http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me ... &cset=true
Company A is back from Iraq, but the National Guard veterans find few resources to help them adjust to civilian life.
By Vanessa Gregory and Claire Miller, Special to The Times
PETALUMA, Calif. — For the first time in two years, the soldiers of Company A are home for the holidays.
But normal life still eludes the families of the California National Guard unit — based in this town north of San Francisco — that suffered one of the state's highest casualty rates in Iraq. There are sudden overwhelming anxiety attacks, financial hardships and strained marriages.
"They bring home these empty shells of people, and that's what they are. They left the people they used to be behind," said Rene Gilmore, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Michael Gilmore, spent seven months on tense security patrols in Balad, Iraq, before he was wounded by a roadside bomb explosion.
Like many of the 7,000 California National Guard troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the soldiers of Company A, 579th Engineer Battalion, returned to a system mainly equipped for weekend drills and periodic call-ups to state emergencies, such as forest fires.
Asked to play a front-line role overseas for the first time since the Korean War, members of the Guard nationwide often feel like second-class citizens when they return home.
In contrast, their counterparts in the full-time military return to relatively well-equipped and -staffed bases, where their post-combat problems can be more easily observed and treated.
At Ft. Irwin, an Army base northeast of Barstow, soldiers undergo two weeks of "reintegration training" that includes counseling for family reunification and even a defensive-driving course to get soldiers used to civilian highways again.
Ft. Irwin has on-post medical facilities, subsidized grocery stores, day care and counseling programs for the children of parents at war. The base has six chaplains, a staff psychologist and a social worker office for its 5,000 soldiers and families.
The state's 20,000 California National Guard troops and their 40,000 dependents have only two full-time chaplains, one psychologist and one social worker.
Returning Company A troops received only four days of informational sessions at Camp Roberts, the dilapidated World War II-era Guard training base[b/] near Paso Robles. Once the troops were released to civilian life, the Guard waited three months to follow up with them, although many soldiers and Guard officials say emotional problems begin to surface after one or two months.
"Phones started ringing at the armory 30 to 60 days after the soldiers came back," said 579th Engineers operations officer Zachariahs Delwiche.[b] "We had more problems than we could deal with. We had one soldier who basically sequestered himself in a motel for two months. Another soldier was living in the armory. We requested to have a team go out and check on the soldiers and families, but it was never funded."
Delwiche estimated that more than a dozen members of Company A — a 100-soldier unit that had three killed in action and 20 wounded in Iraq — came back from their service there with serious psychological problems.
"We don't have the resources that the active component does, in terms of bases and facilities to provide that support," said Maj. Jon Siepmann, a California National Guard spokesman. "That we're performing an active-duty role without commensurate resources is frustrating."
With Guard families spread throughout California, some veterans and their dependants live hours from the nearest counseling center.
In Company A, fewer than half the returning members enrolled in voluntary counseling offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some have relied instead on overburdened spouses, compassionate strangers, hometown churches or their civilian workplaces to provide what the California National Guard does not.
Rene Gilmore, a 38-year-old mother of two young boys, served as Company A's volunteer family counselor.
While the unit was in Iraq, she worked nights from home for an insurance company, took care of her kids and answered four or five calls a day from other Guard spouses. She helped families cope with problems such as anxiety and a teenager's attempted suicide.
Gilmore's own family has also struggled with the fallout from the war in Iraq.
Her 37-year-old husband came home early, in November 2004, with a Purple Heart and a hole in his shoulder from the blast of an improvised explosive device.
His mental scars surfaced months later, when he and his wife were sprucing up the Petaluma armory for Company A's welcome-back celebration. Michael was struggling to hammer the company's awards onto the wall with his injured arm.
"He was frustrated," Rene recalled. "His thought was that he should have been coming home with the other guys, and instead he was with the wives."
After the party, on a two-lane road home to Livermore, Michael pulled out to pass a car. Soon, he passed another and reached 100 mph, forcing oncoming cars off the road. Mentally, he was back in Iraq.
