Guardsmen Return to Vermont from Iraq, Slowly
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This week, 400 members of the Vermont National Guard returned from Iraq after the largest overseas deployment in the Vermont Guard's history. The soldiers are spending their last days together at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. They're getting medical checkups and doing paperwork and counselors are urging them to talk about their experiences.
Vermont Public Radio's Steve Zind reports.
STEVE ZIND reporting:
As they walk from the plane into the Mississippi heat after the long trip from Iraq, the soldiers' faces registered exhaustion and relief. But guard psychologist John Coffin saw something more. He knows that some of the returning soldiers will need his help.
Mr. JOHN COFFIN (National Guard Psychologist): This group has been in as much harm's way as any of our groups. Some of them have died, been wounded and all of them have been terrified for a year. Some will have feelings. Some won't. They'll be thinking about the losses they took. We found that at the plane.
ZIND: As civilians, the guardsmen are high school teachers, electricians and businessmen. For the past year, though, they've been patrolling the roads in Iraq's dangerous Unbar Province. Sebastian Shakir will remember the hours he spent hunched in a small seat inside a tank.
Mr. SEBASTIAN SHAKIR (National Guardsman): Waiting to get attacked, waiting for your shift to end, waiting to get blown up, just waiting for something to happen. The longest shift we did was 18 hours. We'd sit in the tank. It was hot. There's no air conditioning in there. You get bored and complacent really easily. I tried to think about home too much. I didn't want to get depressed.
ZIND: Shakir's guard commander was Steve Norcross. In civilian life, Norcross works for a heating and ventilation contractor. In Iraq, he was responsible for more than 100 soldiers. When he's asked what he'd like to forget about his time there, he sums it up in five words.
Mr. STEVE NORCROSS (National Guard): Pretty much all of it.
ZIND: Norcross says his worst moment came on the day one of his men was killed. He's relieved he no longer has to worry about that possibility.
Mr. NORCROSS: I do not have to be responsible any more for telling somebody to do something that may cost them their lives. So, I mean, that's, that's the hardest part.
ZIND: Damon Rooney is one of the youngest soldiers under Norcross's command. With his fair complexion and dimpled smile, Rooney looks even younger than his 20 years. When he joined the guard at 17, he first had to get his mother's permission. Rooney was trained to load ammunition into tank guns. When he got to Iraq, he was told he wouldn't be loading the guns - he'd be shooting them.
Late one night on patrol in Unbar Province, he shot an enemy combatant. Rooney recounts the moment in minute detail. He's gone over it many times.
Mr. DAMON ROONEY (National Guardsman): This is my proving point, say, could I actually kill a man? That stands out in my mind. I think it's sad, you know, people had to die, but I was doing it to protect the lives of other soldiers. I do think about it often.
ZIND: Guardsmen say there are many things they'd like to forget about their experiences, but Sebastian Shakir knows that will be difficult.
Mr. SHAKIR: What I fear is dreaming about things or once we sort of get out of here and relax, true feelings will come to surface or I won't be able to find people that will understand what I'm talking about.
ZIND: As the guardsmen spend their last days together as a unit, counselors are asking Shakir and the others to talk about these experiences in hopes of easing the transition back to their families and jobs in Vermont.
For NPR News, I'm Steve Zind.