Back from Iraq

Coralia Barrios and Jason Santana

Bronx Journal Staff Writer

Originally published May 2007

Not All War Vets  Are Received Equally.

For many war veterans, the transition back to civilian life is a smooth and delightful experience. They return home to reconnect with their friends and families and to resume the lives they left on pause.

Brian Thomas, 26, is one of them. He came back from Iraq to become a student and basketball player at Lehman College.  He was received as a hero.

“There was a big celebration,” said Thomas, a U.S. Marines Intelligence Specialist. “All those marines that didn’t go to war stood home and cheered as we got off the ship and there was a DJ announcing our names. It was really nice.”

But for many other war veterans, coming home is about fighting a new battle to regain lost time and reconnect broken links to their lives as civilians.

Herold Noel, 25, is one of them. When he arrived from Iraq, he had to evade Hinesville, GA, police who wanted to arrest him for outstanding traffic tickets. And Noel ended up homeless, living in a car, in the Bronx.

“I come back home and my country is putting me on another mission,” said Noel, a private first class in the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry, referring to his struggle for survival in the Big Apple.

Two soldiers, who fought in the same war, came home to two completely different realities.

Thomas, who is white, was able to readjust to his middleclass civilian life -– as if he had pressed “pause” when he left, and “play” when he returned.

Noel, who is black, also hit pause when he left, but he came home to find a blank tape.

They illustrate the blatant disparity in the way U.S. soldiers are repaid for the sacrifices they make for their country once they come marching home as veterans.

Who these soldiers are when they come back is not based on the sacrifices they made for going to war, but on who they were before being deployed. Regardless of their sacrifices and heroism, they usually re-enter civilian life at the same social and economic level where they left.

There is no standardized transition process that prepares soldiers to return from Iraq and resume their lives as better civilians than they were before they left, especially if they need a job upon returning.

They are simply taken from a country devastated by war and death, and then thrown back into a society where people worry about mundane things, like whether or not the trains are running on time, and whether they are going to get home in time to watch their favorite soap opera.

Veterans say their friends and relatives often fail to appreciate the traumatizing experiences they have endured in war.

To illustrate his experience in Iraq, Noel asks you to imagine being trapped in a dark closet with two lions. You can’t see the beasts and you don’t know where they are, all you can hear is their roars, he tells you.

“That’s how I felt, like I was locked in a closet and I didn’t know what was coming at me,” he added.

But when Noel got out of the lion’s den, after a seven-month tour during the first wave of the war, he had a new war to fight –- one for survival in the USA.

He went to war in a desperate effort to stay off the streets and leave the “hood” behind. But he came to find that the “hood” was still waiting for him.

Diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, Noel found himself unable to work and eventually homeless. “When I came home I was disgusted by everyone and everything around me,” Noel said. “I stayed to myself.”

Upon his return, Thomas did not have to fret about his living situation. He came home to live with his parents in their Yonkers residence. His next mission was to enroll in college.

In the spring of 2004 Thomas became a full time student at Lehman College, majoring in political science. He joined the Lehman Men’s basketball team. Back in Iraq, he frequently played basketball for recreation.

While Thomas studied for his exams and practiced with his team, Noel was sleeping in his car and taking three medications a day that the VA hospital prescribed for his PTSD. While Thomas says he left Iraq behind, Noel is still haunted by the images of war.

“I’m still afraid to sleep at night; I have dreams of bodies on top of bodies on top of bodies,” Noel said. “I sit in the shower for two hours straight, until I stop smelling the bodies, that’s how it affected me.”

Thomas said Iraq made him appreciate the many things we take for granted here. “It’s the first time I’ve seen actual poverty,” Thomas said. “Not just poor people, you know there’s a difference between poor people in America and poor people in Third World countries. In Iraq, when they’re begging us to throw water to them, or anything we may have on the truck, it’s a real reality check.”

After finishing his tour, Noel no longer had the same benefits and resources of an enlisted soldier. There is a misconception, he says, about the roles the Veterans Administration (VA) and U.S Army play in a soldier’s life.

Once soldiers have been honorably discharged or have completed their tour, they become the responsibility of the VA, he explained, somewhat like being fired from a job and then having to go through unemployment.

For some soldiers this process is seamless, while for others like Noel this became a whole new war.

Fresh out of Iraq, Noel found himself turning to the VA for help. Unable to work because of his PTSD, he was now homeless and had nowhere to turn for financial support. The VA’s response was to send him to a shelter while he was placed on the waiting list for Section 8 housing, a process that can take years.

In the mean time, the Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU) in the Bronx became Noel’s new home and just the start of what was yet to come.

“In the EAU shelter, I was robbed of all my medals and ribbons of recognition and clothes,” he said. After the robbery, Noel decided to pack his things and move into his car.

That’s around the same time when Thomas purchased a brand new car with the money he saved while serving in Iraq.

“When you’re out there you’re getting paid from different angles like hazardous pay, red zone pay, and since you’re in the desert it’s not like you can spend any money out there,” Thomas explained.

Thomas is currently a senior at Lehman College and a couple of classes away from graduating with his bachelor’s in political science. He works as a security guard at St. John’s Hospital.

Noel now lives in a Bronx apartment which was made available to him by an anonymous donor. He goes from state to state, and university to university, speaking about his experiences in Iraq and when he came back home.

He is featured in “When I Came Home,” a documentary that aims to educate the public on the gravity of the situation of homeless veterans. In the film, Noel promotes his own personal “Make your neighborhood veteran friendly” campaign.

He said that a couple of years ago, there were some 500 homeless veterans in New York alone. “Do you know how many there are now?” he asked. “It’s like 1,500 or 1,700 now. So has it gotten better? No! And not all the soldiers are back yet.”

Noel does not discourage anyone from enlisting in the military, but rather he fights for the public to become aware of the situation veterans could face upon returning home from the service.

After all, he understands that some people join the military for the same reasons he did, to improve his lifestyle.

“Half the soldiers that went didn’t care what the war was for,” he said. “All they cared about was putting food on the table for their families.”

For Thomas, on the other hand, going to Iraq was something he volunteered for. The unit he belonged to was not being deployed and he asked to be transferred to one that was. Volunteering for Iraq seemed to him like the most honorable way to end his tour.

“I wanted to go out doing something big; I don’t like being mediocre,” Thomas said. “I’m glad I made the decision to join the military, I don’t regret it and I don’t look back.”

Originally Thomas felt fighting in Iraq was a show of strength, to prove that the U.S. is strong. He thought soldiers were sent there to keep Saddam Hussein’s power in check, and to improve the lives of the Iraqi people. However, that was his frame of mind in the very beginning of his six-month tour. Now that he is back home, his reasons have changed.

“Right now, it’s hard to say what we’re fighting for” he said. “I think we’re just fighting for the sake of not looking bad. I think if we stop now it would be a show of failure, for going out there for no reason. It’s sad to say, but I think now we’re fighting because we put ourselves in a big hole and we have to dig ourselves out of it.”

Nevertheless, Thomas feels he is treated with more respect after coming back from Iraq. Despite public opinion of the war, everyone appreciates what soldiers are doing, he said.

“Even those who oppose the war appreciate what we did,” he said. “Regardless of your opinion, you should still appreciate those who volunteered to fight out there.”

According to Noel, that does not happen very often in his neighborhood. “You have to understand the community we live in,” he said. “In our community, no one gives a […] about any soldiers.”

Thomas and Noel went to Iraq in the first wave. They fought in the war for about the same amount of time. But their stories show that, regardless of the sacrifices they make for their country, not all war veterans are received equally.

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