Life after military service. Soldiers, sailors and airmen often say they’re changed by the experience. Sometimes the change is good, sometimes it’s a problem.
“I remember when my Lieutenant was killed. I was the first one to get to him,” said George Dailey of Wahoo. A U.S. Army infantryman during the latter stages of World War II, he was in combat for 85 days, which included fighting in the brutal but decisive Battle of the Bulge.
“I had quite a time the first year I was back. I drank heavily,” Dailey added. “I had the war in my head. I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Dailey was one of two dozen veterans who volunteered to sit down in front of a computer and web camera at the Durham Museum in Omaha and tell stories about their military service. This oral history project was a collaboration between the Durham and NET News, in conjunction with an exhibit showcasing 150 years of American soldiers. The veterans participating in this project served in the different branches of the military with varying duties. Some fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some had peacetime assignments.
The stories they recorded reflected the diversity of their experiences, the different locations and eras of their service. We also specifically asked veterans to talk about life after they returned home or left the military. Here we found a common theme; servicemen and servicewomen changed by these experiences.
Robert Montag of Omaha is in the Nebraska Army National Guard. He’s been deployed to Afghanistan and to Iraq, where on one patrol his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb. “I caught shrapnel in my right forearm and my face,” Montag recalled. “Our medic and his vehicle came up and their vehicle was hit with an IED as well.”
Montag says life after Iraq wasn’t easy. He returned to Nebraska unemployed, but says the Veteran’s Center helped him find a job. He also returned with mental health issues.
“Dealing with the experiences of combat and those feelings of fear and apprehension and post-traumatic stress disorders,” Montag said in his oral history recording. “I had nightmares all the time. I went to talk to a counselor about that. It’s very tough to come to terms with combat itself and taking another man’s life or someone trying to take yours.”
Montag said as a result of military service he’s also more assertive. James Clipperton of Omaha shared a similar story. He was in the Air Force working on aircraft radar from 1973 to 1981, including five years in South Korea. Clipperton says the military taught him to be more self-reliant and self-dependent when it comes to problem solving. A trait Clipperton says can be good and bad.
“That works pretty well for a lot of places, but sometimes at your civilian jobs they don’t like that,” Clipperton said in his recording. “They don’t want you identifying problems and trying to fix them, and that’s been a point of contention a few times at different jobs I’ve had where I’m used to getting stuff done and it’s hard sometimes to get that across to the boss without looking like a know-it-all or somebody who’s bucking the system or something.”
Another challenge is talking about military experiences to people who weren’t there.
“Usually it’s really hard to answer those questions especially in social situations just because it’s not something you really want to talk about that much. So it’s difficult especially if you don’t know the person,” said Ben Chambers of Gretna in his oral history recording. Chambers deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 as an active duty U.S. Army soldier. Now he’s in the Nebraska Army National Guard.
“It’s kind of tough, or if they don’t react kind of the way that you think they should react then it makes you a little mad,” Chambers added.
“When I got back it was a different atmosphere in the United States because that was when all the war protests were going pretty hard and heavy,” Roger Nelson of Omaha said. Nelson served in the Air Force, including a stint in Vietnam.
“So telling somebody that you were a part of the Vietnam experience wasn’t really good because you kind of put on as an outcast,” Nelson continued in his recording.
Nelson went on to offer a perspective echoed by many of these veterans; life after military service included many positives.
“My way of thinking is I think everybody should do some service for their country because it builds your character, kind of teaches you to interact with other people cause you’re forced to live with other people all the time,” Nelson said. “Once you’re a veteran, you’re always a veteran. They can never take that away from you.”
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Chambers said. “I know a lot of bad stuff has happened, but I’m very proud of everything I did.”
Resouces for veterans can be found on the web site for the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs.