For more than a century, young men and now women from this bucolic corner of the Northeast have trained as part-time soldiers. The National Guardsmen were called "weekend warriors" — the standby troops of America’s military forces. But in the Glens Falls armory, and thousands more like it across the country, the role of the Guard changed dramatically when the United States went to war against Iraq.
Forty percent of the American troops on the ground in Iraq are from the Guard. They are weekend warriors no more.
"To War and Back" is the story of seven young men — buddies — who joined the National Guard never thinking they’d go to war. But they did, and theirs is a story of loss, honor, friendship and young lives changed forever.
(Home video) Nathan Brown: Sara, I love you and I always will. And if I don’t come back from this, you know I loved you. And I care about you so much. You mean everything to me Sara.
Nathan Brown never expected to be recording a “goodbye video” in the middle of the Iraqi desert, but then Nathan Brown never expected to find himself in the middle of the war.
Every day in Iraq was dangerous, so different from back home in upstate New York, in the peaceful surroundings of Glens Falls. Nathan wasn’t alone, he arrived in Iraq with six buddies from the old neighborhood.
Tim Haag, a talented artist, went to high school with Nathan. Chad Byrne was a gifted athlete. Andy Flint signed on as a platoon medic. Ken Comstock was known for his love of the military. Pete Hull was an accomplished singer and Rob Hemsing an exceptional guitarist.
The life they knew revolved around Glens Falls, a town so “all-American,” it was dubbed “Hometown U.S.A.” by Look magazine during World War II.
But in recent years, Glens Falls has become a fading factory and mill town. For working class kids like Nathan and his friends, the National Guard was an option for college money.
When they joined, it was a safe bet: No one from their infantry division had been sent to battle since World War II.
But times had changed, and they were in the thick of it.
Of the seven who left Glens Falls together, only six would make it back. Three would be seriously wounded. All of them would be changed forever.
'That wouldn't happen to us'
Before going overseas, the battalion trained stateside for four months. They completed their training in February 2004. The war in Iraq was just short of a year old. The insurgency was growing every day.
Tom Brokaw, NBC News: When you saw on the news about the IEDs and the insurgencies attacking convoys and so on, what did you think?Rob Hemsing: You’re thinking, “Okay. In a couple weeks, that’s going to be me driving through that. How am I going to be different? How can I be the one to save, the guys in my truck and myself?”Brokaw: Did it really raise the intensity for you about what you’re involved in now?Andy Flint: I was kind of under the assumption, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen to us you know.” We’re just a group of friends. We’re just going over there and take care of business for a year, you know. We’re National Guard so we’re not going to be in the mix of all the fighting.
In mid-February 2004, they gathered at the armory in Glens Falls to say good-bye to their families. They recorded their farewell and later, much of their time in Iraq with videos and photos.
Reporter Thom Randall from the local paper, the Post-Star, covered the story the day the soldiers left. He remembers interviewing Nathan Brown.
Thom Randall, local reporter: He was bouncing on his toes and full of enthusiasm about going over and serving and to see something he’d never seen before in his life.Brokaw: Did he have any sense of the peril that he was entering into? Or was it just a big adventure for him?Randall: It seemed like a sense of adventure, but you know there was kind of a nervous edge to it.
Nathan said goodbye to his fiancée Sara and got on the bus. The Nighthawk platoon was on its way. They left behind families, girlfriends, favorite cars, and innocent nights drinking beer for a faraway war zone.
But when Nathan called home one last time before leaving the country, his mother Kathy Brown detected traces of fear in her son.
Kathy Brown, Nathan Brown’s mother: I said, “What’s bothering you Nate?” He goes, “Mom, I never killed a man, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” You know, he was so worried about somebody else’s life over his own.
When the soldiers arrived in Iraq in March 2004, it had been one year since the war began. Their first impression was one of unsettling calm.
