War Comes Home

01.11.145:45 AM ET

How the War Comes Home: Following up with the Veterans of Charlie Company

As violence flares in Iraq, author Nathan Webster speaks to veterans who he embedded with overseas about their memories, experiences, and how they have managed the transition home.

Specialist Aaron Navarro climbs up a dusty incline on a hot July day near  Bayji, Iraq, 2007; his two junior troops flare out, right and left, behind him, narrowing into single file as they reach the top. An infantry fire team doing their part of a quiet cordon-and-search mission in a rugged farming village.

The deployment ended that October. By 2008 they were back in the states but before the soldiers who had patrolled Bayji were really home, they were heading overseas again.

June 2009, now-Sgt. Navarro is in Iraq again, in Salman Pak. He kneels, shaded underneath a canvas tent, cigarette in one hand, CamelBak water tube in the other. A squad of eight, now Navarro’s responsibility.      His men sit under the hot tent, watching Iraqi militia members pick up their monthly pay. Navarro asks if anybody wants a break to go sit in an air-conditioned MRAP for a little while.

Small decisions, tiny moments, each choice made by a squad leader like Navarro, only intensify when everyone’s hot, tired and at war. In 2009, Navarro tells me, “When it gets bad, it will get bad quickly.” No wonder that, out of the Army in 2014, he would say, “I don’t want to make life-saving decisions, or anything like that.”

Navarro’s unit, Charlie Company, 1st/505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division spent 27 months in Iraq in just over three years. They were in Iraq for the 2007 surge, the war’s bloodiest year, and returned to see what, in 2009, seemed like its aftermath.

Violence has been rising in Iraq since the U.S. withdrew its military forces in 2011. In the past week, two cities in Iraq, Ramadi and Fallujah, once the sites of major battles between the military and insurgent forces, have been overrun by fighters affiliated with al Qaeda. For the veterans who served in Iraq, the reactions are mixed. Some read news reports, scan stories for familiar city names. Others ignore it entirely.

As much as the Charlie Company veterans remember Iraq, I remember Charlie Company.

I embedded with the unit in Iraq in the summers of 2007 and 2009, and have kept up to date in the years since. There were changes on each trip overseas —junior enlisted men became squad leaders, squad leaders became platoon sergeants.  Four years later, and they’ve changed some more—platoon leaders into commanders, squad leaders into college students. In the years since the war, there is no single “veteran’s narrative” of homecoming.

1st. Lt. Matthew Noreus during a rooftop security detail in Bayji, Iraq, July 18, 2007. (Nathan S. Webster)

In 2007, Charlie Company operated from a tiny Joint Security Station in downtown Bayji, a city 100 miles north of Baghdad. The JSS provided a downtown staging point for soldiers to engage with the local population as part of that year’s “Surge.” It also became a stationary target for mortars, snipers and car bombs. Three US soldiers died from sniper shootings, others were injured; 27 Iraqi policemen were killed in a suicide bomb attack.

In 2009, Charlie Company occupied a different JSS that sat quiet and unmolested on the outskirts of Salman Pak, just south of Baghdad. If Bayji featured daily gunfire and stress, Salman Pak was a gunshot a month.

After that deployment the last core members of Charlie Company, who had survived Bayji and slogged through Salman Pak split apart to go their separate ways

Some of Charlie Company’s 100 men would go on to Afghanistan in 2012; for Navarro, one final deployment to cap off about nine years of active duty, before leaving the Army for good.

Others, like Barkley Davies and Mike Alcorta, finished up after 2009 and left the Army for college studies and new careers.

And a few, like Captain Matthew Noreus, remain in uniform, taking lessons learned in Iraq to the junior soldiers that they now lead.

A year ago, Noreus took command of his own Charlie Company—in Alaska’s 509th Infantry Regiment. That first day, he couldn’t have imagined a formation not filled with seasoned soldiers, displaying combat patches of their service in Iraq or Afghanistan—but now his unit’s soldiers have just 40 percent combat service.

