The Return Home

Soldiers recalibrate to Juneau life after time in the combat zone

Posted: Sunday, February 12, 2006

First Lt. Josh Shrader spent just two weeks with his newborn daughter before he was sent to Iraq.

The 25-year-old is one of seven recently returned Juneau soldiers from Alpha Co., 3rd Battalion 297th Infantry, who are now dads. At times Shrader feared he would never see his 18-month-old daughter, Kacy, again, a possibility for infantry soldiers defending Camp Victory just south of Baghdad.

"I was worried for my safety all the time, because we weren't even sure who was shooting at us," Shrader said. "There was indirect fire, mortars, rocket attacks. Anything that could hurt or kill you was there."

Out on patrol, Shrader felt tense all the time "just waiting for something to happen" in the urban war zone, where civilians and combatants intermingled. At times his disciplined mind would wander.

Shrader asked himself if he would see his daughter again. He doubted she would remember him. How could she?

"Then Boom! It happened." Shrader said. "An explosion ripped through the front of our Humvee."

Shrader said the Humvee was hit by a homemade improvised explosive device, which tore through the front end. The device was remotely operated, unlike a mine, which detonates upon impact, he said.

"Finally something happened to us and we looked around the chaos to see that we were not hurt," Shrader said. "We were alive and going to get out of here.

"The adrenaline hit me. I knew that I was going to be OK."

The burden of being called up by the National Guard for action in the Middle East added to the pressure of becoming a father for the first time, Shrader said. Little could prepare the former Juneau Police Department's community service officer for the rapid changes in his life. He had just two months to prepare for the deployment.

Shrader was nervous and excited about his first child and had little time to get things "squared away" for his new family. The car needed an oil change, his home needed repairs and a will had to be drafted, along with power-of-attorney documents, among other critical things. And he, an officer, was charged with ensuring his soldiers were fit for the rigors of combat.

Now that he's returned from the war, Shrader said he wants to better himself and his family. He is enrolled in an online business management degree program. The furious pace before deployment has been replaced by a slower Juneau lifestyle, requiring more patience and adjustment, Shrader said.

"My wife did tons of stuff and took care of business while I was gone, and now I have had to rediscover my role," Shrader said. "You know, in some ways being a father is like being a soldier in combat: You are responsible for someone's life."

This is the time to re-establish roles and spend time with new kids whom they didn't know before they left, Capt. Wayne Mitchell said. Mitchell has a daughter, born when he was on leave from Iraq. He also has a 3-year-old son, who perhaps understands the stress of deployment more than many adults.

"My son became real upset when I put on a uniform after returning," Mitchell said. "He is just starting to mellow out. He thought I would leave for a long time again."

There was a constant threat of ambush on patrol in Iraq, which kept soldiers "wired tight," Pfc. Kalei Curbow said. Locals could not always be trusted during urban patrols that exposed these infantry soldiers, commonly referred to as "grunts," to any sort of attack, he said. The Iraqis sometimes pretended to be friends, lied and stockpiled weapons for the enemies, Curbow said.

"I don't miss the excitement because I was worried someone could die," Curbow said. "It is cool that we made it back safely and are spending time with our loved ones. Let's leave it at that."

Curbow admitted the daily ritual of shaving, vehicle inspections and weapon checks was not easy in the scorching Iraqi heat. The Juneau native said he became sick of the Iraqi stench of garbage, livestock, raw sewage and other debris scattered near camp. Soldiers roasted in the desert, with temperatures well above 100 degrees, he said.

"Everyone talked about going home and getting drunk," Curbow said. "But we stayed safe. We came home, cut through the red-tape crap and just dealt with it."

Juneau residents, like many other Alaskans, enthusiastically greeted the troops when they arrived home last month. For many years Alaska National Guard troops were not called upon for foreign wars because being in Alaska was considered a vital part of defense against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

But what does a private do after becoming a celebrity and surviving the rigors of a combat zone?

Having a lot of cash makes readjustment easier, Pvt. Anthony Jackson said.

"Iraq was stressful. I am just looking forward to sleep,"Jackson said. "I saved $16,000 in Iraq and am looking to buy a car."

The 22-year-old said he will return to the Fred Meyer shoe department to work soon. Eventually he'll take computer networking at University of Alaska Southeast, he said.

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