What Happens When Soldiers Become Civilians Again?

Three men fought together on the front lines in Iraq, but faced new perils and different fates when they came back. Meet America's servicemen as they return from war.

By Brian Mockenhaupt from Reader's Digest Magazine | June 2012

What Happens When Soldiers Become Civilians Again?Courtesy Nathan Fletcher
The Student

“I molded myself more after him than anyone else,” says Nathan Fletcher about Quilty. Now in his second year at Keuka College, a school of about 1,900 students in upstate New York, Fletcher was on patrol with Quilty when he stepped on the IED. The two friends stayed in touch during Quilty’s rehabilitation, and Quilty started urging Fletcher to think about his post-Army life. “What’s your game plan?” he wanted to know.

Fletcher had tried college before he joined the Army but left after a semester and worked in a restaurant. This time, he felt he was ready for it. Quilty encouraged him to apply to schools while he was still a soldier, rather than wait until he was out, when time would slip by and motivation might fade.

At first, Fletcher, 27, didn’t tell his teachers or fellow students he had been to war. “I blended in, same as when I went to basic training. You sit back and observe and get a good feel for what’s going on before you start opening your mouth,” he says. Quilty believes that Fletcher’s combat experience gave him a maturity that sets him apart from his fellow students. “He understands what a bad day really is, and it’s not necessarily having too many papers due,” he says.

Though Fletcher rarely refers to Iraq and his military service there, he has built several close relationships with classmates and professors and participates in a campus leadership program. Fitting in at college was a pleasant surprise for him. “I found it really difficult to believe I’d have things in common with people so different from me,” he says. He stays close to several Army friends and talks to Quilty by phone regularly, about his classes and Quilty’s work, their families, and news of Army buddies. “If it wasn’t for the support networks, it would be unbearable at times,” Fletcher says.

Like Quilty, who wants to be seen as a businessman, not a wounded vet, Fletcher embraces his civilian identity. He’s a student, like any other, though the GI Bill and school grants for vets cover most of his costs. He’s studying psychology, drawn to the subject by a desire to better understand the damage that war has done to him and his friends. He wants to help others, not just vets, and he’s already working as a nursing assistant at an inpatient mental health clinic near his school.

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