Fourth in a series of articles.
The 24-year-old was out on patrol in southern Helmand Province in Afghanistan when the improvised explosive device blast hit. He suffered a broken foot, burns on his arms, back and side, and traumatic brain injury. But he made it out.
His fellow soldiers and friends, Sgt. 1st Class Darren Linde, 41, and Spc. Tyler Orgaard, 20, did not.
The men belonged to the North Dakota Army National Guard’s 818th Engineer Company and were tasked with finding roadside bombs. The unit, known as “The Sappers,” returned in March to Williston, N.D., the heart of the oil patch, and started the long process — both official and unofficial — of returning home.
Reintegrating into civilian life
“You’re dealing with soldiers trying to reintegrate back into their civilian jobs or going back to school or just basically reintegrating back into the civilian populace,” Capt. Bob Bohl, the unit’s commander, said. “On top of it, they’re also coping with stresses of what they did overseas. And then, put the icing on the cake, they’re also dealing with the fact they lost two brothers along the way.”
Most of the unit members wear metal memorial bracelets engraved with the names of Orgaard and Linde. Placek wears two bracelets: the metal memorial bracelet and a green plastic band that simply says “Beast Mode,” which he received when he ordered some weightlifting supplements. He keeps it because it survived the blast that killed his friends.
“It was the only thing that made it through the incident,” said Placek, who now does administrative work with the North Dakota National Guard. “They didn’t cut it off — I figured just because it said ‘Beast Mode.’ It got through that.”
The transition home for Guard soldiers like Placek is a more intimate return, punctuated by relationships forged well before war. Researchers for the national Institute of Medicine found that National Guard soldiers might be more adversely affected by deployments, citing relationships with coworkers as an added stress.
They don’t return to a base as the active military do; they go back home to their old jobs, their families and the lives they left behind to serve overseas. Here in North Dakota, the men and women of the Guard have known each other for years, maybe lifetimes.
The community has done well reaching out to Placek and to the families of Orgaard and Linde, Placek said, even if sometimes he wishes he could move past the memory. “People recognize me when I’m out,” Placek said. “It’s nice in its way, but it eventually gets old. But it’s human nature.”
Placek just wants to go back to his old job, driving heavy machinery at a coal mine — if only he could. He doesn’t plan on using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits; he makes more money without a degree. But he’s still recovering from his injuries. “I’m hoping another month, month and a half,” Placek said, “but I was hoping it’d be April and now it’s June.”
Four times national average
The North Dakota community knows and understands the National Guard’s role — both stateside in a yearly fight against flood waters and abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan. In North Dakota, a state without an active Army base, the per-capita number of National Guard members is more than four times the national average. According to the North Dakota Guard, 65 people serve in the Guard for every 10,000 state residents.
Units like the 818th represent America’s increased reliance on Guard and Reserve forces since 9/11. The notion of the Guard as a part-time force of “weekend warriors,” serving one weekend per month and two weeks per year, evaporated as it entered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The National Guard and Reservists accounted for one-third of troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Guards’ most significant at-war presence in history. About one in 10 troops killed in action from 2001 to 2011 were National Guard members, according to Department of Defense data.
“When the guy I’ve known for five years or longer is now the guy on my left or right,” said Sgt. Alex Bryson, who was Orgaard’s team leader in the unit, “it gives you an incentive to be the best you can be so you can bring him home, and the same from him to you.”
And still, the 818th lost Orgaard and Linde.
“I know that it’s difficult to go home and see a mom and dad that you knew beforehand. You’d feel like you failed them,” said Bryson, who deployed with the Orgaard and Linde but had the day off on the day they were killed. “I found myself thinking many times, if I could make it me and not him I would do it 100 percent.”
Across the country, the Department of Defense sponsors the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program, which is meant to help with National Guard and Reserve soldiers’ transitions. In North Dakota, the soldiers come back together at the 30-, 60- and 90-day mark.
“The best thing we do is just sit honestly and talk about our friends that we lost,” Bryson said, at the Guard’s 60-day event, “and the good things we did and what we accomplished and just talk about what we did. I guess you just call it a heart-to-heart. We have to do that from time to time.”
The Department of Defense started the program in 2008. Previously, the Guard’s post-deployment remedy was a 90-day rest.
Bohl, as commander, worked with a Yellow Ribbon event planner to pinpoint the specific needs of his unit — soldiers that range in age from 19 to over 40, some with wives and kids, some in college, some unemployed.
Universities, support services, employers and financial counselors were present and soldiers and families were briefed on education benefits and retirement options.
Unlike many vets’ experience, jobs abundant
Jobs are abundant in North Dakota, thanks to an oil boom, but National Guard members returning from deployments in other states aren’t as fortunate. About 20 percent of returning National Guard members are unemployed, according to former National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Craig R. McKinley’s testimony to Congress in early 2012.