The “why” is no surprise. Noreus’ platoon sergeants and squad leaders all have deployments on their resume, but junior soldiers are by definition young and inexperienced. A specialist or sergeant with four years in won’t have deployed twice, like soldiers often did from 2006 to 2009—these days he might not have deployed at all.

Those who joined from 2002-2004 have typically deployed two or three times, and have risen in the ranks to be squad leaders, platoon sergeants, or company commanders.  They’ve reached the 10-yearmark to face a major decision: stay in the full 20 years for retirement, or, like Navarro, get out and find a civilian career.

Sgt. Mike Alcorta strings commo wire along a row of t-wall barriers at the Joint Security Station in Salman Pak, Iraq, June 18, 2009. (Nathan S. Webster)

Navarro, 37, joined in 2004, and already had three children before he first deployed in 2007; his fourth child, a daughter, arrived during his third deployment in 2012 to Afghanistan. A squad leader, he declined the opportunity to go home on leave for her birth; he didn’t want to leave his men.

Now back home in Bakersfield, California, he works at a construction company driving a dump truck around to city job-sites . The kind of job a man works hard at during the day, but doesn’t take home with him.

“I don’t want to use my brain right now,” Navarro says. “I like using my hands, being a family man.”

“I might change my career a little later, but right now I’m looking to be stable. I’m concentrated on my family,” he said. “That was my intention,” after leaving the Army. “This was what I planned to do.”

It’s still an adjustment, for husband and wife, and children Jay, 16, Gina, 10, Aaron Jr., 8 and now Gina, 2. In nine years, there were only two years of consistent “together time.” A lot of military marriages don’t survive stress like that.

“My wife and I talk about that—we’re outlasting everybody.”

After returning from Afghanistan, Navarro had stayed at Fort Bragg to finish up his final year, while the family remained ‘home’ in Bakersfield. So the children had lacked even that day-to-day familiarity with military life.

As a squad leader, “If I told somebody to do something, they’d do it,” he said. But kids don’t always listen, or as he says, “there’s a lack of an immediate reaction.”

“The whole family support is really big,” Navarro says. “Some of the other guys lacked that. They’d say ‘my wife’s dad doesn’t like me.’ How can you get past that?” he said. “My mother loves my wife. My in-laws supported everything that I did.”

Navarro thoughts of family kept his priorities straight during stressful deployments.  Others left behind no expectations, returned to no commitments.

Spec. Aaron Navarro pulling security during a patrol in Bujwari, Iraq, July 28, 2007. (Nathan S. Webster)

“Everyone had a decompression period,” said now-Captain Matthew Noreus, 31, upon returning from the fifteen-month Bayji deployment in 2007, when he’d been a platoon leader. “The company was drinking—a lot. After awhile it stopped being fun. Guys got in trouble, or almost got in trouble, and that snapped them out of it, and they could start moving forward.”

Still single when Charlie Company returned in late October 2007, Noreus met his now-wife, and now-Dr. Jennifer Noreus that January. Ideas like volunteering for the Ranger Battalion fell to the wayside. In 2014, they have an almost-three-year-old son, Steven, with a daughter just weeks away.

“I’d gone and had my big adventure,” he said. “It was a little easier to start a family; I didn’t have to do anything crazy.

“I figured out ways to deal with the more catastrophic events.”

In January 2007, about five months into the deployment, Sgt. William Sigua, a team leader in Noreus’ Second Platoon, was shot and killed by a sniper who split the narrow gap between his Humvee turret’s bulletproof glass. Noreus had taken his platoon to the Bayji market that day anticipating attacks like roadside bombs, or grenades tossed at vehicles, but not precision fire like the shot that killed Sigua. A sniper had also killed Cpl. Nicholas Arvanitis in October 2006, but Arvanitis had been stationary in a watch tower at the JSS, not on the ground during a moving patrol.

