N ew York City sent over 16,000 men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the most recent U.S. Census statistics. 91 of those people died in the war. Those who returned home faced challenges beyond reintegrating into civilian life. They also had to reconnect with their families. Readjustment for many has been tough.
Antonio Sosa, 31, knows the strain distance and military culture puts on families. He experienced it firsthand after returning from Iraq in 2009. His adjustment has required a series of small steps, from reintroducing himself to his children to managing his aggression at home.
Sosa missed the birth of both of his children, Steven, 6, and Zoey, 3. He said the bond was particularly hard to rebuild with his daughter. “I missed everything. I missed part of life when she cried sometimes and I wasn’t there to hold her hand,” Sosa said.
Just over half of today’s military personnel are married, 51 percent and 73 percent of those married have children. Twelve percent of military families have both spouses in the military.
Sosa served in the U.S. Navy and Iraq for more than eight years. He is now studying anthropology at City College of New York.
Welby Alcantara, coordinator for veterans’ affairs at CCNY, said the impact of war on veterans and their families cannot be overstated. Many of them battle with alcoholism, anger issues and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many veterans struggle with domestic violence, which eventually separates families.
Dr. Morton Ender, professor of behavioral sciences at West Point, said adjustment from military to civilian life often leaves soldiers feeling angry and frustrated.
“At home things change because you’re dealing with mundane things not life or death issues and it takes a while to readjust,” Ender said.
Sosa, who has been married for 12 years, said his wife has patiently supported him in his readjustment. He said he yelled at his children and drank frequently after he returned.
“She calms me down when I am out of control. Our code word is ‘Bananas’ and that’s how I know I’m getting out of control,” Sosa said.
Like many veterans, Sosa found it difficult to separate behavior appropriate in Iraq from expectations at home.
“It was normal for me to get aggressive,” while in Iraq, he said.
“It was normal for me to drink. I’m a soldier. I was allowed to, and that normality sticks with you until you find out that’s not normal,” he said.
When he first returned after eight years deployed, he had to make up for many birthdays lost, especially those of his daughter.
“I missed the fun parts. She didn’t know who the hell I was,” Sosa said. “It took me awhile to gain her trust. It was pretty hard. I accepted the fact that after you’ve been away, your kids will just not look at you like a father figure.”
Sosa has had to work hard to become a part of his daughter’s life again, even by doing small things like buying her candy.
John-Pierre Blanchette, 29, served in the navy as an engineer for five years. He was discharged from the navy for post-traumatic stress in February this year. He often felt angry after losing his naval career, and became depressed when his two close friends committed suicide after they returned. He turned to family therapy when he returned home.
“My therapy showed me that the feelings I’m feeling are normal,” said Blanchette, who lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “I’m not crazy.”
Blanchette, like Sosa, struggled to find a place in civilian life, especially since his deployment was abruptly cut off. But with the help of his wife Michelle, and their son Jordan, 8, he quickly learned how to deal with his emotions and adjust.
He learned how to familiarize himself with what made him angry. Most of the time, his wife would recognize when he was beginning to get out of control, but sometimes he was on his own.
Blanchette said he eventually began to recognize what would set him off, and at those moments, he or his wife would try some calming techniques.
“You have to know when it’s about to start, he said, “I catch myself.”
Anger management is a work in progress for Sosa too.
“I’m still fighting it, but then you realize you have friends who look up to you, said Sosa. “You have a wife and kids. They look up to you too. That’s what keeps me calm.”