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The soldiers of 1st Battalion, 194th Armor Company A returned from a year-long tour of duty in Iraq last December to high expectations of tasting mom's famous tater-tot hot dish again, cheering at their children's basketball games and working at their regular jobs in Wadena. For most soldiers, life has gradually returned to a reasonable degree of normalcy.

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However, some veterans may still experience difficulty reintegrating to the civilian lives they left behind to participate in a faraway war.

Wadena's Reintegration and Referral Network is a collection of area law enforcement officers, physicians, social service personnel and other experts who have united to assist these veterans find the help they need to readjust to American life, according to network members. The network also aims to create awareness in the community about the reintegration issues returning veterans face.

Wadena County Social Services Director Paul Sailer, a network member and Vietnam War veteran, said: "It's hard for us [soldiers] to feel like we have a weakness. When you're in the service you're not trained to be weak, you're trained to be strong."

Sgt. 1st Class Ronald K. Huff, along with Maj. John Morris, conducted a training session for the Referral Network at Tri-County Hospital last December using Morris's one-of-kind program "Reintegration Beyond Reunion." Huff, 35, is a full-time member of the Army National Guard, two-war veteran and the Minnesota state reintegration noncommissioned officer. He served as the leader of a 35-man combat engineering platoon responsible for clearing roads of bombs and improvised explosive devices during his February 2004 to January 2005 tour of duty in Iraq.

Soldiers often return from overseas with unrealistic expectations of home, Huff said.

"While you're over there it's almost like you're in a prison environment," he said about his life in Iraq. "There's mostly not a lot going on, punctuated by moments of terror."

Huff's platoon surveyed the exact same stretch of highway everyday in search of unusual objects, some of which were bombs, he said.

This sometimes boring, sometimes terrifying environment can cause soldiers to develop images of an America where everything is cleaner and tastes better.

"You get these glowing images in your mind," Huff said. "It's hard to be reality based."

These heightened expectations can interfere with a soldier's ability to readjust to the everyday reality of American life, he said.

"You forget people's nuances and bad habits," Huff said about returning home. "Nothing tastes as good as you remembered it."

As a veteran of the Gulf War, he said he expected to have a successful reintegration after his second deployment in Iraq.

"I knew what it was like to come back the first time, and I figured it would set me up of for the second," Huff said. "[I was] shocked that it didn't."

Sailer said unless someone has experienced a combat zone, it is difficult to understand what it is like to return home from such a different environment. All combat units have different experiences and it is not necessary for soldiers to lose a member of their unit to have some of the same issues as a soldier in war combat, he said.

"When the fighting is being done in a way like guerilla warfare, you don't know if the civilian you're talking with is a friend or foe," Sailer said. "You don't need to have actual combat around you to have the experience of war."

It is not unusual for veterans to have problems upon returning to civilian life from the very different culture of military life, he said.

Huff said in the military someone else makes most of your decisions for you and you know what you need to do.

"Life in Iraq is real simple," he said about the structure and order of military bases compared to American life. "You come back to the overwhelming complexity of so many everyday decisions. It's unbelievable."

It takes awhile to readjust to having so many options, Huff said.

"In the military they tell you what to wear," he said. "When I came home I could barely dress myself for Sunday church."

Reconnecting with spouses and children can also be a challenge for returning soldiers, Huff said. He returned to his three-bedroom home and two Labrador retrievers in Litchfield, Minn., to a wife who no longer found him to be a necessary part of her life, he said.

"She pretty much explained to me that she had been running the show and she didn't need me," Huff said recalling the reunion with his wife. His 10-year marriage eventually ended in divorce, an outcome Huff said is not uncommon.

Vietnam-era veteran and network member, Linda Kirk, a Wadena County Social Services child protection and chemical dependency worker, said it's hard for returning soldiers to readapt to complicated family life.

Kirk provided an example of a soldier who came back to a wife and five children and had to readjust to being bombarded with family chores as soon as he stepped off the plane and returned home. He went from having one job in Iraq to making many everyday decisions such as taking the dog to the veterinarian, Kirk said.