Brokaw: When did you begin to have a sense though that you’re in a dangerous place?Ken Comstock: Our first mission we went out and we heard shots being fired and a "boom."Flint: We ran behind our truck and there’s bullets skipping near our legs. We jump in and the windshield gets hit with like five rounds. And everybody at that point knew that we’re going to be faced with the enemy, and we were going to have to face them back.
Because they had performed well during training, their company was handpicked to be attached to a regular army brigade operating in Samarra, a city 60 miles northwest of Baghdad. The friends now were in hostile territory, but they were still together.
Brokaw: Everybody I’ve ever talked to who’s gone through combat talks about the importance of your buddies — of the personal relationships. They say you end up not fighting for your country, you end up fighting for your best friends... to try to keep them alive. Is that how you felt?Comstock: Yeah, because, when you get sent to a place like Iraq or Afghanistan and bullets start flying and things start blowing up all around you, then you realize that you’re 25,000 miles away from, you know, any blood relative that you have. The closest family you have are your buddies within the platoon and the company.
All seven soldiers — Rob, Pete, Tim, Chad, Ken, Andy and Nathan — knew they were part of that family, knew they’d watch each other’s backs.
But in this case they were even more than battle buddies — their close friendships went back years, forged on ball fields, around pool tables, and over late-night video game duels. Still, in the unpredictable world they’d been thrown into there was no guarantee that they could always save each other.
Perhaps that’s why Nathan Brown made his goodbye tape to his fiancée Sara.
They were in Iraq and at war, but they were still a group of guys living together 24/7 and they couldn’t resist goofing around.
Nathan Brown was not camera-shy. The guys’ horseplay seemed to alleviate the boredom when the days were long and uneventful.
But in mid-April 2004, less than two months after they arrived, the Nighthawk platoon came face-to-face with the realities of war. It was Easter Sunday.
They had just discovered a huge weapons cache outside of Samarra and were feeling upbeat. The soldiers were then ordered to clear out insurgents from a section of the city. But as they approached, they sensed danger.
Rob Hemsing: We had just turned into the city and once we notice, “Hey. Hold up. There’s nobody outside. That little girl’s running back to her house. That car just turned around and went backwards down the street. Something’s going on.”
Rob, Chad, Tim and Nathan were in the same vehicle. It wasn’t a mobile armored Humvee which are often used to transport troops. The company didn’t have enough of those to go around. Instead they were sitting in the back of a five-ton truck, an open, cumbersome vehicle used primarily for transporting goods.
Within minutes of entering the city the empty streets erupted into chaos as hidden insurgents opened fire. Two rocket-propelled grenades blasted their truck knocking everyone to the ground.
Hemsing: I remember "boom," and opening my eyes and I’m laying down in the truck instead of where I was.
Shrapnel had torn into one of Rob’s legs and shattered his hands, the hands that made him such a gifted guitarist. Three fingers on one hand were reduced to stubs. On the other, one finger was dangling, barely attached. He was losing blood rapidly.
Brokaw: You can feel the life draining out of you a little bit at that point?Hemsing: I could tell. I’m not too religious but I felt there was a voice in me saying, “You know, if this is too much just close your eyes and it’ll be done. But if you want to live you got to stay awake.”
Rob was aware enough to realize something else had happened during the ambush.
Hemsing: I looked around and someone said “Nate’s dead.” And, I remember looking over being like, “What? No he’s not. What are you talking about? And, I looked over and, you know, Nate was gone.”
Nathan Brown had been hit directly by one of the RPG’s and he was killed instantly. The boys from Glens Falls had lost one of their own. But there wasn’t time for them to mourn.
They were under siege.
Brokaw: Could you see who was shooting at you and trying to take you out?Pete Hull: There were people everywhere. I mean, everyone who was on the streets was shooting at us.
Tim Haag’s training kicked in. He jumped off the truck and returned fire.
Tim Haag: For some reason it made sense for me just to shoot the area where I was looking at. So I shot there with my machine gun.
Later, Tim would be decorated for his actions, but the events of that day would continue to haunt him.
Medic Andy Flint, who had dreams of becoming a doctor, was recovering from an appendectomy miles from the attack, miles from being able to use his skills to help his injured friend Rob.
