Many troops wrestle with the strains of repeated trips to war zones. Tech Sgt. Bob Roberts has completed 15 deployments in 17 years since joining the Air Force’s elite pararescuers, who were most recently serving as a quick-reaction force for the final troops pulling out of Iraq. During the past four years, Roberts estimates he has been away from home more than 300 days a year. A former professional snowboarder, Roberts says the key to doing the job he loves is learning how “to keep your personal freakout at bay” amid violent chaos that sometimes requires “picking up pieces of people.”
He is quick to acknowledge that war has taken its toll. Roberts is on his fourth marriage. “I’ve chosen this over relationships – over everything else,” he says. The majority of pararescuers he began serving with, he adds, have turned violence inward and are now either “in jail, have a bullet in their head, or are drug abusers.”
Wary of painting a picture of every soldier who returns from war as wrestling with deep pathology, military officials stress that the majority of those who have served multiple tours have done so without committing crimes against civilians.
But they grapple with the simple soldierly reality that going into battle and all it entails necessarily cultivates aggressive behavior. What troops “have been through in the past 10 years requires more attention, more understanding – and it requires ways to channel that energy that we’ve encouraged them to have and bring to the fight – so that when they come back to the States, they don’t self-destruct,” says Lt. Col. Thomas Hanson, of the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq (OSC-I).
Some try to create ad-hoc therapies. Lt. Col. Jonathan Downing, chief of doctrine and education at the OSC-I, witnessed the risk-taking behaviors that troops in his 800-person squadron would engage in upon their return from war. “We saw a lot of guys coming home, getting on sports bikes, and going crazy,” he says.