"You're going to kill us! Stop!" Rene recalled yelling.
"She was yelling, and that didn't make sense, because we yell at each other back there" in Iraq, Michael recalled.
Finally, Rene touched her husband's arm and asked: "Who will raise our children if you kill us?"
He slowed down and, within days, Rene was at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Livermore, looking for a counselor who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder.
Military psychologists do not know how many Iraq veterans suffer from the disorder, but studies of those who served in the Vietnam War show that as many as 30% of combat veterans may experience symptoms that include flashbacks, anxiety and emotional numbness, said Keith Armstrong, a social worker at the San Francisco VA Medical Center.
"I've got my good days and bad days," Michael said. "Still, sometimes when I'm driving down the road, my mind will drift back."
Tonya and Jim Saleda were planning an intimate family Christmas in Sonoma to celebrate his first holiday back. But the holidays have done little to diminish Tonya's bitterness.
"I wasn't happy with the whole support of the National Guard at any point of his deployment," she said. "Families just kind of fell through the cracks."
Despite promises of family assistance from the Guard, Tonya, 40, said no one called to see how she and her children were doing. She relied on her husband's employer, the Oakland Police Department.
"They sent me and my daughter care packages. They kept up insurance and retirement and pay, so we were OK in that respect," she said. "I just didn't count on the military for anything."
The feeling of neglect continued after Staff Sgt. Jim Saleda, 43, returned home, even as he copes with unexplained symptoms that his wife describes as mini-strokes.
None of the Guard officials "ever called to see how he was doing; nobody ever asked," she said.
In San Jose, Sgt. Steve Edwards is unable to work. Considered by his commander one of the most reliable soldiers in Iraq, Edwards now spends most of his time hunkered down inside his home.
His wife, Theresa, mother of the couple's 10-year-old daughter, is her husband's primary caregiver and the family's only breadwinner.
"I thought we would make it through the deployment and everything would be gravy," she said.
For the first couple of weeks, Steve had problems sleeping and sometimes walked the perimeter of the house to make sure it was secure before he went to bed. His wife thought that his behavior — odd but understandable — would pass with time.
Then one day she took him to Trader Joe's. They used to love shopping together, and after a year of Army cuisine he was ready to indulge.
Waiting in line with a full cart, Theresa turned to her husband and noticed he was shaking. His eyes were full of tears, and he said he had to get out of the store: It was too crowded, too loud.
Today, he cannot leave the house without scanning the rooftops for snipers; he can't stand crowds. He dreaded malls during the Christmas season. "Thank God there was online shopping," he said.
His wife supports the family with her job at a technology company. Steve Edwards, a former Fairmont Hotel technician, applied for his Army pension and compensation but was told it could take Veterans Affairs up to a year to process the claim.
The state provides about $250 a week in disability, but with food and rent topping $3,000 a month, the family barely squeaks by. They received a one-time $2,000 grant from the California Military Relief Fund, and Rene Gilmore has given them several Safeway gift cards.
Staff Sgt. Randy Dale, 43, and his wife, Amy, 38, have endured many of the same hardships faced by other National Guard families. Amy had to take two jobs to help support the family and their two teenagers.
Her husband's job as a truck driver evaporated almost as soon as he got back. The couple live in Lucerne, about 115 miles north of the armory in Petaluma.
But the Dales got unusually strong support from their church, where she worked as a part-time cleaning woman.
"Every time I needed help or anything, there was someone from our church," she said.
When her truck broke down, her pastor picked her up. When her kids were having trouble in school, the church youth leader gave her advice.
While he was in Iraq, Randy deepened his religious beliefs, praying with other soldiers before he went out on patrol.
The couple credit their faith with helping them through the ordeal and keeping their marriage strong.
"We're not looking at last year like it was a negative thing," Amy said. "We are looking at it like it was a positive thing. We made it through."