Brokaw: Andy, you were trained to help them in circumstances like that. That had to be hard.Andy Flint: It still kills me. I mean I know if I was there, you know, I have medicine that I could have put in to prevent one of the bone infections in his finger that he lost eventually. You know, maybe have a finger if I was there.
Rob was evacuated to a military hospital in Germany. The rest of the platoon went back to the base trying to make sense of the carnage, the loss of Nathan.
Hull: You’d lay in bed for two or three hours and try and go to sleep and you’d realize you couldn’t so you’d get up and walk down to see if anyone else was awake. And everyone was.
Patrick Abrams was the Nighthawk platoon sergeant. He had a special feeling about the young men in his command. His own son was in Afghanistan while he was in Iraq.
Sgt. Patrick Abrams: I was hoping that, you know, I would take care of those guys like I would want to have somebody to take care of my son. When somebody got hurt or worse, it affected us all. You know, it was like tearing part of your guts out.Ken Comstock: Nate was one of the youngest guys in the platoon, yet he was one of the most popular, one of the closest friends we had. And we always go back to saying if the enemy had to hit one person that would affect the entire company, they found that one person.
They were all grieving for Nathan, but Tim was also grappling with complex feelings about the Iraqis he killed that day.
Brokaw: You see those scenes playing out in your head again and again, Tim, for the next couple of days.Haag: It bothered me what I did because, like, I mean, you join the Army, and the whole idea of killing people, even at basic training I’m sure it was like a lot tougher back in the day. Now it’s like—Flint: It’s a game.Haag: Yeah. It’s not even really that challenging. And so like my mentality of killing someone would be like, all right, just like they said, you know, one shot, one kill, bang. And, when I saw, it’s not just a target falling down it’s bullets going through people. And they’re just trying to figure out, how they got that hole in them.
And Sgt. Abrams had to get the Nighthawk platoon back into action.
Sgt. Abrams: I mean, the war doesn’t stop because somebody’s wounded or dead. And that was a tough thing. And it was my job and the lieutenant’s job, is to get people back on their feet moving. We can’t focus on that, or none of us will come home.
Glens Falls, New York, has a long tradition of patriotism, dating back to the American Revolution. For more than 200 years, it has sent men off to war — and many did not return. But history alone could not prepare Nathan Brown’s mother for unexpected visitors the night of Easter Sunday, 2004.
Kathy Brown, Nathan Brown's mother: The doorbell rang, all the lights were off outside, cause it was ten o’clock. I heard my daughter holler to me and I got up and got as far as the kitchen and I froze. And she looked at me and I said, “Let this be a lie.” And she started crying, and she goes, “There’s a military man and a police officer at the door.” Tom Brokaw: And what did they say?Kathy Brown: I don’t know. I didn’t hear a word the man said to me, not a word. I saw my husband falling apart at the front door. I don’t even know, I just blacked it out. I didn’t know until the gentleman handed me a piece of paper and I read the piece of paper and all kinds of things started going through my mind. "Where was he? Did he suffer? Was it really him, you know? How’d he look?" I think the biggest one was that I wasn’t there, I wasn’t with him.
In the midst of trying to manage their grief, Kathy and her husband Ricky felt a need to share their story.
Ricky, father: He was my son, my wife’s son, and he had brothers and sisters and he still has brothers still left over in Iraq. I’m deeply going to miss the boy, he’s not a boy no more, he’s a man.
Nathan’s fiancée Sara tried to compose herself but it was so, so hard.
Sara: Nathan was a great guy. He was my best friend, he was my fiancé and he loved his country, his family and all of his friends very much. I hope the best to all of them who are over there now.
Nathan’s good-bye video was no longer “just in case.” Now, it was painfully real.
Partially to honor her son and to draw attention to what happened, Kathy told reporters they were welcome to come to the airport when Nathan’s body was flown in to Albany. She says while she never wavered in her support of the troops, she questioned the war from the beginning.
