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Local Man One of Many Iraq Veterans Adjusting to Return

Discussion in 'News, Politics & Debates' started by anthony, Aug 21, 2006.

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  1. anthony

    anthony Silently Watching Founder

    As an Army tank made a routine nighttime patrol down a quiet street in Khalidiyah, Iraq, an anti-tank mine exploded beneath it, propelling metal shrapnel into a reservist's legs.

    First Lt. John Robert Bennett, a 29-year-old Army reservist from Gainesville faced his own mortality that night.

    Now, his daily appointments at a Fort Knox, Ky., medical center to get his wound dressings changed - to keep the gashes on his legs free from infection - continue to remind him of the road to recovery that lies ahead. The painful process of packing gauze into Bennett's 1-inch-deep leg wounds every day will be repeated once a day for the next two months, in addition to physical therapy twice a week.

    Bennett was no stranger to the dangers of war. He watched several members of his unit die while the team trained Iraqi police officers during its tour. Witnessing such incidents and being injured, however, is part of the job, Bennett said.

    "It's war; it's not pretty and it's not happy," Bennett said. "But being in the service, it's part of your obligation. It's what you signed up for."

    The lasting physical, emotional and mental scars of war are being felt here in Gainesville and across the country as wounded combat veterans return home from Iraq.

    Currently, there are 451 combat veterans just like Bennett - mostly those who have fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait - who are enrolled at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Gainesville, said Karen Myers, an administrator with the North Florida/Southern Georgia Veterans Health System.

    For many of these veterans, readapting to their normal lives is hard enough. But when debilitating injuries and mental illness are added to the mix, the healing process for wounded veterans and their families can take even longer, said Jim Lynch, director of Alachua County Veterans Services.

    At the most basic level, after-effects of prolonged exposure to a war zone are commonly experienced by veterans, Myers said. Headaches, irritability, sleeping problems and nightmares are usually the first signs of problems, Myers said. From there, it gets worse.

    Some soldiers return from fighting with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Others come back without arms or legs. Some return deaf or blind.

    "With the Reserves and the National Guard, we pluck them out of the civilian community and stick them in a war zone," Myers said. "When they come home, they have trouble readjusting."

    The two top health issues veterans face in Gainesville and nationwide, Myers said, are PTSD and orthopaedic problems. Months of carrying 80-pound packs and jumping out of Humvees and running on unfamiliar desert terrain takes a severe toll on soldiers' legs, shoulders and backs, Myers said. PTSD, which is diagnosed in 7 percent of all Americans, has been experienced by many combat veterans, Myers said.

    According to a study from the National Center for PTSD and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 31 percent of the men and 27 percent of the women who served in Vietnam have had PTSD in their lifetime. Preliminary findings suggest that 18 percent of those serving in Iraq and 11 percent of those serving in Afghanistan will experience post-traumatic stress disorder sometime in their lives, the study found.

    Aside from the mental health problems a war zone creates, the war in Iraq is being fought using unconventional warfare that causes extensive injuries in an environment most troops are not used to, Lynch said. The insurgency's tactics, like using roadside explosives and suicide bombers, present an ever-present danger for the troops, Lynch said. Heat-related illness, brain injuries and loss of limbs are just the beginning of a long list of injuries veterans have suffered while serving, Lynch said.

    "When someone enlists as an infantryman, that's what they're trained to do," Lynch said. "But reservists and the National Guard are not trained to handle this kind of combat. They wind up experiencing things they'd never thought they'd see and they're not always able to handle it very well."

    Such was the case for Bennett.
    Bennett was working as a computer technician for Lockheed Martin in Washington, D.C., when he was given his orders for Iraq, he said. Bennett, a graduate of Gainesville High School, Santa Fe Community College and the University of Florida, never thought he would be thrust into a war zone - much less be injured.

    Bennett's recovery is going smoothly, he said. He can walk and has about 90 percent mobility in both legs. While he waits to hear if he can get a temporary transfer to Gainesville to be near his family while he recovers, Bennett passes his time in isolation. Bennett has no family or friends nearby, his divorce from his wife is in its final stages and he can't return to the job he held for just six months before he was deployed.

    "Some days, it can be hard," Bennett said. "I'm looking forward to being home again. I can't wait to go back to work."

    While Bennett recovers in Fort Knox, his mother, Margie Palmer of Gainesville, said she's confident he'll return to his old self in time. While his leg wounds will eventually heal, Bennett's challenge, his mother said, will be learning to heal the wounds in his heart after witnessing the deaths and injuries of other soldiers in his unit.

    "It was hard for him when he lost a friend there," Palmer said. "Half of his team was either injured or killed. He always told me, 'We're one team and we work together."

    Bennett said members of his team visited him at Fort Knox and were on hand when he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. It's just one of many moments his mother said has made her proud of her son.

    But more than anything, Palmer is just glad she can talk to her son, hold him and tell him she loves him.

    "He never knew from day to day if he would come back alive," Palmer said as her voice cracked. "We're thankful he made it home alive."

    Source: Gainesville Sun
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