Iraq War left mark on Minn. National Guard members, familiesby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Iraq War, which started 10 years ago today, left a lasting imprint on the men and women who served and on their families.
One Minnesotan who served in the war, 31-year-old guardsman 1st Lt. Jesse Pope, arrived in Baghdad on Halloween in 2004.
To calm his nerves, the St. Paul native turned the music in his Humvee up full-blast as the convoy entered the city for the first time.
"I'm 23-years old. I'm wearing a bunch of body armor and driving into Baghdad Iraq and listening to Outkast 'Bombs Over Baghdad,' like I'm out for a joyride in my Pontiac Firebird with my buddy," Pope said. "It was very surreal. That was almost like the Superbowl of my deployment."
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Pope's company was one of the first Minnesota National Guard units to go to Iraq in the early days of the conflict. In fact, Minnesota's 34th Red Bull Infantry Division has been one of the most deployed units since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
He was based near the Baghdad airport on a road that became notorious for insurgent attacks. His feeling of invincibility was soon shattered when he climbed a wall to secure a surveillance camera.
"I hear something whiz by me," he remembered.
It was a sniper shot.
"The fraction of a second between hearing that sound and then hearing the report from the rifle was confusion for me. That is what it sounds like when somebody just misses hitting you in the face," he said.
After that first attack, Pope made it through his almost two-year tour safely. Others did not. At least 113 people with Minnesota ties have died in connection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite coming home to a job, it still took months for Pope to adjust to civilian life. Even now, he feels the war's effects.
"When I walk down the street and I'm by myself, I look at what people are doing," Pope said. "I feel like I'm kind of always surveying the scene a little bit more than what I used to do in my normal life."
TROUBLES AT HOME
Pope is one of thousands of Minnesotans living with recent memories of combat. There are almost 48,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in Minnesota. The state Department of Veterans Affairs says that's around 13 percent of the state's total veteran population.
Many of these men and women served overseas more than once.
The guard's Maj. Aaron Krenz said the separation of deployment was tough on Minnesota military families.
"You're leaving your spouse, you're leaving your kids and a lot changes in a year's time," Krenz said. "You're leaving your employer. Just being gone and leaving your family to do everything that you were a part of."
But the reunion can be even more stressful than the separation.
Many service members come home with physical and psychological injuries sustained in combat that can lead to mental health problems down the road. Research also shows it's often difficult for veterans to find their place in the family again, as so many roles and relationships have shifted during their absence.
"Many service members and their families struggled and unfortunately some of them either ended up in divorce, their homes were foreclosed on," Krenz said. "Things got out of control a lot quicker than we all expected."
A NEW APPROACH IN MINNESOTA
And that need led to a reintegration initiative that's revolutionized how soldiers come home. In 2005, the Minnesota National Guard launched a mandatory program they call Beyond the Yellow Ribbon.
It's designed to connect veterans and their families with resources to stabilize health, relationships and finances. The program begins even before soldiers leave U.S. soil, to prepare them and their families for what's to come.
In previous conflicts military veterans returned home to little, if any, support at all. And while there is no hard data on the program, guard officials say Beyond the Yellow Ribbon has been successful. Other states have expressed interest in launching similar programs.
Minneapolis attorney and military veteran Brock Hunter said that while the Minnesota National Guard has made great strides, even more help is needed. He said the demand for services to assist the rising number of soldiers coming back with undiagnosed combat trauma is growing.
"We still, 40 years after Vietnam, have hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans across the country who are chronically incarcerated, homeless and addicted and I think we can do a lot better job this time around," Hunter said. "I think we already are doing a lot better job this time around."
To help support today's returning veterans, Hunter said, the federal government will need to spend more money, something he anticipates could become more politicized as the war in Afghanistan also winds down and more service members return home.