Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bad stuff happened in Iraq, stuff Adam Reuter doesn't want to talk about. Not with his friends, not with the line cooks in the burger joint where he worked when he first came home or the tenants in the apartment complex he manages now.

He doesn't even want to talk about it with his wife, who worried because he was jumping out of bed in the middle of the night.

But when he agrees to talk about the war -- really talk about it -- he goes right to how the insurgent crumpled after he pulled the trigger. How later, during the firefight, he ended up just a few feet from the corpse. Bullets buzzed by, and he was supposed to keep an eye on the alley, but he couldn't help but glance over.

"He just lay there," Reuter remembers. His eyes and mouth open. His whiskers a few days old. The bullet had gone in his neck cleanly, just to the right of his Adam's apple, but had come out ugly from the back of his head. He was maybe 25, a little older than Reuter. And his blood was pooling, thick and almost black in the darkness.

How can you describe what that was like? Who would understand it?

Nobody. So Reuter keeps his mouth shut. His army uniform is packed in a box in the garage. He hasn't looked at it in months. Instead, he kisses his baby boy every night. He gets on with his life, because that's what everyone else is doing.

At home in Newnan, Ga., there is no war.

"It doesn't cross their minds," Reuter said. "To them, everything is fine."

* * *

After three years, there are at least 550,000 veterans of the Iraq war. The Washington Post interviewed 100 of them -- many of whom were still in the service, others who weren't -- to hear about what their war was like and how the transition home has been.

Their answers were as varied as their experiences. But a constant theme through the interviews was that the American public is largely unaffected by the war, and, despite round-the-clock television and Internet exposure, doesn't understand what it's like.

You can't understand unless you were there .

It's a timeless refrain sounded by generation after generation of soldiers returning from combat. But what sets Iraq war veterans apart is not just the kind of war they are fighting but the mood of the country they are coming home to. It is not a United States unified behind the war effort, such as in World War II. There's no rationing, no sacrifice, no Rosie the Riveter urging, "We Can Do it!" Nor is it the country that protested Vietnam and derided many vets as baby killers.

The United States that Iraq veterans are returning to is relatively indifferent, many said. One that without fear of a draft seems more interested in the progression of "American Idol" than the bombings in Baghdad. Sure, there are the homecoming parades, the yellow-ribbon bumper stickers, the pats on the back -- they continue as troops arrive back home.

But for many vets, those moments of gratitude were short-lived or limited to close friends and family. Soon they were joined by bitter impressions of a society that seems to forget that it is living through the country's largest combat operation in more than 30 years.

When Army Reserve Warrant Officer Mark Rollings got home to Wylie, Tex., he didn't expect anyone to treat him any differently because he was a vet. But he couldn't help but notice that the only one to say anything about the newly installed Purple Heart license plate on his Chevy Blazer was the kid who changed his oil at the Wal-Mart.

"For having a global war on terrorism," he said, "everything looks like business as usual to me."

* * *

Coming home was like one big party.

They were welcomed with parades, with family members waving signs and flags and waiting with open arms. World War II vets greeted them at the airport, making sure to shake all of their hands. Thanking them. There were firetrucks on the tarmac, their lights twirling, a celebratory fountain spraying from their hoses.

"People cheering, handing me their cellphones and telling me to call my family," Army Capt. Fred Tanner remembered. "Random people coming up and shaking my hand."

Greg Seely came home on leave in October 2004 with 200 fellow soldiers. They were walking through the Atlanta airport, when, one by one, travelers dropped their bags and started clapping. Soon there was a spontaneous crescendo. The applause of strangers. A moment he will never forget.

"The media talked so much about how the American people don't support us," he said. "But they do."

People may not understand the war, but that doesn't mean they're not grateful, said Master Sgt. Shawn Peno of the Air National Guard. "The support, the comments," he said, "that's real."

They met generals and were thanked by congressmen. Some even shook hands with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and President Bush. Waitresses and gas station attendants refused their money.

Army Reservist Chris Bain threw out the first pitch of the Little League World Series.

On the airplane home, wearing his Navy uniform, Clint Davis sat in the same row as a 5-year-old boy who got out his crayons and drew a picture of the American flag. "It says, 'Thank you for fighting for our country,' " Davis said. "I'll hang it up on my refrigerator till I die."

They came home grateful for their country, for their freedom, for hot showers, flushing toilets and blissful quiet. When Chris Arndt's plane touched down, it was 3 in the morning. A slight drizzle was falling, and the air just felt different.

"You could smell the grass," the Army reservist said. "I hadn't smelled that smell for a year. It hit me and made me realize I was home."

* * *

When they were out of uniform, everything was different.

One day they were in a war zone. Then, suddenly, they weren't. Home for the first time in a year, Dan Ward woke up in his bed, went to the kitchen and fixed himself a bowl of cereal. And that's when the Marine Reservist realized: His war was over. It was almost surreal how something so familiar could seem so strange.

"Almost the most nerve-wracking thing was how normal it was when I came back," he said. "I'd been gone for 11 months, and it's like I've been gone for 11 hours. Then it hit me: This is so normal."

They came home driving scared, scanning the interstates and the back roads of their home towns, looking for bombs that weren't there. They got jumpy in crowded public places and let the war go little by little, like muscle spasms after an intense workout.

