From vets to moms, Iraq war leaves mark on town
KOKOMO, Ind.—In a quiet park on the eastern edge of this auto manufacturing town, a gleaming ring of black granite walls and monuments stand in solemn tribute to the war dead. Hundreds of names are etched in stone, many of them long forgotten to history.
Not so the six newest additions: Brian M. Clemens. Robert L. McKinley. James E. Swain. Rickey E. Jones. Nathan J. Frigo. David N. Simmons.
Their smiles, their voices, their Little League games, their yearbook photos are fresh memories here to friends and family. Now the six -- all of whom died in the Iraq war -- are honored next to the walls on a granite monument inscribed with the words "Global War on Terror."
This town of 45,000 is known for embracing the military, whether it's memorializing its fallen heroes in the middle of the war, stretching Veterans Day into an eight-day tribute or flying POW-MIA flags outside the schools.
But now, in the wake of the departure of the last U.S. troops from Iraq, Kokomo joins hundreds of smaller towns across the nation that will be wrestling with the legacy of a nearly nine-year war that claimed nearly 4,500 American lives, wounded tens of thousands, and became one of the most politically divisive conflicts in U.S. history.
More than 1.5 million Americans served in a war that introduced the nation to new battlefields (Ramadi, Fallujah, Nasiriyah) and IEDs (improvised explosive devices), a conflict that lasted so long some soldiers at the end were elementary school students at the beginning.
In Kokomo -- a town where the names of the war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan were read aloud last Veterans Day -- there will be reverberations for years to come, from the churches and colleges to grieving mothers and a new generation of vets nervous about the troubled economy.
"What I worry about is once Americans forget about the war, they're going to forget about the people who fought the war," says Jason Vazquez, a 28-year-old Navy veteran of two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. "I never really understood it from the Vietnam guys but I can see it now: For the troops ... the war is really never over."
Howard County is dotted with memorials remembering veterans whose service spans three centuries.
They're stone and brass, grand and modest, indoor and outdoor. They commemorate the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. And a group of vets hopes to add to that: It's trying to raise more than $300,000 for a new memorial honoring military families.
There are individual tributes, too. After James Swain, a 2002 Kokomo High School graduate, honors student and statistician for the girls basketball team, was killed in Fallujah at the age of 20, a scholarship was established in his name.
In this central Indiana county where veterans make up about 9 percent of the population, almost everyone has a neighbor, acquaintance or relative who has donned a military uniform.
Bob Ladd, the county's veterans service officer, knows many of them. His office caseload of about 3,500 includes about 1,000 vets from the 9/11 generation, many of whom are dealing with traumatic brain injury, hearing loss or PTSD.
He hears the stories of young warriors who've returned home, scared to drive, haunted by IEDs hidden on roads in Iraq, or so wary of crowds, they shop deep into the night.
"They're still kids," says Ladd, a Desert Storm vet. "You're going from high school to a combat zone. I believe the military does mature a person but when you see what they have and then you're trying to readjust when you're 21, 22, it's tough."
So tough that some have taken desperate measures. Ladd says he knows of five young vets in the county who attempted suicide over the last year -- one ended in death.
Ladd's office tries to smooth the way for these newest vets, helping them navigate the bureaucratic maze to apply for benefits, get counseling, if needed, and take advantage of the Post 9/11 GI bill to attend school.
"They definitely earned it and they deserve it," he says, "and their lives will be better."
Patrick McCrumb, a Marine Corps reservist who served in Iraq and Afghanistan before returning in 2010, is still adjusting. It hasn't been easy.
At first, he says, "people try to tiptoe around you to avoid talking about what you did the last year of your life. No one wants to dive in the pool."
Even now, he's not sure where he belongs. "When you're there, the only place you want to be is back home and when you're home, the only place you want to be is back there," he says. "I still feel that way sometimes."
McCrumb, now a 25-year-old divorced father, found work in a steel factory in 2010, but almost lost his left leg in a machine accident, sidelining him for a year.
He had joined the Marines to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. But McCrumb also had been inspired to serve after the death of Rickey Jones, his boyhood friend, Little League teammate and a guy, he says, was "the life of every party."
Nearly six years have passed since Jones' death, but McCrumb thinks of him often. Every now and then, he puts on his Marine dress blues and visits his grave, bringing a beer.
"When I go to the cemetery," he says, "it's just me and him. That's it."
Like his friend, McCrumb, Jason Vazquez is a third-generation military man.
Two weeks out of high school in 2002 and motivated by the Sept. 11 attacks, Vazquez was in boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois.
Seven years later, the 28-year-old father was home, trying to find his footing as a civilian in a nation reeling from a recession and a town devastated by an auto industry in steep decline. As home to both Chrysler and General Motors, Kokomo was hemorrhaging jobs. Unemployment briefly rocketed to around 20 percent.
Since then, the community has rebounded with the auto bailout and $1.4 billion in investments in Kokomo in the last 18 months, much of it from Chrysler. But with the jobless rate hovering at about 10 percent, it's still hard to find work for vets such as Vazquez, who has devoted most of his adult life to the military.
As a Navy corpsman who treated wounded troops, Vazquez had thrived in the pressure cooker of war. But back in Indiana, that experience wasn't good enough to land a job as a firefighter, emergency medical technician, ambulance crew member or lab specialist drawing blood.
"I thought that I was worthless," he says. "I felt like no one wanted me anymore after the military."
It was especially crushing considering his quick decisions and medical skills had helped save lives on the battlefield.
"I had a guy whose leg was blown up and he's grabbing me, saying, `Doc, make sure I get home.' Or a guy who's burned saying, `Doc, I have trust in you that I'll make it. I know you can do it,'" he recalls. "I'd gone from that to people saying you don't have the credentials to put a Band-Aid on someone."
Vazquez had always expected his service would be a plus.
"I had the assumption that it's a steppingstone, that I'll be financially set, I'll have training and then I can get a job like that," he says, snapping his fingers. "That's everything I'd heard in high school --'You go into the military and when you come out people are going to respect you so much more. They'll put you first in line.' None of that's true."
The public, he adds, is "happy to shake your hand and say, `Thank you' ... but when it comes to them actually doing something for us ... it stops. If it takes them putting us ahead of somebody who has had college, they're not going to do that to give us a job."
Vazquez's predicament isn't unusual. About 11 percent of veterans who served in the military since Sept. 11, 2001, are unemployed, according to recent federal statistics. Last month, President Barack Obama signed into law a measure that creates tax breaks for companies that hire jobless veterans.
Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight is sympathetic.
"I think it's a shame we ask people to go out and put their lives on the line and when they come back, not only are there very limited opportunities for the majority of them ... but the debt to pay for the war will fall on their shoulders as well," he says.
Goodnight presided at a City Hall ceremony last month kicking off the annual Military Appreciation Days, an eight-day local observance in which about 70 businesses offered free or discounted services to military members and their families.
Vazquez attended the ceremony and organized a six-mile march to honor fallen Iraq and fallen Afghanistan troops, walking to the Golden Corral restaurant, where 1,140 free meals were served to members of the military. Manager Rick Riddle started the special citywide tribute three years ago.
Vazquez eventually did find work at the Howard County Veterans Service office, helping vets with paperwork and advising then about services.
He was recruited by Ladd, the head of the office. Vazquez had come in to discuss benefits, but talk eventually turned to his post-traumatic stress, including nightmares and anger problems so severe, he says, "I would yell at my 6-year-old daughter like she was one of my Marines."
Ladd encouraged him to seek help. "`I want you to ask for it now, rather than 20 years from now so you can have a productive life with your family,'" he told him.
Vazquez received counseling and now attends Ivy Tech Community College, where he's studying to be a nurse anesthetist. He's considering joining the Air Force Reserve and though he says he lives paycheck to paycheck, he recently turned down a lucrative security job with a contractor that would dispatched him to hot spots overseas.
"My wife says, `Money's not everything. You're home with us, that's what make me happy,'" he explains.
Vazquez is building a future in Kokomo, but the past isn't completely the past.
"I can still remember the smells, the anxiety I had, the kids -- and the heat. I can still feel the heat and the sun and the sweat running down my back," he says. "The memories are so strong, they'll never go away."
Still, Vasquez says he'd love to go to Iraq one day with his wife and daughter and hopes it'll become a thriving nation, like another country where America fought -- Vietnam.