"It's a difficult thing for the returning veteran to be reintegrated into all these 'dos,'" she said.

Some veterans also experience difficulty returning to the jobs they had before they went to Iraq, Kirk said.

Sailer said the military trains young people to have a lot of responsibility in a certain area and he said it isn't easy for a soldier to transition from an important military job to working at a fast-food restaurant.

"[There's] such a contrast between what you are able to do on the one hand, that's not reflected in the job you currently have," Sailer said.

It can take time for soldiers to realize they are having difficulty reintegrating to life in America, Huff said. Law enforcement officers are usually the first people who come in contact with veterans who are experiencing difficulties, he said. They may encounter veterans who are driving recklessly because they are used to very different driving circumstances in Iraq or are spending too much time at the bars.

"While you're there, you have to convince yourself that you're 10 feet tall and bullet proof," he said. "[Try] and take any 22-year-old and convince him that he's got an issue."

Huff said he realized he needed help when he found himself wishing he was back in Iraq during the holiday season after he returned from his deployment. He became overwhelmed by the complexity of an American Christmas with all of the parties, presents, cards and letters. Huff said he wanted five minutes to be quiet and be thankful for what he had, but he didn't seem to be able to get that time.

He found himself reflecting on the Christmas he spent in Iraq shortly before his tour ended, he said. Most of the other soldiers who once shared neighboring 5-by-7 foot spaces with him in a reinforced airplane bunker had left for Kuwait and America. Huff said he had packed up most of his Army gear along with the family photos, a trinket from his Harley and a good luck horseshoe that were his sentimental items from home. He moved to a large tent with one other roommate and a rucksack equipped with four days worth of supplies. On Christmas Day he feasted on Dinty Moore Beef Stew and Easy Mac.

"It was the best Christmas I had in 34 years," he said. "It was quiet and I was thankful."

Huff became superstitious that something would happen to him right before he was scheduled to go home, he said. "What if it happened now," Huff said, remembering his fears of being killed. "What if I get whacked and then that would just suck."

He felt intense happiness about going home and an intense fear of dying before he got there, he said.

"You mix it all together and you get this intense peace," Huff said about the combination of emotions. "I was grateful for the things I had and grateful to be alive. It was a very spiritual moment."

It was a peace he said he couldn't find in his first post-Iraq Christmas.

Huff and his father, who is also a two-war veteran, shared memories about their Christmases overseas, he said. They could remember those holidays so much more clearly than Christmases they had in America only a few years before.

"When I told my wife that I wanted to go back to Iraq that's when I knew things were rough," he said.

Huff said he found help dealing with his reintegration problems through militaryonesource.com. He recommends the site to other veterans and said it will link soldiers to people in their community who can help them.

The "Reintegration Beyond Reunion" programming is an effort to build a safety net in communities to deal with veteran's issues because there are not a lot of soldiers to train, Huff said. The Minnesota National Guard has 3,000 soldiers deployed overseas, he said, and needs to rely on communities to deal with veterans' reintegration.

Huff said his department gauges its success on how much they hear from soldiers. He said it has been the community leaders who are calling for support to meet soldier's needs.

"The communities are out there doing a great job serving these families and soldiers so it doesn't come to our level," he said.

Wadena Reintegration and Referral Network members include John Pate, physician at Wadena Medical Center; Dick Bentrup, social worker at Tri-County Hospital; Cathy Hansen, therapist at Neighborhood Counseling Center; Cindy Pederson, family health supervisor for Wadena County Public Health; Phil Miller, officer for Wadena police department; and David Anderson, county veterans service officer.

Sailer said it is the network's mission to refer veterans to experts who understand their reintegration issues. It is important for veterans to know reintegration problems are normal and they should seek help if they need it, he said.

"Time is a soldier's friend," Sailer said. "Many of these fellows will take their experiences and build on them and contribute to their community over their lives. It's just they're going to have some bumps along the way."

sarah@wadenapj.com

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