Jeramey James "Jay" Lopez was working under the hood of his car with his dad in New Mexico when one of the noisemakers designed to scare the birds out of the nearby pecan orchard went off. It sounded "just like a round coming out of a tank," he said. Lopez's head snapped up and smacked the inside of the hood.

"My dad put his hand on my back, and he just said, 'Son, you're okay. You're home.' "

They came home bent on making good on the promises they had made while fearing death. Army medic Ernesto Haibi, in the thick of the battle of Fallujah, vowed that after he got home he was going to fulfill a childhood dream:

"I told myself, if I get back without any more holes in me, I'm buying myself a piano and learning to play," he said. "You learn what you can live with and what you can live without. And you learn to appreciate the things that are necessary."

What was necessary, he decided, was being able to play "Isn't It Romantic?" -- the first song he learned on his new piano.

They came home haunted, carrying heavy memories that will take years to sort out. "I was taken out of my normal habitat and put in a crazy dream -- a nightmare, really," said Army Spec. Cheyenne Cannaday. "I think about it every day still, and I'm not sure if it's gonna go away."

Jon Powers came home and "swore I would never go back to Iraq until they build a Disney World in Baghdad." But then he thought about how he and his soldiers used to deliver toys and clothing to the orphanage. He thought about how the children had given them something back: a respite from the war. The soldiers would take off their gear, put down their weapons and join the children's soccer matches.

Not long after coming home, the former Army captain knew his work in Iraq was not finished. So he helped start a nonprofit, War Kids Relief, that helps Iraqi children. That's his new career.

Thousands came home wounded, scars fresh; some even with shrapnel in them. Kevin Whelan, who was wounded when a roadside bomb exploded next to his Humvee, has so much metal embedded under his skin that it set off a security detector at the airport. "In case it goes off," he warned the guard, "I do have shrapnel in me." The wand beeped as it passed over his shoulder.

Nearly 400 of them returned as amputees and had to learn to open doors with metal fingers, walk on prosthetic legs. Senior Airman Brian Kolfage came home to sad, strange stares and spontaneous charity. As he sat in a wheelchair after having lost both legs and his right arm when a mortar exploded outside his tent, a stranger handed him $250 in cash.

Another just stared at him and then "just started crying right in front of me."

* * *

The questions people ask about the war usually don't probe too far, the sort that can be satisfied with rote responses that keep the truth at a safe distance.

But sometimes, people push. What was it like?

"You just try to give a softball answer," said Garett Reppenhagen, who has been out of the Army for a year. "Yeah, it was horrible -- whatever. Or you don't answer the question. You say it was hot. You don't tell them what it's like to kill a man or to have one of your buddies blown up. You just don't go there."

But if they were not sated by the polite demurral and continued to press, he would go there, sparing no detail. Then he'd look up and see an expression that made him think they didn't really want to know after all.

"The look on their face: This is not the light conversation I want to hear at a party," he said.

Sometimes people would say maddening things, antagonistic things, even if they had never set foot in Iraq or been in combat. They didn't have to leave their spouses, miss the births of their children or see their best friend blown to pieces.

Civilians. After the war, they seemed so different, no matter how many war movies or how much CNN they had watched.

Sometimes, they'd ask something so crazy there just wasn't any way to respond, such as when a friend asked Monika Dyrcakz, "Did you go clubbing in Iraq?"

"Some people have no idea," she said.

Sometimes they said: I support the troops but not the war. Or: Do you think we should be over there?

Which is such a dumb question, Tanner, the Army captain, would think. Soldiers don't make those decisions. They do what they're told. They bitch and moan, sure. But when the call comes, they pack their bags and go, knowing they may not come back.

But Tanner doesn't say all that. Instead, he responds this way: "Oh, so you were over there? Because you said, ' We .' Because, I mean, I know I was over there."

* * *

But perhaps the worst is when they don't say anything at all and just go on living their lives, oblivious to the war.

Which is exactly what Army Capt. Tyler McIntyre was trying to explain to some family members while eating at an Italian restaurant when he was home on leave a couple of years ago.

He looked across the restaurant and saw everyone stuffing their faces with pasta and drinking wine. "And everyone's kind of just sitting there doing it," he said.

Which is really sort of extraordinary, he said. The country is at war. People are fighting at this very moment. Don't these people know what's going on? Don't they care?

No, he decided. They have no appreciation for their easy, gluttonous lives and don't deserve the freedom, prosperity and contentment he was fighting to protect.

He wanted to yell, "You don't know what you have! You don't appreciate it! You don't care!"

But he didn't. He kept his mouth shut. He was only home on leave. Soon, he would be going back to the war.

This report is based on interviews conducted by staff writers Cameron W. Barr, Christian Davenport, Jennifer Frey, Sonya Geis, Bradley Graham, Mary Hadar, Rosalind S. Helderman, Pablo Izmirlian, Tamara Jones, Kari Lydersen, Renae Merle, Evelyn Nieves, Don Oldenburg, Lois Romano, Jackie Spinner, Jacqueline Trescott, Ann Scott Tyson, Jose Antonio Vargas, Jonathan Weisman, Josh White, Clarence Williams and Griff Witte. It was written by Christian Davenport.

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