“It was a very hard lesson, at least one that I learned,” Noreus says now. A lesson he took across two more deployments, to Iraq again in 2009, and with a different unit to Afghanistan in 2011, and now into his own company command, of Charlie Company, in Fort Richardson, Alaska’s 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

As for how he gets past the memory of losing a soldier in his platoon, “when I find a really good answer, I’ll let you know,” he said. About all his experiences, “There were things I did right, and things I did wrong.”

“Our piece? My portion of what we did? Morally, I did everything right when I was there. We did it by the numbers,” said Mike Alcorta, 27. Like Noreus and Navarro, now he has a family too, married to Shannon, with a new son just a few months old—Nicholas Anthony Alcorta, named for Arvanitis, and Anthony Bento, two friends lost around Bayji. “I understood the larger context of things. People I could have killed, I didn’t kill. I can sleep with a clear conscience.”

He left the Army in 2010, and on advice from his mother, an Air Force chief nurse, basically took a year off. Now he attends Portland State College in Oregon, working toward a degree in social work with plans to become a counselor at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

“When you first get out, especially as a grunt, you don’t want to hear it,” Alcorta says of all the post-service transition classes and briefings, all the well-intentioned steps the military provides the departing soldier that come at exactly the time the soon-to-be veteran wants to stop listening to all the orders once and for all.

“It’s more on the veteran themselves to want to take that next step. That doesn’t happen for a couple years. Until then, you’re still living in the past, still identifying yourself as ‘airborne infantry guy.’” Alcorta said. “I’m just Joe Blow-Nobody, and I’m okay with that now.”

So what does an infantryman do, for a post-Army career? When “S.A.W. gunner” has no place on a resume, when stereotypes abound of Post-Traumatic Stress and pent-up violence.

“We overlook parts that don’t identify us as infantry,” Alcorta said. “Everybody wants to talk about cool-guy stuff, not ‘my punctuation is impeccable.’ We don’t know how to translate it well.”

“All the admin stuff—sworn statements, incident reports, all kinds of documentation, and we did it all the time on a daily basis.”

And in the infantry world, everybody knew their task, and depended on each other’s preparation. It’s too easy to expect that ‘mind-reading’ ability from a wife or other loved one.

Consequently, frustration boils over. Small objectives begin requiring more intense thought.

“Little things start adding up inside your head. Everything’s a mission; going to the store—what do I need to do? It’s a checklist; this can’t happen until this happens,” Alcorta said. “It’s mentally taxing.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Finkel embedded with the 1st Infantry Division in 2007, writing about their wartime experiences in The Good Soldiers. His most recent book, Thank You For Your Service, tackles the post-war story, focusing on several veterans having difficulty navigating their relationships, careers, and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs well-meaning, but bureaucratic system.

Finkel describes veteran Adam Schumann and his wife Saskia as they attempt to make a long drive to a veteran’s retreat. Saskia changes the radio station, he changes it back, an argument explodes and he turns their truck around, drops her back at home and makes the drive himself.

It’s petty and painful but to Alcorta, it was no surprise.

“It sounds ridiculous if I say what pisses me off—so I don’t say it, but it’s there,” Alcorta said. “Other guys don’t have that control. They’re used to voicing their displeasure immediately.”

Barkley Davies agreed—“That’s exactly something that would happen to me. My ex-girlfriend makes me listen to some garbage song, I’d give her shit, and it blows up into some huge fight. My whole problem is something small would piss me off to no end.”

By his own accounts, Davies had a hard time in his first few post-Army years. He blew through almost all of his savings, throwing cash around for club’s bottle services, and girls, and partying. All the while Davies worked as a physical trainer, trying to help other people get in peak condition.

He was a personable and energetic trainer—so clients and employers forgave him if he slept through an occasional session, or showed up a little worse for wear.  They overlooked his slip-ups , pitying the alcoholic veteran suffering for his demons.