Some Yellow Ribbon events also include information on accessing health care, which can be difficult for National Guard soldiers since they don’t have the convenience of on-base care like active Army soldiers do.
Less than 50 percent of National Guard members live within 20 miles of a medical treatment facility, according to the Institute of Medicine’s study on the needs of veterans and their families. There are seven Department of Veterans Affairs-approved outpatient clinics throughout North Dakota, but the closest VA hospital is in Fargo, more than 190 miles from Bismarck.
The Yellow Ribbon program had few guidelines when it began, but over the years it’s become more targeted and refined. Still, each unit that returns from Afghanistan has a slightly different Yellow Ribbon experience, ideally tailored to fit the issues its members may be facing.
“There are certain things that could be tweaked,” Bryson said. “They’re an opportunity to iron out the issues for people that need help. And it reassures families to know that the people responsible for taking care of veterans are doing it.”
Bohl is more concerned about what happens after the 90-day reintegration period ends. For example, a Walter Reed Army Institute of Health study found Guard members were most likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder one year after deployment.
“It’s not the three months afterwards that I’m most concerned about — it’s six months, it’s 12 months, it’s three years, it’s five years,” Bohl said. “Some of those things, those lasting bonds that they’ll need later on in life.”
Bohl, 31, of Flasher, N.D., learned a lot about how to reintegrate after his first deployment to Baghdad, Iraq, in 2007. He found small comforts when he was in Afghanistan: The local agriculture interested him and sometimes the silences felt as if he were home in rural North Dakota.
“You get on your cot, you’re about to go to bed, and you look up and see nothing but stars,” said Bohl. “And the stars look the same there as they do here. And you almost take a second and forget you’re there.”
Challenge of ‘fitting back in’
The most recent return was more difficult: He has two daughters now, one born in September while he was in Afghanistan. Adjusting to his family’s new rhythm has been a challenge.
“My two kids are very focused towards Mom,” Bohl said, “so kind of working into that role, into the Dad role, trying to help out Mom but not taking over. It’s a little bit like walking on eggshells. Nothing against my family, but it’s just trying to get that whole process figured out, where Dad fits.”
Bohl is in charge of 93 soldiers and their well-being. But he said he doesn’t hesitate to just sit down with a soldier and start talking if he needs to.
“Sometimes the gloves gotta come off,” Bohl said. “They still need to understand that you’re still a human being and you wear the pants the same way anyone else in the unit does — one leg at a time, that’s just the way it works. It’s a blessing and a curse, but well worth it.”
He knows from his last deployment that he needed to take more time off between returning home and going back to his civilian job in seed sales. He’s been spending time with his family and preparing to get back into the swing of things soon.
“It’s kind of like baby steps, getting back into the groove, the new normal,” Bohl said.
Spc. Brad Sherman, 24, lives on the eastern side of North Dakota, in Wyndmere, while most of the unit lives in the central or western parts of the state. Sherman didn’t realize how much the distance would affect him, or how hard it would be for him to relate to his old friends.
“You start thinking, what am I going to talk about?” Sherman said. “My last year, your guys’ lives kept going; mine stopped. For the last year, I have nothing to talk about but war. And I don’t feel like they need to hear about anything like that. I’m not going to go into detail on combat.”
Sherman is a self-described small-town country boy. All he wanted to do when he got home was make a special purchase.
“I wanted this truck,” Sherman said. “I love my truck. That is my toy. So I drove. My coping mechanism, when I start thinking, I get in my truck and I’ll drive back roads all day.”
On his drives, Sherman finds himself driving in the middle of the road, just like they did in Afghanistan. He scans the sides of the road still, too — a hyperawareness instilled during war.
Missing the ‘rush’
Sherman felt the high of coming home at first: the freedom, the parties, the friends. It didn’t last.
“The worst part about it, I guess you just get bored sometimes,” he said. “You don’t get that rush anymore so you gotta find something. So I’m picking up skydiving, got a trip to Vegas, got so much stuff coming up that I’m jacked about. I miss that rush, and I think that’s the hardest thing.”
Sherman works construction and roofing jobs — anything to be outside — but he wants to be a firefighter one day. He thinks it’ll be a good rush, just like looking for roadside bombs was.
Sherman will probably use the education benefits he earned to do firefighting training. But that’s not the reason he joined the Guard. He volunteered to deploy with the 818th, as did about 40 percent of the unit.
“I didn’t join for no money, I didn’t join for no college,” Sherman said. “I just wanted to go overseas. I had a very specific mission I wanted to be on… I wanted to be outside, I wanted to be on the front lines, I wanted a piece of this war.”
Rachel Leingang was an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow for News21 this summer.