LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
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HANSEN: The United States has been at war for more than seven years. The greatest burden of the U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been borne by members of the all-volunteer military, their families, and the medical community that cares for them.
Unidentified Woman #1: I look at this stuff very scientifically and from a medical perspective, at the same time still trying to be nurturing and compassionate and realizing that this is a human being in a bed who is awake or half awake who can still hear.
Mr. JOHN BLAUFUS (Military Veteran, 5th Infantry Regiment Stryker Brigade): People were coming out just bloodied, running for dear life, and pulling up semi trucks, and throwing bodies in there, and driving bodies down to the hospital
Unidentified Woman #2: The way I look at it, I'm in one peace. You know, I recovered. I have absolutely no room to complain when so many of them didn't.
Unidentified Woman #3: People ask me, do you get angry about it or do you get upset about it or does it make you - are you sorry? And I'm like, no.
HANSEN: This month, Weekend Edition is teaming up with NPR's Impact of War unit and NPR member stations for a four-part series. We'll explore how the ongoing wars have affected individuals when they return home, as well as the effects on their loved ones. Our series begins today in Portland, Oregon, with the story of a veteran whose life and mental health have been shattered by his experiences in Iraq. Oregon Public Broadcasting's April Baer reports.
APRIL BAER: Some guys you look at and you can just tell they were in the military. But if you walked past John Blaufus on the streets of Portland, Oregon, or ran into him in one of the city's coffeehouses, you might never guess that this tattooed, shaggy-haired 26-year-old witnessed some of the worst the war had to offer.
Mr. BLAUFUS: I love Stumptown Coffee, it's my favorite coffee. I actually used to get Stumptown coffee sent to me in Iraq. And I had a French press that I would bring in the Hummer or bring in the Stryker. And I'd have one hand on my rifle and one hand with a cup of coffee.
BAER: The coffee helped with a lot of things. The 4 a.m. missions, the uncertainty of what lay behind each door in a house-to-house search. John says what the coffee couldn't fix, his staff sergeant could.
Mr. BLAUFUS: When I got to Fort Lewis, my duty station, I met Staff Sgt. Julian Melo. He was just really like a father to me. We really relied on each other.
BAER: That bond became especially important as they moved with the 5th Infantry Regiment Stryker Brigade through increasingly dangerous areas, from Baghdad to Fallujah, into Mosul. On December 21, 2004, a suicide bomber struck the base where John was assigned, killing 23 men, including Julian Melo.
Mr. BLAUFUS: I looked over and there was a huge cloud coming out of the dining hall facility. People were coming out just bloodied, running for dear life, and pulling up semi trucks, and throwing bodies in there, and driving bodies down to the hospital. And then all of a sudden, they started bombing our hospital.
BAER: John didn't learn of Julian's death until hours later. The captain of his company, Justin Uhler, says there was no time to grieve.
Captain JUSTIN UHLER (5th Infantry Regiment Stryker Brigade): John was very shaken - very, very shaken. And of course, you really don't have a choice. I mean, things really do have to keep going.
BAER: John took over Julian's job, running supplies, and just kept going.
Mr. BLAUFUS: I would put on Julian's jacket and go on missions, manning the guns, and really took the offense from that point on. Where from before, where I was trying to survive - at that point, I was trying to kill.
BAER: For John, the war became an endless cycle of missions, house-to-house searches, supply work, anything to avoid thinking too much about what was happening. Again Justin Uhler.
Captain UHLER: My impression of John, he was doing all right. Not great, not wonderful, just doing all right.
Ms. ANNE BLAUFUS: I really don't think it was a real change until after he actually was discharged.
BAER: This is John's mom, Anne Blaufus.
Ms. BLAUFUS: When he first got home, he was sleeping on the floor in the living room. When he did sleep, he would sleepwalk. In fact, he'd get up and run outside, run into the street thinking he was in Iraq. And he still does that.
BAER: Although Anne's a trauma nurse, she wasn't prepared for the extent of John's injuries. His inability to focus, his difficulty driving - tailgaters are a problem. He can go long stretches without eating or showering. Anne insisted he find a therapist immediately. In the year after his return, John repeatedly enrolled in college classes and then dropped out. He got married four months after coming home to a woman who shortly left him. Looking back, John says the war changed everything.
Mr. BLAUFUS: I understood that I could die any day. So I was constantly doing stuff that, you know, a 24-year-old shouldn't be doing. You know, I bought a house that I didn't even look at the house before I bought it. When my marriage ended, the need for everything ended along with it.
BAER: That house has now fallen into foreclosure. John has been hospitalized twice since he got back for acute post-traumatic stress disorder. The list of things he can't do is long: sleep, eat in front of other people, go running or hiking. He even had to relearn his favorite thing, playing the guitar.
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Mr. BLAUFUS: Before I left for the war, I was able to play. It was more natural for me. But when I got home, I found that it wasn't so natural for me anymore. I still do have to really pay attention to my hands.
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BAER: John says one thing keeps him going.
Mr. BLAUFUS: Persistence. If I had trouble with it yesterday, I'll try it again today. And that just goes with anything from getting up to take a shower to playing songs.
BAER: Norma Melo is the wife of John's slain staff sergeant Julian. John and Norma used to talk a lot. Norma says John sometimes checks in by email, but hasn't been able to visit much. She says she sees his grief, and she doesn't blame him.
Ms. NORMA MELO: I think John is very typical of what is happening to our soldiers that are getting out. They want so much to continue in a life that they had before the war, but the war has tainted what that life is.
BAER: John recently checked himself into a PTSD clinic in Seattle. He's back home now, bracing himself for the fourth anniversary of the Mosul bombing, which is just two weeks away. For NPR News, I'm April Baer in Portland, Oregon.
HANSEN: In June of 2005, Air Force K-9 handler Jamie Hynes Dana(ph) and her dog, Rex, were blown out of their Humvee by an IED near Kirkuk, Iraq. Rex escaped with nothing more than a singed nose, but Jamie was severely injured. Today, retired from the Air Force, Jamie still struggles with those injuries, but she gets support from Rex and her husband, former Army medic Mike Mangan(ph) who saved her life that day in Iraq. Next week on Weekend Edition in the second part of our "Impact of War" series, the story of Jamie, Mike, and Rex. What impact have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had on your lives? Share your story on our blog at npr.org/soapbox.