Brown: I figure, on TV we should see the bodies coming in. Remind our president, you know, we’re not a number, what’s going on over there.
These are not familiar public scenes in this war: caskets being flown home, this ritual of sadness and honor. Nathan Brown was the first infantry soldier from the New York Army National Guard to be killed in combat since World War II.
Reporter Thom Randall, Post-Star reporter: There was an incredible outpouring of grief, and people lined the streets from here to Saratoga. And people turned out and put signs on tractors and buildings and saluted and there was a lot of grief. Brokaw: How did it affect you to know what happened to this group of young people, since you’d interviewed them just before they left and saw them in all their kind of nervous innocence?Randall: It affected me and I felt a sense of grief along with them. And—Brokaw: It’s still hard to think about it.Randall: Yeah.
Wounded and feelings of helplessness
Meanwhile guitarist Rob Hemsing, one of Nathan Brown’s buddies in the Nighthawk platoon, was struggling with the fallout from the attack.
For months, he was treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. In the first few weeks alone, Rob underwent almost 20 complicated surgeries. He lost a total of 4 fingers. Rob was also on pain medication that had a powerful side effect: It numbed his emotions.
Rob Hemsing: One day, I just realized that I need to deal with this. And I refused all the medication. And, you know, I pulled the morphine out, wouldn’t allow myself to have it. And then it was like a freight train. It just ran me over. And I remember crying for three or four days straight and not being able to stop.
Over the next few months, Rob would find himself in close proximity to two of his pals from the platoon who would also wind up at Walter Reed. Ken Comstock’s skull was shattered in almost 500 places when he drove over a roadside bomb. The soldier who had been ribbed for having a “pretty face” was now disfigured. Chad Byrne’s leg was almost torn off when a suicide car bomb exploded just yards from him. The young athlete who lived for making the winning jump shot was facing the probability that he would never play ball again.
Of the seven friends who had arrived in Iraq just half a year earlier, only three, Pete, Tim and Andy, remained there uninjured.
Andy Flint: I was starting to think they were going after my friends. That’s really all we kept thinking. We were kind of like, this thing’s got to end soon.
Thousands of miles from their platoon, Rob, Ken and Chad spent months at Walter Reed slowly healing and wrestling with their thoughts.
Hemsing: All of a sudden, in your head — flashes. What if they just got hit? You know, what if Pete’s gone right now, and you don’t even know it yet, and there’s nothing you can do, being here, to stop it, or to help the situation at all.
Kathy Brown's new mission
Kathy Brown shared that sense of helplessness, but she was determined to do something. She could not bring her son Nathan back, but she could demand answers. She could try to shed light on a problem she felt had not been addressed. Why had Nathan not been fully protected while on a dangerous mission?
Brown: My son was killed in a 5-ton truck. Where’s his armor?
Kathy understood that Nathan might not have survived even if he had been riding in an armored Humvee as opposed to a 5-ton open truck. Still, the possibility that his death could have been prevented tormented her.
Brown: We just started pestering and sending letters and just pounding on our government on why our soldiers were over there with no armor. And there was $88 billion, what was it spent on?
As she investigated the issue, she discovered the problem was widespread. Soon it would make headlines when a National Guard soldier from another unit confronted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about armor shortages.
Kathy was pleased that the matter was getting national attention. But she worried that there wouldn’t be a quick fix.
On New Year’s Eve 2004, Kathy attended a coming home ceremony for Nathan’s old outfit, the Nighthawk platoon, and others in the company. She wanted to see the good friends who’d gone to war with her son and who were now back from Iraq.
These soldiers, and the ones recovering at Walter Reed, had survived combat. But now they faced a different challenge, a more personal battle... trying to resume the lives they had left behind.
By early March, 2005, the soldiers from the Nighthawk platoon were all back in the Glens Falls area, even those who had been wounded. None had begun looking for jobs yet. Chad and Rob were still considered to be on active duty because of their wounds and so they weren’t permitted to work outside the Army. And the others didn’t seem quite ready to adjust to civilian life. They were spending a lot of time together, a kind of mutual protection pact.
