A soldier shares his story: starting over

By Shannon Keough
February 21, 2008

Submitted photo/Shannon Keough

Matthew sits with his friends, chewing tobacco, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, making jokes and laughing as if he had never left. He looks his age but it’s obvious through his stories that he has been through more than many 22-year-olds have.

For the past 15 months, Matthew Dixon, 22, has spent his time deployed in Iraq risking his life to ensure he completes his missions. His missions ranged from clearing routes of improvised explosive devices to delivering medical supplies to schools. He was also sometimes in charge of gathering all available troops in the area to raid a certain village.

Clearing routes is the most dangerous job, he said, because he is a “walking target,” never knowing if an IED will go off below his feet. “You never feel good. You’re always saying, ‘Please Jesus, I have family, please don’t let me die,'” Dixon said.

Since he’s been back he has struggled, like many soldiers do, to adjust to the various transformations of going from soldier to civilian. He admits that it was harder to adjust coming home than it was when he landed in Iraq. “Over there you kind of get used to authority, ‘don’t say no to me or be rude to me or terrible things could happen,'” Dixon said. When he came home he said, “It’s like a shock when someone says no or snaps at you.”

About one out of three war veterans are having difficulties when returning home from Iraq, according to a Nov. 14, 2007 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Soldiers are forced to undergo reintegration-training sessions to prepare them for life beyond battleground, but it doesn’t guarantee they will be ready to act as civilians right away.

“They were cramming readjusting down your throat as soon as you stepped off the plane,” Dixon said. He said that the constant reminder that he needed to readjust was one of the hardest parts of coming back because it was always on his mind.

When Dixon landed in Texas after a 26-hour plane trip home, the first thing he needed to do was hand in his rifle. He felt “disoriented” without it and although he’s been without it for over a month, he still feels he’s forgetting something every time he walks out the door.

He was given a five-day pass, which he spent in San Antonio with his family before he had to go through the two-week reintegration process. Other challenges he had were learning how to drive normally again and, more importantly, relearning how to relax in a crowd of people.

The reintegration session is also a time to try to manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since 2001, the number of U.S. soldiers who suffer from PTSD has tripled, HealthDay News said. Dixon said the army was offering three free psychiatric sessions to soldiers who needed it. “I think a lot of people could use it, but not enough people take advantage of it,” Dixon said.

Dixon knows soldiers who are heavily affected by PTSD and they’ll start obsessing about a certain subject and can’t stop thinking about it until they break down and cry. He thinks that although he’s witnessed terrible things, some are affected by it more because they have experienced more tragic events, like watching friends die in their arms.

One death is plenty to witness, he said. The one death he’ll never forget was an Iraqi interpreter who worked for them and was shot in the first two months he was there. “It sort of made it all real. It’s when you wake up and realize, well, this isn’t training anymore. This is the real deal,” he said.

He has had some occurrences with PTSD but he doesn’t think it’s serious. The army told him it could take two to three months after returning for PTSD to fully affect someone. Dixon can no longer sleep for long periods of time, usually four hours at the most, and he often wakes up sweating and his heart pounding.

In Iraq he never had nightmares or trouble sleeping. He now has dreams with a reoccurring theme: he’s in a situation where people are relying on him to save them but he can’t get his weapon to fire. He thinks a dream like this is normal but after his experience in Iraq, he “doesn’t know what’s normal and what’s not normal.”

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Shannon Keough

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