When the War Comes Home

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006


Alone and in clusters, collars up to block the rain, thousands of people lined the streets on a gray October day in 2005 to welcome their warriors home. For 13 miles, they rose to wave, a few to salute, as the buses rolled slowly past. More than one tough Marine, homeward bound after a brutal tour in Iraq, shed a tear.

When they reached solid ground, still wearing their desert camouflage, the Marines embraced their families and embarked on the most jarring of transitions. They would discover in the following year that seven months in Iraq had changed them more than they could have imagined, guiding and afflicting them in ways they are still struggling to understand.

Marines who expected duty so light that boredom seemed probable instead saw almost daily combat and 23 men killed in action, more casualties than any U.S. company in Iraq. When it was over, they traded an edgy, exhausting regimen of forced alertness and sudden brutality for sheer ordinariness. Nothing at home felt as urgent or as meaningful, as thrilling or as awful.

The 160 survivors returned to work or college, to wives or girlfriends, sometimes to childhood bedrooms grown suddenly small. Many suffered flashbacks, drank hard, quarreled with their women and sought refuge in one another, laboring to replace the rugged discipline, power and purpose they had left behind in Iraq. Some turned to counselors, some to God, others to the solidarity and beery narcotic of the VFW hall.

"It seems like everything you see reminds you of it. You drive through town and you see someone with a 'Support the Troops' sticker and it just starts going through your head again," said Sgt. Travis Brill. "Drink three, four, five beers. I find it easier to sleep when you don't have silly-ass things going through your head."

They fought as a unit and then scattered. In a series of conversations over the past year, more than a dozen Marines of Lima Company shared their experiences of Iraq and their reentry into the United States. Pieced together, scenes from their recent lives sketch a world of in-between, a landscape inhabited not only by them but also by countless others among the roughly 1 million military personnel who have returned from Iraq or soon will.

The survivors made it home from the war, but they brought the war with them.

Fall 2005: Columbus, Ohio

Staff Sgt. Guy Zierk broke up with his girlfriend on his fourth day back. He started drinking, ordering so many top-shelf vodkas and steaks that he churned through $5,000 in restaurant and bar tabs. He found himself "trying to find out the importance of things here," he said. "You think about car payments and bills and arguments in the family and who's going where for the holidays. And you try to compare that with the importance of who's shooting a rifle at you."

In some ways, Zierk, 31, had hated to leave Iraq, where he knew some streets better than he knew Columbus. He considered extending his tour. Then came the patrol when, exhausted and angry after watching so many good Marines die, he burst into an Iraqi house. He expected to find insurgents and make them pay.

Instead, he discovered two Iraqi women and a boy, maybe 16 years old. The scared teenager made no hasty moves, but it took every rational fiber in Zierk's body to keep from shooting him dead.

"The whole reason I didn't stay in Iraq was I would've killed people that didn't deserve to die," Zierk said, "and it wouldn't have served any greater good."

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