Andy Flint: People ask you the two questions, every time they see us — “Did you know Nate Brown? Did you kill anybody?” Everybody wants to know that question from soldiers from Iraq. And those are the two questions that make it impossible to forget. Those are the two things that we hated the most about being there.Tom Brokaw: Italked to a lot of soldiers who say they don’t tell their family everything because it’s just too hard for the families.Tim Haag: Yeah you don’t tell them everything.Ken Comstock: And they just won’t understand.Flint: Yeah, I almost don’t want them to know everything because who we were there is like a totally different person. When your adrenaline is pumped, you’ll do things that you would never even think about doing in the U.S. And, you know, for me to tell them some of the stuff that we did it’s, you know, it’s not, it’s like I didn’t even do it. It’s almost like you watched a movie of yourself.
Of course some things are hard to hide. Ken Comstock, the gung-ho soldier, returned from Walter Reed Army Medical Center with a prominent reminder of his time in Iraq.
Brokaw: You’ve got your cap on covering up your scar.Comstock: Yeah. (removes cap)Brokaw: We should take a look at it. When people see that, how do they react?Comstock: They stare. They stare for quite a while. And then eventually, they’ll come over or make eye contact with me, and then come over and ask, you know, “Well, what happened to your head?” And, you know, it’s one of those things that you don’t really want to talk about.
Ken knows he’ll have to undergo more surgeries. He is also trying to tackle another problem.
Comstock: I’m up all night sometimes until 3, 4 a.m., not being able to fall asleep, because I know when I do I’m just going to be up in a couple more hours because I have dreams of things that happened when we were over there. Just people shooting and people dying that I have close relationships with… stuff like that.
Ken’s been told it’s what he can expect. He came home with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Despite his physical and mental scars, Ken Comstock is as passionate about the military as he was before he went to war.
Comstock: The only thing that I am frustrated about with this injury was the fact that they told me I had to retire from the military. But if they give me the opportunity, just sign my name right back up on that paper and I’m right back into the fight. I’m not going to let a little injury just stop me from doing the one thing that I love to do in this world.
Ken’s “little injury” brought him a Purple Heart for being wounded while serving. His buddy Rob Hemsing also received the medal.
But it was more complicated for Rob:
Rob Hemsing: It’s not really an honor because I got it because I wasn’t good enough at my job. I got it because I got, I lost. I got hurt, you know.
In so many ways, Rob is getting his life on track. He has a new girlfriend, Jessica, who is helping him feel more grounded. He has better use of his remaining six fingers than he had ever imagined during his darkest days at Walter Reed Army Medical center. But ever since he came home, even the most everyday activities have become an ordeal.
Hemsing: The hardest thing to learn how to do was to brush my teeth. Cause taking off the toothpaste cap with one hand and pouring the toothpaste onto the brush with one hand — it’s kinda complicated. I used to have to put it in my neck and squeeze down and put the cap back on with my mouth. It took awhile to learn how to do that.
Rob is confronting other frustrations as well.
Hemsing: Some people yell to get their aggression out. Some people play sports. You know, some people write poetry. Well, I play guitar. So, not having that it’s like a feeling of wanting to scream but you can’t.
He tries to play, but he keeps bumping into his limitations.
Hemsing: The scarring and the grafting really inhibits my ability to pull my thumb over or bend my wrist. And a lot of that is the tendons are just gone. They’re just not there. And you can’t move something that’s not there. Flint: Coming home wasn’t at all how we had pictured it. It was awesome to be home, but it was almost scary to be home. We had grown so accustomed to that life that coming to a new life was really hard.
What’s been most difficult for Andy Flint is that he’s finding the work he did as a medic in Iraq a tough act to follow now that he’s home.
Flint: My job in Iraq was to take care of people. It was to fight an enemy. You know, supposedly helping the entire United States. Now I’m gonna go home and now what? Do blood tests at a doctor’s office?
But the experiences he had saving lives overseas have led Andy to make a surprising decision about his future.
