By GEORGE BRYSON
Anchorage Daily News
November 15, 2007
A couple weeks earlier, as a member of the 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team, Lowery had been driving a Humvee near Fallujah when a roadside bomb exploded -- blowing out his vehicle's passenger-side door, killing the soldier sitting next to him, shattering one whole side of Lowery's face and destroying his right eye.
After being treated in Army hospitals in the Lower 48, the 25-year-old paratrooper had just returned to Elmendorf's neighboring Fort Richardson to recuperate -- thousands of miles from his real home in New Mexico. Without family here to greet him, he phoned the Willises, owners of a Western apparel and tack shop in Wasilla. He met them a year earlier through a mutual involvement in the rodeo circuit. Could they come visit him in the hospital, Lowery asked. Sure, Charlie said -- they'd be happy to.
Driving toward Anchorage the next day, however, the Willises began to wonder what they might talk about. Before his injury, Lowery was the quintessential rodeo hand, a man of few words.
"What do we say?" Nancy asked Charlie.
"We don't say anything," Charlie said. "We just listen."
In the next couple of weeks, thousands more Alaskans will get a chance to listen (and talk) to soldiers as well -- as some 3,500 other members of the 4th Brigade come surging home from the unit's 15-month deployment in Iraq and begin to fill diners, bars and shopping malls.
When they do, civilians here -- regardless of what they think about the war -- might take the time to welcome the troops home, health officials say. It's the least the soldiers have coming.
"Just look them in the eye, shake their hand and thank them for their service," advises Col. Mary Ann McAfee, chief of medical activities for the U.S. Army Alaska. "Just a heartfelt thank-you helps."
That much alone would have been an improvement on the general indifference older vets say they experienced when they returned to civilian life following the Vietnam War in the '60s and '70s. But honest interest in a returning soldier's story might be even better -- as long as your questions don't get too personal.
Don't expect a returning paratrooper to suddenly bare his soul to a stranger, says Maj. Noel Cuff, the officer in charge of mental-health services at Fort Richardson.
"They don't want intrusive, probing questions ... (like) 'Did you kill somebody?' " Cuff said.
Remember, too, that the troops have been in battle mode for 15 long months, says retired Lt. Col. Steve Sweet, a counselor at the Wasilla Vet Center.
"They need time to decompress," Sweet says. "Time to readjust."
Eventually, they'll also need to share their feelings, says former state Sen. Mike Szymanski, a Vietnam vet who recently organized a local support group for amputees.
"The guys coming home now -- they've had different experiences than we did back then, but a lot of the same things are there," Szymanski says. "We saw people burned and lose limbs -- all the things that happen in a war."
Szymanski's advice is less to the community at large and more to the individual soldier: Talk. And find someone who can hear you, like another soldier who's been there.
"If you don't deal with it when you get home, you're eventually going to deal with it."
As it turned out, there was no need for the Willises to be apprehensive.
"All we did was talk to Jake about everyday things," Charlie Willis recalls. "We said, 'What would you like to do now?' ... 'What do you see for the future?' ... 'If you had to go back, would you?'
"If somebody says, 'I'd rather not talk about it,' then drop it. But until you ask them, you don't know. They may want to talk about it, but they don't know if you want to listen."
To his surprise, considering the soldier's natural taciturnity, Lowery really did want to talk about those things, Willis says. Though he suspects the doctors at the hospital might have had something to do with it.
"I later told him, 'You know those drugs you were on? That was the best conversation we ever had.' "
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