Back from wars, troops feel mix of sadness, joy

TACOMA — Spc. Egbert Keil used to sing backup while his friend strummed a guitar at their small combat outpost in southern Afghanistan. Sgt. Sapuro Nena had the better voice, and sang lead.

Now home in Tacoma, Keil plays his guitar alone. He imagines Nena singing with him.

“I know he’s not here. I know he’s looking down on us,” said Keil, 26.

He lost his close friend in September, when Taliban infiltrators in Afghan police uniforms turned their guns on six U.S. soldiers, killing four assigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment.

His thoughts return to his fallen friend even as he embraces life with his wife, Ato, and 1-year-old daughter, Tiresa. Making it home safe to his girls filled Keil’s heart like he knew it would.

Even so, he said he doesn’t feel complete. “With my family, I’m glad I’m back. As a whole person, I feel like I’m missing something.”

“I feel like I left part of me in Afghanistan,” he said.

Keil is among more than 10,000 Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers who served in Afghanistan last year. Most came home between November and February, and are now settling into everyday life with no known deployments on the horizon.

It’s a season of transitions, with some soldiers settling in to meet rising Army standards as the force draws down. Others are focusing on healing and reconnecting with their families.

“Everything’s fresh; it’s a whole new start,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Wenske, a 1-14 cavalryman who attended a February marriage retreat with his wife, Melissa.

Some veterans say they’re picking up right where they left off with their loved ones.

Sgt. Ryan Corcoran and wife Mallory, for instance, avoided the bumpy homecoming they had after his 2009-10 deployment.

This time, they worked with Chaplain Capt. Rick Pak to set reasonable expectations for Corcoran’s homecoming from Afghanistan.

“We knew what to expect and planned accordingly,” said Corcoran, 23.

“It’s better,” Mallory Corcoran, 22, agreed at a recent couples event at Lewis-McChord.

But after five months at home, the initial exuberance military families feel when they reconnect is starting to wear off for some.

Combat-related ailments, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress, sleep disruptions and relationship issues, tend to surface about now, said Dan Christensen, chief of Madigan Army Medical Center’s program that places behavioral health specialists inside active-duty units.

“There’s usually a cycle,” said Chaplain Pak of DuPont, who has served with the 1-14 Cavalry for the past five years and has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

By now, “We’re actually going through issues that have been on the back burner,” he said.

Pak sees the stress in soldiers’ requests for counseling, or in short conversations he has with soldiers who bring up relationship issues. He hosted an overnight marriage retreat in the winter, and another daylong event this month.

His talks center on communication, helping spouses calm down and defuse fights that could derail a marriage.

Take a timeout, he says. Don’t argue when you’re drunk. Assume your spouse has good intentions.

“This gave us time to think,” said Staff Sgt. Christian Ozuna, 27, of Tacoma. He and his wife, Lourdes, said they had a moment of insight during Pak’s most recent session, inspiring them to address issues they’d been avoiding.

At the last event, Pak played on a tradition in the unit that grants gold spurs to soldiers who serve on a combat tour with a cavalry squadron. He fashioned gold spurs in the shapes of hearts and gave them to couples who agreed to take a step back to work on their relationships.

“I’m not saying marriage is like warfare,” he told them, referring to the symbolism of the gold spur. “But it’s a reminder to daily fight for your marriage.”

Egbert and Ato Keil had a different kind of homecoming this time, too.

After the last deployment, they were newlyweds. This time, they’re parents with more responsibilities.

“First he was a boyfriend; now he’s a husband,” Ato said.

They had just become serious about their relationship after Keil’s 2009-10 tour of Iraq, even though they had known each other for several years back home in American Samoa.

Ato happened to move to Tacoma during Egbert’s Iraq deployment to be closer to her sisters. They stayed in touch while he was overseas.

He proposed soon after he returned. Pak performed their wedding ceremony.

Their daughter was born in September 2011 – three months before Egbert left for Afghanistan. Ato moved in with her family in Tacoma while her husband went to war.

He thought of them constantly and took his first opportunity to get home on leave. He only had eyes for baby Tiresa when he saw his family at the airport for that break in May 2012. He just couldn’t wait to hold her.

After his leave, Keil rejoined Nena at a small combat outpost near the Pakistan border in Zabul province’s Mizan district. Their outpost sat in a valley surrounded by imposing peaks — geography that makes soldiers feel vulnerable to enemy attacks.

He and Nena coped with their environment by making jokes. They were laid-back guys who could make each other laugh. Afghan soldiers and police officers often referred to them as brothers.

They knew each other from their previous Iraq deployment. They both grew up in the South Pacific — Keil in American Samoa, Nena in Micronesia — and identified with each other.

Keil left Mizan for a different forward base in July. Nena stayed.

Two months later, Nena was shot to death in the insider attack with Pfc. Genaro Bedoy, Pfc. Jon Townsend and Spc. Joshua Nelson. It was a particularly brutal loss, even in a year when more than 50 Western service members died at the hands of Afghan allies.

“I feel like I shouldn’t have left him,” Keil said.

He found himself angry and avoiding Afghan police and soldiers as much as he could for the last two months of his deployment.

He felt like a changed man.

Keil has turned to Pak for help several times, first in Afghanistan and now at home. Egbert and Ato Keil attended the chaplain’s overnight retreat in February, and said they benefited from the counseling.

Pak, too, wears a black bracelet with the names of the soldiers from the 1-14 Cavalry who were killed in the September attack. The chaplain knows what Nena’s loss meant to Keil.

“They were very close,” he said.

The Keils said they didn’t talk much about Nena after the attack. Egbert came home in a darker mood than he felt after his first tour. He felt himself becoming impatient with his wife.

Pak’s counseling helped them understand how to handle those moments, they said.

Ato has a big smile and an easygoing nature. They’re committed to an Army career even if it takes Egbert overseas again.

“It is what it is; I married Army life,” she said. “Whatever happens in life, I go with it.”

At Lewis-McChord, Keil said he’s hustling to hold his spot at a time when the Army plans to shrink its ranks. He still enjoys being a soldier, and he wants to provide a stable life for his family.

Bouncing his daughter in the palm of his hand, he looks completely present in his life in Tacoma. It’s good to be out of Afghanistan.

“Coming home is the best thing you can think of,” he said. “Coming home is your family; it’s your future.”

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