Flint: I don’t want to do medicine any more. Every time I work on somebody who’s got anything wrong with their head, I think of Kenny, and how he was squirming around on his bed. Every time, I work with somebody who’s bleeding from the leg, or has a broken leg, I think of Chad screaming. Every kind of injury, I saw times 10 in Iraq. And I don’t want to relive injuries every single day. I’m definitely done with medicine.
Andy hopes to study political science and get a job one day at the CIA or the FBI.
Chad Byrne came back from Walter Reed with a metal rod in his leg and the heartbreak that he will never again be the athlete he once was.
Brokaw: You get up every day, and have to get a cane to get around, right?Chad Byrne: Now I’m getting a little bit better but yeah.Brokaw: Get angry about that?Bryne: It’s aggravating. Everybody’s walking, you know, they’re way ahead of me, and I’m still trotting along behind. It’s aggravating.
And when Chad’s not with his buddies he feels a sense of isolation that he never knew before.
Bryne: You come home, it’s like I can’t talk to anybody about it. You know, you can, but people that haven’t been there, they look at you and they feel sorry for you. But, they don’t know. They don’t know what to say to you.
It’s a relief when he goes to physical therapy. Anything to keep his mind occupied. The odds are long but Chad has a clear-cut goal in mind:
Byrne: Hopefully, I’d like to be walking’ and running’ by a year, so I’ll be able to play basketball.
Tim Haag isn’t sure what the future holds for him. But he’s certain about the past and what it means to him.
Tim Haag: I really enjoy the Army. I really loved the National Guard and I love the guys I worked with. Over there we had a sense of purpose and something to do, and now it’s just like, “All right, what am I gonna do tonight?” All right, I’ll wake up and take care of this stuff during the day and then I’ll go get drunk later on, I’ll pass out and wake up tomorrow and I’ll do the same thing over again.
Tim used to find solace in drawing. But now he has trouble focusing.
Haag: I can’t even draw anymore. I went to college for graphic arts and design, ‘cause I love drawing, that’s all I ever enjoyed doing. But I don’t know, I’m just kind of mentally blocked, I guess.
Tim was awarded a Bronze Star for his bravery in fighting the insurgents on Easter Sunday, but he still is not at peace with his actions.
Haag: I never really talked to anybody, like any of my friends in detail about it until I saw Rob. And I started talking to him about it. And it’s like I’m starting to deal with it now. And, over in Iraq, it was kind of easy to put it in the back of my mind, because there’s always another task ahead.
Like all the soldiers in the Nighthawk platoon, their leader, Sgt. Patrick Abrams is trying to recover as well. He was hurt in the same explosion that wounded Chad. But what troubles him most now is not his bum leg or ailing shoulder, but what happened to the young men under his watch.
Sgt. Abrams: Every time I see Robbie, I feel guilty. You know, the kid’s scarred up for life. I mean, poor kid. But I guess that’s war. I don’t know. You know? You just wish you could have done better. Somehow.
Now he hopes his boys can move on.
Sgt. Abrams: If you don’t get on with your life and they get in our heads, they beat us. You know? The bad guys beat us, you know. We made it out of there, but you know, if they’re in your head, you’re just not on with your life any more. So you’ve got to get on with it.
Kathy Brown had been bracing herself for April 11th, 2005, the first anniversary of her son Nathan’s death. She treasures seeing his buddies at the memorial. But, of course, it is a day filled with sadness.
Still, Kathy can tell she is slowly starting to heal. And the Nighthawk platoon is helping.
Kathy Brown: No one can take the place of Nathan, but I’ll tell you, they’re filling a void. Tom Brokaw: But is it sometimes hard to see them going about their lives? It’s not?Brown: No.Brokaw: You don’t ever get angry and think, “Why did they come back and Nate didn’t?”Brown: No, no.
Not just another statistic
All of Nathan’s buddies from the Guard feel a sense of responsibility toward Kathy. But Rob Hemsing carries an especially heavy load: It’s hard for him not to dwell on the way one random event set the stage for the Easter Sunday attack.