“I’d get sympathy, but I didn’t want their sympathy,” he said.

Sympathy for any number of experiences, like Davies standing in a Humvee turret while fatally- wounded Cpl. Eric Palmer lay at his feet.

“You don’t want people to judge you, think you’re a pussy. You don’t want to admit weakness, but you have to,” Davies said. “You have to realize you’re in a shit situation. You have to say ‘I am all fucked up, and I do need help.”

The Department of Veteran’s Affairs counselors in San Diego helped Davies, he said. Between talking with VA psychiatrists, and a variety of medications, he finally has the right combination that he thinks seems to work. I It took a lot of mixing and matching; each medication might solve one problem while introducing new side effects.

Davies explains the medication calms down his brain, helps it slowly readjust to ‘normal’ life after the years of operating at a high-level of alertness.

“Just like going to the gym and working out, your body is going to adapt to whatever stress you’re putting on it,” he said. “PTSD is a real thing; you just think it’s something else. There’s no way you can’t have it. It’s the brain adapting.”

Like Alcorta said, “Once you’ve gone through something for a number of years, that’s part of who you are every single day. It’s not ‘post’ anything; it sticks with you.”

Still, Alcorta doesn’t regard any of his lingering anxiety as ‘post-traumatic stress’ in the strictest sense.

“When I hear ‘I have PTSD,’ it’s not disbelief, but I don’t see myself ever saying that,” he said. “If I’m always looking for that thing that might explode, maybe that’s part of PTSD, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just part of being in the Army.”

Everyone keeps in touch with at least a few men they served with, sometimes in frequent emails, or brief texts on anniversaries. They know who’s doing very well, and who is having a harder time.

Alcorta and Davies were the jokesters in Iraq, laughing at the absurdities. Navarro was good-natured and always on-the-ball. Noreus was all-business and straightforward.

Years later, their voices sound the same.

“I’m at that point where Iraq still feels like yesterday, but I know it was a long time ago,” Alcorta said. “I can talk about it in a softer way, less harsh. I can relate what’s important about the experience, where it’s not so heavy.”

“Every day in Bayji was my last day on earth, every hour of every day. Thinking that no way is anybody making it out of this,” Alcorta said. “That second deployment gave a sense of closure. I could go back to that country and not fear it.”

Conversations about Iraq that focus only on the few moments of combat, as memorable as they were, “shuts down and narrows the scope,” Noreus said.

“If you think of sitting in a Humvee at a checkpoint, listening to inane things, it’s often hysterical, often disgusting,” Noreus said. “Guys found ways to entertain themselves and make the best of the situation. Those stories are rarely shared. Maybe they’re too relatable.”

Pre-transition counselors asked soldiers like Navarro if he had bad thoughts or dreams or memories. Navarro explained he tried not to dwell on things, to move past the past.

“I’m going to live my normal life,” he said. “I don’t believe in counseling, and therapy. I just don’t believe in it.”

If the tapping of construction equipment sometimes reminds Navarro of an Ak-47, if war movies set off a rush of anxious energy, if a day on the calendar reminds him of a friend who isn’t there, it’s not PTSD, it’s just memories, he said.

“People had bad experiences. Some people can’t control their emotions, can’t handle what they saw,” he said. “I saw it over there, in eyes, in faces. I tried to keep my soldiers concentrating on what we had to do.

“Two days after we got back to the US in 2007, I sat in the shower and cried for a little bit. All that built up anger and sadness; finally got that moment where you’re home and you can let it out,” Navarro said. “I didn’t really understand it at the time.”

Davies most consistent personal activity is large-mouth bass fishing in the reservoirs and lakes around San Diego. He meticulously prepares his gear and plans each trip, where he’s going and when he’ll get there.

Finally, he can relax in the morning quiet.

“I’m like on the Mississippi River, in the old days,” he said, talking by cell phone from his boat, floating on the El Capitan Reservoir, “I’m like Mark Twain right now.”