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.
Returning from a client meeting to his office at Fathom Creative, Scott Quilty walks with a slight hitch, and his right leg squeaks with every step. When he sits down at his desk, his pant leg hikes up, revealing a titanium post where his ankle should be. As he chats with his colleague, he lays a business plan across his right arm, which ends in a flesh-colored prosthetic hand.
Now in his second year at Fathom, a design firm in Washington, D.C., the former infantry platoon leader, who was wounded when he stepped on an IED in Iraq in October 2006, has replaced his counterinsurgency manuals with books like Communicating Design. “Jumping out of airplanes and raiding houses doesn’t come in handy when you’re doing business development at a design firm,” he says. “They don’t need people who can kick down doors.” By current statistics, many employers don’t seem to need the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at all.
Today’s veterans are returning to a home front far different from past wars. In World War II, one in ten Americans served in uniform, and most of those who didn’t were directly affected by the war. Today, fewer than one percent of Americans, about 2.4 million men and women, have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. For many in America—indeed, for most—life has gone on much the same since the wars started ten years ago. And veterans take notice—eight in ten say the public doesn’t understand the problems faced by service members and their families, according to a Pew Research Center study.
Those problems are many and daunting, from psychological trauma and high divorce rates—especially among those who have served multiple combat tours—to homelessness, nagging feelings of alienation, and persistent unemployment.
In 2011, the jobless rate among Iraq and Afghanistan vets averaged 12.1 percent, compared with 8.7 percent for the general population. Even as those government numbers showed some improvement in the early part of this year, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) reported that 17 percent of its members were unemployed, unable to convince prospective employers that skills learned in the field are an asset on the job.
Quilty’s current boss, Drew Mitchell, is an exception. Even though Quilty had little experience in design or in business and was trained only for military duty, Mitchell could imagine how Quilty’s expertise in planning missions and leading others under stressful conditions during his Army service would transfer to the workplace. The confidence displayed by the former captain in his job interview impressed Mitchell—“I believe in myself, and I don’t fail,” Quilty told him—and Mitchell, founder and president of Fathom, hired him.
Still, Mitchell freely admits that “If I were to place an ad and get a whole bunch of résumés, Scott’s would not make the short list.” It was the two men’s previous connection that sealed the deal—the kind of connection that most returning vets don’t have: They’d met a couple of years earlier through Survivor Corps, the international nonprofit organization where Quilty served as U.S. program manager.
Losing his right arm and leg ended what Quilty had hoped would be a full Army career, but he soon found himself out in front on another perilous mission—the return to civilian life. That was hard, but Quilty traveled the distance. So did Quilty’s radioman Nathan Fletcher, with some guidance from his old platoon leader. Another member of their platoon, however, Fletcher’s pal Daniel Duefield, did not. As too many vets have learned, casualties don’t just happen in combat. “I’ve seen so many folks exit the service and struggle, trying to find some traction,” says Quilty, now 32. “It’s like the space shuttle reentering the atmosphere. They go through radio blackout for a few minutes, and there’s that danger period.”
After he was wounded, Quilty spent 18 months recuperating. To the frustration of his therapist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he was more interested in landing a job than learning how to bicycle on his prosthetic leg or taking kayak trips with other wounded veterans. While still receiving outpatient therapy at Walter Reed, he started a three-month internship with the U.S. Agency for International Development, a bridge back to the civilian world. To prepare for the job, Quilty went on a shopping spree at Brooks Brothers—he had rented suits for weddings, but for most formal events he still wore his military dress uniform. “You have to learn how to dress like everyone else,” he says.
[pullquote]You have the overwhelming feeling that everyone else has a sense of purpose, places to go, things to do.[/pullquote]
In his new suits—which hid his prosthetic arm and leg—he looked like everyone else, but he didn’t feel like them. Riding the subway in Washington, crowded with commuters, could put Quilty into a cold sweat as he pondered what would become of his life. “You have the overwhelming feeling that everyone else has a sense of purpose, places to go, things to do,” he says. “You’re in civilian clothes, trying to make yourself fit.” And he did; after the internship, he landed a paid job at Survivor Corps.
Quilty has tried to improve the odds for his Army colleagues, sharing the hard-earned knowledge he picked up during his own transition. As platoon leader, his job had been preparing his men for war; in his mind, that obligation didn’t end on the battlefield. He coached them on résumé writing and interview techniques, telling them to sell themselves instead of giving the clipped, to-the-point answers expected in the military; a soldier’s disciplined bearing, Quilty knew, can come off as stiff and unfriendly in the civilian workplace. He took a friend with him back to Brooks Brothers, where the saleswoman recognized him. “My buddy just got out,” he told her, “and he needs some suits.”
“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.
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.”
[pullquote] Vets who have a sense of purpose and a sense of hope transition better. [/pullquote]
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.”