Rob Hemsing: That day when they loaded up the truck, our original places were, I was where Nate was and then they started loading the truck up with garbage and stuff. So we all had to slide down. So, a lot of times I think of — what if that didn’t happen? What if we didn’t slide down? I just feel guilty a lot of the times about it. Especially when I’m lucky enough to go hang out with Kathy. It’s tough. Cause I look at her in the face and just, all I’m thinking in my head is “I’m sorry that it’s me standing before you and not your son.” Brokaw: 10 years from now, Rob, do you think Nate Brown will be forgotten in this community?Hemsing: Everyone here, it’s our biggest fear, you know. To us, no. To his family, no. To those who knew him, it’s impossible. But, you know, how many people do you know in Glens Falls that died in Vietnam? It happens, you know. People stop telling the story. Pete Hull: Eventually the posters start coming down. The papers stop reporting on it.Andy Flint: Well, if it continues to go like this, there’ll be another person from Glens Falls killed. And then Nate will be in the background. It’ll be now about the new person.
The soldiers are aware that the Army and the National Guard are having significant recruitment trouble. Both branches failed to meet their 2005 quotas and these young men understand why.
Hemsing: Everybody sees us go out, half of us come back wounded, some of us not come back at all. Some people just sit there and think it’s not worth it, you know.Brokaw: Some young guy comes to you and says, “I’m thinking about joining the National Guard,” what do you tell him?Ken Comstock: Go to the recruiter’s office.Hemsing: Think about it carefully. But if it’s the decision you really want to make, God bless you. I don’t think anyone here has any regret about it. I mean, I loved my five years in the Army. It was the best five years of my life. I guarantee you, everyone at this table feels the same way.
Lives bogged down in benefits processing
But now that they are home, what about the next few years in their lives? Moving on, they say, would go a lot smoother if the Army were not so bogged down in processing paperwork that defines their disability benefits. Rob Hemsing says the process took him a full year.
Hemsing: My whole life revolved around a piece of paper slowly making its way around the whole government. It’s just that the resources were not set aside before this war for what ended up happening.
In fact, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan needing medical treatment is four times the original budget.
Chad Byrne is still caught in the system.
Chad Byrne: I’m just waiting to get discharged before I can start my life.
Chad won’t get discharged until the Army is satisfied that his leg is better. And because he still is considered “active duty,” Chad was told he was not permitted to go to college.
But he learned that in some cases soldiers can apply for special permission to take classes. So he did that... and he says after many months of waiting he finally received permission to enroll part-time. He doesn’t know how long it will take before he learns what disability benefits he will collect.
The new normal
When I went with these close friends from the Nighthawk platoon to their favorite bar, it was a comfort zone for them, a hang-out from before the war, where they shot a little pool and kept up the good-natured bantering.
But so much has changed.
Hemsing: The whole left side of my body is all covered with scars.
The scars may be covered, but the soldiers are painfully aware of how trying the healing process can be.
During the spring, Andy, Rob and Pete get together for jam sessions. It’s like old times, but it’s not quite the same for Rob.
Since he was wounded he’s had to forego playing guitar and learn a new instrument, the bass. He’s also had to watch his buddy Andy play his guitar effortlessly.
Hemsing: I look over at him when I’m trying to play bass and I see him being able to do what I used to do with ease, you know? It makes me jealous.
Still he’s grateful that his friends have pushed him to keep trying.
Hemsing: About a year ago, you know these people went through hell to save my life. You know they were getting shot at while they were trying to save me. And like they don’t want to go through all that effort just for them to watch me get depressed and just waste my life.
And Rob has some other things on his mind. He got some news from his girlfriend Jessica.
Hemsing: I found out I was gonna be a dad. So, that’s kinda changed everything.
Rob, who is now studying finance in college, thinks becoming a father just may help him move on.
Hemsing: I can definitely see how having a kid is going to force me to just forget about the past, you know, and it just forces you to take the next step in life.
