Three Maine vets talk about what they saw, heard, smelled and felt in Iraq and Afghanistan because it helps them move on.
For Andrew Breault of South China, it’s the sound of a helicopter.
For Chris Stover of Windham, it’s the smell of cooked meat.
For San Pao of Gorham, it’s a noisy, crowded hallway between classes.
Welcome to the aftermath. That period after any war when the warriors put down their weapons, change out of their uniforms and go back to life the way it was meant to be.
Only it isn’t.
“I just tried to forget, to be honest with you,” said Breault, 55, during a long sit-down at the University of Southern Maine’s Veterans Services office.
“I didn’t go out and get in trouble. I didn’t drink a lot. I didn’t beat my wife or anything. But I just would like … I wouldn’t talk about it.”
Yet talk about it they must. To ignore post-traumatic stress disorder, to pretend you’re good to go when in fact you’re stuck in reverse, is to let the war rage on just beneath the veneer of day-to-day civilian life.
Back in the day, society euphemistically called it “battle fatigue,” that sense that with some veterans returning home from combat, something was not quite right. That whatever happened “over there” had changed them in ways that were best left unspoken.
For the many Mainers who have served over the past 15 years in Afghanistan or Iraq, a successful future can hinge on reconciliation with the past. War can change you and not for the better – but it need not cripple you for life.
Recently, Breault, Stover and Pao agreed to spend a couple hours at USM talking about then – and now.
All three have been diagnosed with PTSD. More importantly, all three refuse to let it defeat them.
Pao, 35, and Breault, both married with children, are enrolled in USM’s master of social work program. Upon earning their degrees, both see themselves working with veterans.
Stover, 29, also married with two children, will soon leave his job as a corrections worker at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham – probably not the best fit for a guy with his history – and enroll at USM through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program.
Put more simply, they’re picking themselves up and getting on with their lives.
Breault served in 2004 with an Army infantry battalion in the Iraqi city of Samarra, right in the heart of the embattled Sunni Triangle.
As a supply officer, he spent most of his time inside the wire, where the mortar and rocket attacks were part of daily life.
But that wasn’t the hard part. More than 30 of Breault’s comrades died fighting – and when the helicopters came in bearing the bodies, they’d slowly descend onto a landing pad just outside his office window.
“It was frustrating. I was mad that I couldn’t go out there (into the city) and do something about it,” Breault said. “I was stuck being a supply sergeant. It almost felt like a curse.”
He added, “I used to love riding on helicopters, hearing the sound of a helicopter. Now it makes my stomach turn. It’s a really bad feeling.”
Stover served in 2007-08 with the Maine Army National Guard’s 169th Military Police Company, mostly in the town of Hussaybah on the Iraq-Syria border.
His job was to train Iraqi police in a place where they were on your side one minute and plotting ways to blow you up the next.
Stover went out on 250 combat missions in 297 days. Among the worst: the morning his squad was summoned to the scene of an attack by insurgents on a local police chief, his officers and their families.
“They left them in a pile in the desert and they slit their throats, dismembered them in different ways and lit them on fire and left,” Stover recalled. “It was crazy.”
Not long ago, Stover and his wife went out for dinner at Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant in Portland. Diners at a nearby table had ordered a steak platter and when the waitress brought it out, the smell of the still-sizzling meat hit Stover like an up-armored Humvee.
“All I could smell was the smell of burnt flesh and immediately it was just like (claps hands), I wasn’t even (in the restaurant) anymore,” he said. “I was back there.”
Panic-stricken, Stover got up to leave, kicking over his chair in the process. People all around him in the crowded restaurant, strangers every one, all started laughing at him.
“It was a really, really bad experience,” Stover said quietly.
Pao served two combat tours – one with the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion in Mosul in 2003-04, the other in 2010 on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border with the Maine Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 173nd Infantry.
His nightmares were many: An attack on a convoy in which he was driving in April 2004 that killed one of his buddies, Spc. Chris Gelineau, 23, a USM student from Portland. A suicide attack later that year on the chow hall at Forward Operating Base Marez that left 22 dead and scores injured.
And then, more recently, came the firefight in Afghanistan’s Paktia Province – Pao was pinned down by an enemy ambush after exiting his armored vehicle alone and, for several long minutes as he struggled to get back inside, firmly believed he was about to die.
Now here he is at USM, where he’s already earned a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing and will spend the next three years working toward his master’s in social work.
Even now, Pao said, he gets nervous when navigating the between-class crowds in USM’s Luther Bonney Hall or, while sitting in class, hearing a distant classroom door slam somewhere down the hallway.
“When I was an undergrad, it was like flashback city every single friggin’ day,” he said. “I’m off in la-la land and someone’s talking to me and I’m just staring at some fixture on the wall. And I’m in Mosul. Or I’m someplace in Paktia.”
To their fellow veterans, these three have a message: Yes, life after war is hard. At times, it’s downright scary. But keeping it all bottled up inside, making pretend nothing happened, will get you nowhere.
“I think it’s progressively getting better for me,” said Breault, who, in addition to his graduate studies, works full-time as a mental health rehabilitation technician for Assistance Plus in Benton. “Five years ago, I wouldn’t be here talking to you at all.”
They also have a message for the rest of us: Until you’ve spent some time over there, where bullets and bombs are a way of life and death can come in a heartbeat, you’ll never fully appreciate how lucky you are to live here.
Stover, for all his dark memories, clings most tightly to one of the days he and his buddies scored a batch of new soccer balls and presented them to the children at a school next to the squad’s barracks.
“Two-dollar soccer balls from the PX,” he said. “You would have thought we’d just given them all new Ferraris.”
He’ll also remember the two Iraqis who stopped him one day just to say, “Thank you for being here. Thank you for coming from halfway around the world to protect us.”
Did these three soldiers come home changed? How could they have not?
But like so many of their comrades throughout Maine and beyond, they quietly carry on. And on this Veterans Day, on every day, they deserve our gratitude, our support and our undying respect.
“I’m at the point now where I realize and accept everything that I’ve done. It’s made me who I am. I’m proud of it,” said Stover. “But I’m not ever going to be the same kid who used to laugh at everything. I’m not going to be that guy.”
Pausing from a moment, he added, “And I’m 110 percent, totally fine with the guy I am now.”