Group Bridges Civilians, Military Gap
RACHEL MARTIN, host: From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Guy Raz is away. I'm Rachel Martin.
There are roughly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan but next month, President Obama will start a gradual drawdown. The goal is to have most Americans home by 2014. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been talking a lot about what happens when troops do finally come home and face a civilian culture that may not understand them. Here he is, speaking last fall.
Secretary ROBERT GATES: Even after 9/11 and the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.
MARTIN: Many of those coming home from war have life-altering injuries; some visible, some not. Many also struggle to find jobs, reconnect with their kids, and just fit in to the civilian world. That's our cover story today: bridging the military-civilian divide - which brings us to Valerie McIntosh. She left the Army with 20 years of service under her belt, two deployments to Iraq and post-traumatic stress disorder.
She was directed to a group called Team Red, White and Blue, which pairs wounded veterans with a so-called civilian advocate, someone who can help vets navigate life after the military. Valerie recently moved to the Washington, D.C., area, and she was matched up with Marcia Buckley, a former middle-school teacher. They're in the studio with me now. Thanks so much for coming in.
VALERIE MCINTOSH: You're welcome.
MARCIA BUCKLEY: Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: So you two were paired up by compatibility after filling out an online form. Valerie, what was it like meeting Marcia for the first time? Tell me about that.
MCINTOSH: Initially, it was awkward. That's before she opened her mouth because...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MCINTOSH: ...because we think about civilians like - maybe like "Leave It To Beaver" or something - some really sweet woman coming up and just saying all the right things and, you know, so I thought it was going to be like that. But it wasn't. It wasn't. It was deeper than that.
MARTIN: How about for you?
BUCKLEY: Apparently, I'm not sweet...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BUCKLEY: ...with which my family would concur, Valerie.
MARTIN: Did she break some of your preconceptions about who a soldier is?
BUCKLEY: What it broke was my initial preconception of the veteran - the young, 20-year-old man who has visible injuries, who's lost a limb or something like that. I hadn't thought about a woman my age, who is at the end of an almost 20-year military career and carrying a real war zone for the first time, and needing support because of that.
MARTIN: So if we can take a step back, tell me a little bit about your service. Where were you deployed?
MCINTOSH: I was deployed in Iraq twice, and I also went to Desert Storm. My job was mortuary affairs. For the first part of my career, I was stationed in Hawaii, where we did anthropology work and search and recovery, but it was from the past wars. I didn't have any comprehension what it was to be mortuary affairs in a combat zone.
MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of what a day is like?
MCINTOSH: So in my first week in Iraq, I was startled out of my sleep around 2 a.m., saying that we had a kill on a patrol and it's an Iraqi interpreter, and we need you to come right away. So I'm running in the dark to this clinic, and I'm thinking they're just going to have this interpreter already in a body bag in the clinic, and now I need to process.
But they had him still in the truck, where he was assassinated, and it was my job to take him out of the truck and put him in the body bag and then proceed from there. So I didn't really comprehend that part until that moment.
MARTIN: And I imagine that stress of being in that environment, that that's hard.
MCINTOSH: It is. There was a lot of people withdrawing from me because when they saw me, it reminded them that death is around.
MARTIN: What made you reach out for help?
MCINTOSH: Me being in the military, there's certain things that are like, programmed in my head, in my behavior. Like, I'm going to do it because it's the right thing to do. It's there, it's a mission, and I want to get it completed. And...
MARTIN: So someone recommended this program to you and you said, I'm a good soldier, I will go sign up for that program.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Hmm. What support does Marcia give you? How has she been able to help you as you kind of transition into this new life?
MCINTOSH: Fortunately, Marcia used to be a middle-school teacher. And my child is in middle school. And I was a little detached from my son because I had to leave him a lot. So meeting Marcia, and her having that background, I felt a little more secure, like OK, if I have any academic problems or issues with my 13-year-old - and plus she has a daughter the same age - I can kind of maybe bounce it off of her.
MARTIN: And has that happened?
BUCKLEY: Yeah. She's too modest, probably, to mention it, but her son is a very bright young man. Her son is academically gifted. And, well, Valerie wasn't aware of what resources existed in this area for him. And so if that's an area I can help her in, I can do that. I felt confident, at least, that I could do that.
MARTIN: Valerie, why was it important for you, through this program, to develop a structured relationship with someone not in the military?
MCINTOSH: Me and another soldier probably wouldn't have as much compassion because they would probably have more of, let me complete this mission, then let me take care of this person as a human being.
MARTIN: That's Army veteran Valerie McIntosh and her civilian advocate, Marcia Buckley. They're part of Team Red, White and Blue. Valerie and Marcia, thanks very much.
MCINTOSH: You're welcome.
BUCKLEY: Thank you for having us.
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