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?Photographed by Tamara Reynolds
The Casualty

Daniel Duefield had been one of Fletcher’s best friends in Iraq. The two watched movies together and supported each other in low moments, and Duefield told Fletcher about his plans for a career in the Army. But back at Ft. Drum in upstate New York, Fletcher saw troubling changes. Duefield slept little and often seemed to be in a haze. There was no more talk about the future; he just seemed to drift. He was soon on several medications for pain from a back injury, anxiety, and a sleep disorder. Duefield’s family suspects that he suffered from post-traumatic stress and possibly a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as well. “Before I knew it, he was a walking zombie,” Fletcher says. Duefield was demoted for a disciplinary infraction, and his downward slide continued. Though Fletcher and his other friends tried, they felt they couldn’t reach him. “I don’t know what happened to him that didn’t happen to me,” Fletcher says. “He just couldn’t cope.”

Discharged from the Army in 2009, Duefield returned home to Grafton, New Hampshire, and lived with his mother. He didn’t work and received disability payments from the government. He met with a psychiatrist and mental health counselors at the local VA hospital but often skipped counseling appointments. “He was very withdrawn. He was a changed man,” his uncle Frederick Duefield says. The nephew who had once been so outgoing now stayed in his room, not even coming out to say hello when his uncle visited. “He was a good kid who came back screwed up from combat. That’s what happened to Dan.”

One afternoon in November 2010, Duefield’s mother called Frederick Duefield and said the state police were en route to the house. Daniel had a pistol and was threatening to kill himself and others. Frederick Duefield persuaded police to allow him to take his nephew to the VA hospital, where he was held for a day and then released. Three days later, he took an overdose of methadone pills, which were prescribed for him, and died.

Quilty is still gnawed by guilt, thinking he could have helped Duefield onto a better path. He knows that his struggles are not so different from Duefield’s, coming home from the war and feeling lost. It was an accumulation of small moments, lucky breaks, and smart choices that led Quilty toward a successful transition. He had a lot of people who helped him, whether by taking a chance on him with a job offer or just listening to his frustrations. Duefield had some of that, too, but it just wasn’t enough. What separates Quilty from Duefield is partly how they experienced combat, both physically and emotionally. Sadly, Duefield is far from alone; in fiscal year 2009, 1,868 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans attempted suicide, and 98 of them died.

A veteran’s most important asset for reintegration can be hope, says Genevieve Chase, executive director of American Women Veterans. “No matter how bad things are, knowing it is going to get better and that you can get back to a sense of normal is important,” says Chase, who was wounded by a suicide car bomb in Afghanistan in 2006. “Vets who have a sense of purpose and a sense of hope transition better.”

Hope is what Scott Quilty tries to offer, as, years out of uniform, he retains a connection with men from his platoon. “We have been through too much, and we have too far left to go to watch another brother-in-arms leave this world by his own hands,” he wrote in a message to the group a few days after Duefield’s death. “If you need help, if you need someone to talk to, if you don’t think anyone would understand, or if you don’t think anyone cares … know this: We are still here for you.”

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