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The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

TCC veterans struggle with life after war

NW student and Iraq veteran Carl Kurtz is one of many veterans attending TCC and transitioning back to civilian life. Photo by Casey Holder/The Collegian

By Bethany Peterson/nw news editor

NW student and Iraq veteran Carl Kurtz is one of many veterans attending TCC and transitioning back to civilian life.  Photo by Casey Holder/The Collegian
NW student and Iraq veteran Carl Kurtz is one of many veterans attending TCC and transitioning back to civilian life. Photo by Casey Holder/The Collegian

He still jumps whenever a car backfires.

One day while in Iraq, former Marine Sgt. Carl Kurtz and some fellow soldiers caught a ride to the chow hall in a van that randomly backfired, Kurtz said.

After a year of expecting death, every time the bus backfired, sounding like an explosion, “your chest freezes up,” Kurtz said.

After a couple minutes, the passengers stopped going on high alert every time the bus backfired. The other Marines were not so immune.

“We pulled up [to the chow hall], and the bus backfired,” Kurtz said. “The entire line for chow hall hit the deck!”

While he and the other passengers laughed, around the corner came other Marines, guns loaded, ready to fight for their lives.

When veterans leave the armed forces, they face a difficult task of readjusting themselves to mainstream American life. From following the paper trail for veteran tuition aid to dealing with senses still tuned to detect people trying to kill them, the transition can be difficult and never truly ends.

Things that sound like bombs, rockets and gunfire still catch Kurtz’s attention after five years out of the service.

“When an F-16 banks, that high-pitched squeal sounds just like a rocket,” Kurtz said.

Sitting in the far corner of the NW Campus cafeteria, his back to the wall and a clear view of the building’s door and all the tables, Kurtz stopped speaking periodically to take a closer look at a person, locate the ringing cell phone or find the source of a pounding sound.

“My girlfriend used to yell at me for checking out the other girls,” he said. “I wasn’t. I was just being highly alert. ‘OK, she is not a threat. Who else is around?’”

Ryland Morigeau, an Army vet, said the hardest things to get used to was being around a large group of children.

“In Iraq, if you saw too many kids, they were going to start throwing rocks or sharp things,” Morigeau said.

Morigeau also struggled with getting a regular sleep cycle back.

“I don’t know of a single vet alive who doesn’t complain about sleep,” he said.

For some, the problem with sleep is the inability to get it. Kurtz had a friend with such a problem.

“He worked 90-hour weeks because he could not sleep,” Kurtz said.

Roads present another unique challenge.

“I have six pending speeding tickets,” he said. “Over there, you rule the road. You drive over them or you get ambushed.”

Vets who decide to return to school face challenges of navigating the paperwork.

Many soldiers know they are supposed to get at least some school tuition and living compensation as well as full medical coverage and possibly disability support.

“It’s quite daunting,” said Bill McMullen, NE Campus financial aid director, a veteran of the first Gulf War. “They don’t tell you that your money is not at the campus waiting for you.”

A form must be filled out and sent to the Veterans’ Administration. An eligibility letter is sent back and brought to the school before the school bills the VA. Sometimes that works smoothly, and other times it doesn’t, Morigeau said.

“There are a lot of holes in the process,” he said.

The armed forces provide classes for exiting soldiers on how to go through that process, but trying to get to them around a soldier’s duty schedule can be difficult, Morigeau said. Also with so much information in such a short amount of time, he couldn’t remember much when it mattered.

Kurtz also had trouble with the partial information he received.

“I know I had the GI bill and VA. I did not know how it worked,” he said. “I did not know how to find a job.”

Kurtz said he was taught how to fill out a résumé but nothing on networking or using online searches.

Once in school, vets often view the classroom differently than their fellow students.

“I was surprised that people don’t ask more questions and get more out of their classes,” Morigeau said.

Kurtz has had trouble working with other students not quite as motivated as he is.

“My biggest frustration is the lack of responsibility [among students],” he said.

Kurtz has sent e-mails to members of group projects who were late turning in their part saying, “You will either pull your weight or feel my wrath!”

Vets also have to deal with other students’ responses when students learn someone is a veteran.

“They want to tell you what they think about the war,” said Phillip Spears, a retired Army specialist who drove trucks and maintained tanks in Iraq. “[They] ask, ‘Did you kill anyone?’”

If a student learns a classmate is a vet, Kurtz said students should ask them their branch, what they did and say thank you. Then leave it up to the veteran if and when they want to talk.

But beware, it probably will be awkward.

Having someone thank him for his service is like having others sing “Happy Birthday.” The birthday person does not really know what to do during the song, Kurtz said.

This discomfort is not intentional on either side, but a result of experiences that cannot be conveyed or shared, he said.

Some vets are willing to talk. Others avoid it.

“They won’t talk to you because they don’t know what to say,” Kurtz explained. “Others don’t feel they did enough.”

Some other vets who got out just before 9-11 are ashamed that they did not serve during the Second Gulf War, Kurtz said.

Trying to fit back in with people they knew before their tours, who have not been changed the same ways they have, is hard.

Kurtz said returning is especially hard on married soldiers.

“When you leave, it’s like watching a family movie­ — you put it on pause.” Kurtz said. “When you come back, you push play.”

But for those left behind, the movie kept playing. Years passed without a father, friend or husband.

“It’s almost amnesia,” Kurtz said. “We fight to get that time back. Husbands and wives have to fall in love with each other again.”

In Iraq, soldiers are forced to see their morality. They learn to live with the idea that death, their death, could come at any moment, Kurtz said.

That perspective has changed his outlook on life in the states.

“I appreciate time with my daughter more,” Kurtz said. “But unfortunately, I’m just as reckless.”

On the way to a ship christening in honor of one of his friends, he stopped at his stepsister and her family’s house. It was the first time he had ever seen their home.

“Family moments, far and few between, are more cherished,” he said.

He enjoys taking his 3-year-old daughter to baseball games, eating a hotdog and spending that time with her, Kurtz said.

His view of the American dream is different too.

“I’m not looking at fame and fortune,” Kurtz said. “Give me a house, a boat, a running truck, my own quiet corner of the world.”

Meeting with other vets often gives the only times of true comfort and understanding.

Laura Wood, NW Campus history and government professor and adviser of the NW Veterans Club, said the club helps the vets know each other when they pass in the hallway as well as provides information and contacts in various local veterans’ associations.

But no matter how well a vet re-adapts to mainstream life, the memories and mentalities will not go away.

“You never stop being a Marine,” Kurtz said. “It is an identity that you take with you.”

Spears finds it hard to form correct expectations of himself.

“We expect we can do more than we can because of what we have done,” Spears said.

And they will always remember the soldiers still in the field.

“I worry about them,” Morigeau said, referring to his former platoon members. “They’re getting ready for another deployment.”

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