What would it take to keep them safe in America?
Sgt. Brian Keith boarded the plane home feeling a strange dread. His wife wanted a divorce and had moved away, taking their son and most of their bank account with her. At the end of his flight lay an empty apartment and the blank slate of a new life.
“A lot of people were excited about coming home,” Sergeant Keith said. “Me, I just sat there and I wondered: What am I coming back to?”
For a year, they had navigated minefields and ducked bullets, endured tedium inside barbed-wired outposts and stitched together the frayed seams of long-distance relationships. One would think that going home would be the easiest thing troops could do.
But it is not so simple. The final weeks in a war zone are often the most dangerous, as weary troops get sloppy or unfocused. Once they arrive home, alcohol abuse, traffic accidents and other measures of mayhem typically rise as they blow off steam.
Weeks later, as the joy of return subsides, deep-seated emotional or psychological problems can begin to show. The sleeplessness, anxiety and irritability of post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, often take months to emerge as combat veterans confront the tensions of home and the recurring memories of war.
In their new normal, troops must reconnect with children, adjust to more independent spouses and dial back the hypervigilance that served them well in combat — but that can alienate them from civilians.
“The hardest part for me is, I guess, not being on edge,” said Staff Sgt. Francisco Narewski, a father of three who just completed his second deployment. “I feel like I need to do something, like I need to go on mission or I need to check my soldiers. And I’m not.”
For the First Battalion, 87th Infantry out of Fort Drum, N.Y., which recently finished a yearlong tour, leaving Afghanistan proved as deadly as fighting in Afghanistan. In the first 11 months of deployment, the battalion lost two soldiers, both to roadside bombs. During the next month, it lost two more, neither in combat.
On March 9, the day before he was scheduled to leave Kunduz, Specialist Andrew P. Wade, 22, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend who was practicing a drill with his 9-millimeter pistol inside their tent.
Three weeks later, Specialist Jeremiah Pulaski, who had returned from Afghanistan in February, was shot and killed by a police officer after he shot and wounded a man outside a bar in Arizona. He was 24.
Both soldiers were considered among the best in the battalion. Specialist Wade, a whiz with a soccer ball, was a member of the elite scouts platoon and on a fast track to promotion. Specialist Pulaski could be quick to use his fists in an argument but was revered for his fearlessness on the battlefield.
Specialist Pulaski was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor for dashing across an open field during an ambush in December, drawing enemy fire away from his platoon. Later that same day, he killed several insurgents as they were trying to ambush his unit near a village called Haruti.
Captain Bonenberger, Specialist Pulaski’s company commander, said the soldier saved his life twice that day — and it gnawed at him that he had been unable to return the favor.