Ken Comstock has returned to Walter Reed for more surgery on his head. Coming back here and seeing other wounded soldiers has taken a toll on him. But he’s made a decision about his future: he has decided to become a police officer. And Ken is finally making progress in an area that has plagued him for months.
Comstock: There’s actually a couple of days where I do get a good night's sleep now, but I don’t think anything will ever be 100 percent again.
Pete Hull knows the best way for him to adjust to life back home is to pick up where he left off... singing. He’s back in college studying music education, taking vocal lessons and doing what made him happy before he went to war.
Still, like the others in the platoon, Pete grapples with vivid images and disturbing memories that have left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pete Hull: If anyone from our unit said they don’t have PTSD it would be very surprising.
Tim Haag has spent months getting used to civilian life again, how it feels, how it sounds.
Tim Haag: It’s quiet. There’s nothing going on. It’s quiet. Everybody’s got, we’ve all moved on. Because we can’t all hang out. Everybody’s doing their own thing.
Tim has begun writing about his experiences in Iraq and one day hopes to publish his story. He’s looking forward to college although he feels worlds apart from the typical student.
Haag: You know, they may be the same age as me, but I don’t feel the same age as them. Not by far. Not by a long shot.
Andy Flint has been spending time coaching freshman baseball and for him, it’s a whole new ball game.
Andy Flint: I feel I have a bunch of little kids that are my own and I’m teaching them stuff. Is that something I did before? Yeah. But I didn’t get the same satisfaction. I’m seeing life from a whole different perspective. I don’t know if I became an adult during the fight, or if something triggered it. But I am most definitely an adult now.
Andy was accepted by Temple University in Philadelphia which will make him the first one from this group of friends to leave the area.
Flint: It’s time for me to, you know, start doing the adult things, start living… like the life that you grow up for.
Kathy Brown says lately she has eased off pressing the government for answers on how much armor soldiers in Iraq are receiving.
Brokaw: Did you ever get any satisfaction out of all this?Brown: They assured me that there is armor, and armor is being sent. I try to check up and make sure. I have suspicions there’s not enough.
In fact, as the war in Iraq continues, the Pentagon is facing the troubling reality that although improved armor is being supplied to troops, the insurgents are developing more lethal bombs: Explosives that at times are proving too powerful even for armored Humvees.
As for the politics surrounding this war, these soldiers think it’s irrelevant.
Flint: Soldiers shouldn’t be involved in politics because your only job is to fight. It doesn’t matter if you’re fighting a good cause or bad cause because when the fight starts, you don’t care. All you’re fighting for is your friends.
In less than a year they went through a lifetime of ordeals that will likely divide their lives into “before” and “after.” Yet when they left for Iraq, none of them was older than 23. When this group of young men, home from combat, traveled just south of Glens Falls to the war memorial in Saratoga Springs, New York, they can see a place for themselves in history.
Flint: To have your name on that wall means a heck of a lot more to me now than it did before.Brokaw: Other veterans come and talk to you about what they’ve been through and what you’ve been through?Bryne: Oh, yeah. Down in D.C., I had some Vietnam vets come down and see me down in the hospital. And I mean they were even moved. You know they started tearing up, you know. And kind of felt good in a way.Hemsing: ‘Cause they understand.Brokaw: Is that helpful to you?Bryne: Real helpful.Brokaw: So is this just a passing time in your life or do you think that this experience will bind you for the rest of your lives?Haag: It already has.Comstock: Oh, yeah. It definitely already has.Flint: We’re a group that we’ve been through a lot and we’ll always be a group. I mean there’s no doubt that we’re going to be together if stuff like this happens. We were friends before, but now we really are brothers and family.
What happened to the men of the Nighthawk platoon is not unique to Glens Falls. All across America, combat veterans of Iraq are back home, proud of their service, but so many are struggling to put their lives together, coping with terrible injuries and mourning the loss of friends. What they have seen and what they’ve been through has put a deep imprint on them — and they should not feel they have to endure this stage of the war alone.