Soldier Deals With Harsh Reality Of War, Economy

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In 2009, David Greene took a road trip across the country to mark President Obama's first 100 days in office, and tried to get a sense of how people were faring in the recession. Today, he talks again with Army Specialist Jeff Taylor. In 2009, Taylor re-enlisted and went back to Iraq because his family couldn't afford for him not to return. But now Taylor and his wife are facing a new level of economic difficulty.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

Back in 2009, I decided to take a road trip around the country to mark President Obama's first 100 days in office, and to try to get a sense for some of the tough decisions Americans were being forced to make in the recession. One of the people I met was U.S. Army Specialist Jeff Taylor. We actually met by phone because he was stationed in Baghdad at the time.

Taylor was 22. He wanted to be back home in Kansas with his wife and two children. But with the economy as bad as it was, he had no idea if he'd be able to find a job, and so he had just re-enlisted. Agreeing to stay in the military meant a stable salary. Signing up for six more years meant he got a signing bonus of some $12,000.

JEFF TAYLOR: I know I'm going to have food at the table. I know we're going to have money for what we need. We're going to be taken care of. If we were to get out, in the economy - they're trying to stabilize it, but you don't really know what's going on. I look at it as a big gamble, and I'm just not willing to take that risk.

GREENE: After having that conversation with Specialist Taylor, I drove to Fort Riley, Kansas, to meet his wife, Sarah, and their children - at the time ages 1 and 3. She told me that as much as she wanted her husband, Jeff, at home, she agreed that the best decision for the family was for him to stay enlisted, and that meant staying in Iraq.

SARAH TAYLOR: It's stable, it's secure. And you have to really mess up to get fired. And you can't quit. So the deployments are risky. But, I don't know?

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BABBLING)

GREENE: In the two years since that visit, the unexpected happened. Specialist Taylor was staying in Iraq to escape the harsh realities at home. Now, the harsh realities of war have forced him to come back to the U.S.

Jeff, tell me why you had to come home.

TAYLOR: Well, I ran into some issues with - basically, just myself. Things over there were a little bit different this time around. And what had happened was, I came down with an extreme anxiety disorder, which eventually led to a psychotic breakdown while I was over there. I was seeing things and hearing things that weren't there. I didn't really want to be around large crowds.

When it would be time to go eat at the dining facility, I wouldn't want to go in there. And there would be times where I wouldn't eat. When it came to work in the office, if somebody got too close to me I got really uncomfortable. I mean, I'd be having all the signs of anxiety such as, you know, my skin would turn bright red; I would start sweating; I'd get really shaky; couldn't concentrate on what I was doing - I lost focus. So it got to be really difficult.

GREENE: You mentioned crowds, Jeff. I mean, were you in crowds when you were doing your work there in Iraq - I mean, in the streets of Baghdad or elsewhere?

TAYLOR: Yes, I was, crowds of the locals and whatnot. We were basically policing a town there and we were told, you know, don't trust anyone. You know, be aware of your surroundings, even the children. The kids, you know, they're a different breed of kids over there. They still play and have fun and everything, but they know a lot of violence.

So you don't know which one is going to walk up to you and maybe - possibly even self-detonate or have a knife, or something like that. It was really nothing that I noticed at the time that bothered me until I came home. And when we went to the zoo one day, actually, is when I first noticed any types of problems with crowds.

We were going through like, an aquarium part of the Omaha Zoo, and we were just packed shoulder to shoulder. And I started to have a little bit of trouble breathing. And I looked at my wife and, you know, I was like, hey, I've got to get out of here.

GREENE: Remind me how long you've been home, and how are you doing right now?

TAYLOR: I got back the end of January. And here lately, just now, it's starting to come back together. All in all, it's worth it. Everything is working out.

GREENE: Have you been able to even start thinking about, you know, taking classes or thinking about work, or are you just focusing on your health right now?

TAYLOR: Well, actually for the longest time, I was focused mainly on my health. And I would go to my appointments and that was it. That's my job. And then as the appointments started to let up some - as I was doing better, there wasn't as many appointments - I would start looking into school. And then I started to think about, well, I will be getting out - because they found me unfit for duty. So I needed to think about, what do I want to do?

Now, I'm going to college to try to get my degree, and I'm knocking out my prereqs right now. And then after my discharge, I'm going to go ahead and attend school up in Iowa and go from there.

GREENE: And what do you plan to study?

TAYLOR: I'm going to study dental hygiene.

GREENE: Well, let's say your plan B works out and, you know, you get this dental hygienist degree that you're going for. You know, the economy at the moment, not looking much better than when I saw you in 2009. And you know, that tough economy was the reason that you decided to stay in Iraq. What are you thinking about the situation in the country now?

TAYLOR: I think I'm going to be fine. Our end result ? where we want to end up ? is either North or South Carolina, and that is where we're going to retire. But between then, we'll just go where there's work.

GREENE: Jeff, best of luck to you. Thank you so much for talking to us.

TAYLOR: Well, thank you very much, and I appreciate that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: That's Army Specialist Jeff Taylor, who just returned from serving in Iraq this year. He was speaking to us from his home in Fort Riley, Kansas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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