Operation Normalcy

Returning to Civilian Life is the New Strategic Objective for Young Veterans

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For many new veterans, returning to the old life is difficult.

Their grandfathers fought the Axis powers and came home to a housing shortage and a looming, nuclear-tipped Cold War. Their fathers, who fought the Viet Cong in impenetrable jungle, were reviled for participating in an unpopular war. The young veterans of the 21st century come home to reshape their lives amid the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Each generation of veterans may have had different experiences. But the common thread tying them together is the need to get back to normal life. How do you do that, having seen what you’ve seen? How do you just go back to living in suburbia and comfortable surroundings when your most vivid memories are of people trying to kill you?

For many new veterans, returning to the old life is hard. Retired Navy medical logistician Pia Woodley and former Marines Tyler Douglas and David Stuart are among many forging ahead with new lives following tours in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Photo by Scott Holstein

Pia Woodley served as a medical logistician for the multinational force in Iraq.

Dual Deployments

“Returning home from deployment was honorable, but returning home from Iraq alive was the bigger story,” said Pia Woodley, an independent insurance agent in her mid-40s. Woodley spent 20 years in the Navy and took a tour of duty in Baghdad four years ago. “Knowing that I would retire shortly after my return from deployment was a breath of fresh air for the Woodley family. It gave us something to look forward to achieving.”                

A Miami native and a Florida A&M graduate whose first love was teaching, Woodley served as a medical logistician for the multinational force in Iraq. She worked in the fortified Green Zone — but that doesn’t mean she was completely safe from harm.

“Serving in a war zone had its set of challenges,” she said. “The Americans were the occupiers, and we served in a place where some of the people did not want the presence of American troops in their country.”

In March of 2008, the Green Zone came under attack by the Mahdi Army, a Muslim militia formed by Muqtada al-Sadr in 2003.

“They fired rockets and mortars for 40 straight days. It was brutal,” she said. “I worked 12 hour days, six days a week. I traveled to checkpoints that were dangerous, and I participated in meetings with people that supposedly had blood on their hands.”  

Not only did she have to put up with rockets and mortars, but also the daily physical stress of austere conditions and extreme heat. Summer temperatures soared to a searing 140 degrees, and she had to cope with that while wearing 40 pounds of body armor.

“During my tour in Iraq, there were so many opportunities to be overcome by fear, anxiety and depression … when it was time for me to go to bed, when I traveled in a convoy, helicopter and when I went back and forth to meetings,” she said, “I leaned on the strength of the Lord and not my own.”

Being in a war zone wasn’t the only challenge for Woodley or her family. Her husband, Anthony, was in the Navy, too, and both husband and wife found themselves on deployment — and away from their young son.

“When I received orders to deploy to Iraq, I was married and my son was four years old. My deployment orders came at a time when I was managing the affairs of my family as a single parent because my husband was deployed to Bahrain,” she said.  

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