"I think it would bring some peace," he says, "knowing that my friends didn't die in vain."
Teri Rose hopes to visit Iraq, too -- the land where her son was killed.
It's part of what she calls her "strange bucket list" -- an addition born of tragedy after David N. Simmons, known to all as Neil, was killed Easter Sunday 2007, just weeks after he had been deployed to Iraq. He was 20. The roadside bomb also claimed two other soldiers.
"I want to walk in the sand where Neil lost his life," his mother says. "I want to see the culture. I want to know what he went there for. I want to know what all of them went there for and what they experienced. ... If I can board a plane and do that, that means they (the Iraqis) have progressed without us. And I think that would be incredible."
When her son's funeral was held nearly five years ago, townspeople lined the road from the church to the grave site. The fire department hoisted an enormous American flag at the intersection along the way. As comforting as that was, the agony of losing her youngest son was so unbearable she considered suicide.
"There's no way to describe the pain ... it feels like someone's reached inside you and just pulled everything out," Rose says.
Even seeing others in uniform while traveling through the Atlanta airport was an ordeal. Normally, she says, she'd thank them, but she didn't "because I was so afraid that they would see in me that I'd lost my son ... and it would put fear in them."
As the war continued, every new death was a stinging reminder of "those words being spoken to you -- your child has been killed. You know what that family is going through," Rose says. "You just start to relive it all over again. It's been a very slow process."
Rose says she finally found peace after about two years.
This fall, the Gold Star mother gave her first public speech when a traveling military exhibit -- featuring a replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall -- came to Kokomo. She and her daughter joined the march honoring the fallen Afghanistan and Iraq troops.
And she was comforted recently watching the president welcome Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The closer it comes to an end," she says, "the more healing it is."
Rose still wonders sometimes what her son would have been like had he returned. "Neil was a very tender-hearted kind of guy and after hearing some of the stories of events that happened and things that these guys have witnessed," she says, "I think Neil would be trying to heal for the rest of his life."
But Rose also says if she had to do it again, she would have never discouraged him from joining the Army.
"It all goes back to my faith," she says. "My pastor always says, `Remember the end of the story.' The end of the story is Neil is in heaven. My son is in heaven."
Pastor Jeff Harlow knew Teri Rose's son from the time Neil was born.
The little boy Harlow remembers as a ball of energy was honored by the pastor at his 2007 funeral as "a soldier at heart" from the time he was 5, a hero who "got to go to heaven in a Bradley fighting machine."
In Kokomo, as in other towns, the church is a gathering spot for celebration and mourning. And twice during the Iraq war, Crossroads Community Church bid farewell to local boys -- Simmons and Rickey Jones.
As senior pastor, Harlow works to constantly remind his 3,000-member congregation of the sacrifices of everyone in uniform. His church's weekly bulletin lists the names of all active duty troops and those deployed.
"We don't decide if and when we go to war," he says. "But these are our families, our friends, our kids that are in harm's way. And we're going to support them in any way we can."
Harlow had his own personal link to Iraq and Afghanistan. Two nephews served; one who was deployed five times suffered a concussion in a bomb blast.
The wars, he says, remind him of a London visit when a guide pointed out buildings with pock marks and mismatched bricks, telltale reminders of the massive bombing the city suffered during World War II.
There is no rubble here, and yet, Harlow says, the "shots fired on the other side of the planet still hit our homes. .... Kokomo didn't simply watch the newscasts and read the stories about the war; the cameras came here, the stories were about us."
The war, he says, left scars no one will ever see.
"How do you measure the loss of not being there when your child is born?" he asks. "How do you measure the loss of a teen going through tough times and a parent not being there? ... If you're gone for two years ... even if you come back healthy, there are the Christmases that your children woke up without their mom or dad. They'll never get those back."
Harlow pauses, then adds:
"I know the next time war is declared and soldiers are sent off, there may be a Teri Rose in the making ... not everyone comes back. It happened before and it can happen again. ...There is a price to war. You just always hope that it's worth it."
www.hcvmc.com: Howard County Veterans Memorial Corporation
Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer for The Associated Press. She can be reached at scohen(at)ap.org.