From war to work

Jeff Anderson
Jeff Anderson, a long-time Army National Guard solider, reflects on his military service and how it has impacted his resort business during an interview on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010. Anderson's family owns several resorts on Leech Lake near Walker in northern Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Ann Arbor Miller

It's hard to miss the military theme at Grand Vu Resort on Leech Lake. Several American flags wave among the log buildings, and statues of soldiers are displayed prominently along the driveway.

Near the lakeshore, owner Jeff Anderson stooped to brush away the snow crusted on a slab of granite. It's engraved with the names Greg Riewer and Josh Hanson.

"I lost two of my friends over there. So I got together with my buddies and made a nice little memorial for them," Anderson said.

Anderson's mechanized infantry unit had a tough deployment in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. They were on regular combat patrols. Two members died, several were wounded, and their tour was extended by four months.

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REBUILDING A BUSINESS

Anderson came home from Iraq to a resort that suffered in his absence.

"While I was gone I lost a little over $100,000. It was tough. A lot of things I would do on a regular basis when I was here, I came back and found it just wasn't done," Anderson said.

In the coming weeks, many members of the Red Bull Infantry division will return to their civilian jobs. Many will likely change their career path within a few months. About one-third of the troops will be unemployed, and some will find they just can't go back to their old jobs.

The Minnesota Guard members who have already returned offer some insights on the tough transition that this round of returning Red Bulls will face as the return to the workplace.

At Grand Vu resort, the Army Commendation Medal that Jeff Anderson received for pulling an injured soldier from a burning vehicle after a bomb attack hangs with others in a display case.

Jeff Anderson
Jeff Anderson, seen here in Iraq on September 6, 2006 while deployed as a member of the Army National Guard.
Photo Courtesy of Jeff Anderson

When Anderson was gone, the manager he hired to run the business quit. For a while, his dad and brothers helped, but they all had their own businesses to run.

Near the end of his 16 months in Iraq, Anderson's dad suffered a stroke and Jeff was sent home about six weeks early. He arrived home just as the tourism season was starting, faced with the task of rebuilding his struggling business.

Anderson said being busy helped to keep the nightmares at bay. But the bad dreams came back this winter, nearly three years since he came home.

"It was kind of nice though to come back and jump right into the resort, because it kept my mind busy," Anderson said.

Anderson said he's still glad he was deployed and he'd do it again even though the experience changed him in many ways.

On one hand, he's less patient with people, but he's also more relaxed about his business and his life.

"I take more time for family, take more time for myself. Before I was deployed I was always busy working, work, work, work, that type of thing," he said. "But now after being over there and losing our friends and things, you realize life is pretty short."

SEEKING A JOB WITH A MISSION

Many National Guard members found their perspective changed when they came home from deployment. A paycheck was less important than relationships, and a job with meaning.

Ray Pizarro was deployed in the same unit as Jeff Anderson, the Moorhead-based 136th Infantry. Pizarro said before he was deployed he worked for a paycheck, but that didn't make sense after his tour in Iraq.

"It doesn't matter if you get paid in two weeks if you're not there to spend it, and you don't want your buddy to get hurt," Pizarro said. "So your focus is really different. It's a matter of survival. It's live or die."

One veteran struggled to deal with customer concerns that suddenly seemed trivial.

Pizarro had a job waiting at Home Depot when he returned. At first he worked part time, using vacation time accumulated while he was deployed.

But some days he would call in sick from the parking lot because panic attacks kept him from getting out of the car. He struggled to deal with customer concerns that suddenly seemed trivial.

"I lost a couple of friends over there. We had some serious injuries. I've seen some weird stuff. I know I could have died as well. The little things don't bother me anymore, and it's tough listening to little things bother other people," Pizarro said.

Pizarro sought counseling and found medication that eased the panic attacks. He also realized he couldn't work at a job that wasn't a mission. He found a job at the VA helping veterans process claims.

"It's given me a new mission to help other veterans that are hurting. It really replaces a lot of lost-ness," Pizarro said. "Knowing I can be there to help a veteran is a pretty amazing powerful thing for me."

Having a mission, a meaningful job, can help veterans make the transition back to civilian life.

A JOB WAITING BACK HOME

Federal law requires companies to hold a job for deployed Guard members, and those positions can't be eliminated as part of a layoff. Many Minnesota businesses do much more for returning soldiers.

Dennis Brazier owns Central Boiler, a wood furnace manufacturer in Greenbush that employs 200 people.

When one of his employees was deployed in 2006 and 2007, the company sent care packages, gave the employee his annual profit-sharing bonus and helped his family.

Brazier said losing an employee critical to the company was a challenge, but other employees pitched in.

"You just don't go out on the street here and find people like him," Brazier said. "There definitely was a loss to the system by not having him. So when he left, everybody had to make up for his lost input."

But Brazier said having everyone help support the deployed worker improved morale and created a support system that was in place when the employee returned.

Fargo insurance agent Traver Silbernagel needed support from his employees to keep his business afloat while he was deployed.

He was among the first National Guard troops sent to Iraq as a member of a North Dakota Engineering Combat Battalion, which deployed early in 2003.

His unit had only three days' notice before shipping out. In response, Silbernagel quickly called a staff meeting.

"We all sat down and said, 'OK, how are we going to do this? Because I'm going to be off the radar completely,'" Sibernagel said. "I didn't know what communications I was going to have, how frequently I was going to be able to talk to people, if at all."

Silbernagel spent much of his 14-month deployment in Iraq at Camp Anaconda. He helped build earthen berms to protect the camp, and pulled regular guard duty. He rarely left the camp, and despite daily mortar attacks, Silbernagel said he mostly felt safe.

When he came home, he relaxed for a week with family, then went back to work. He said just catching up with his business was overwhelming.

"In some respects it's kind of like starting your life over again," said Silbernagel. "You need to reacquaint yourself with your friends and your family, with your job."

SURVIVING THE WORKPLACE

While troops are deployed in a combat zone, their uniform and mission become their identity, according to Lt. Col. Barb O'Reilly, chief of deployment cycle support for the Minnesota Guard.

Getting back to work is an important part of the transition from the identity as a soldier to that of a civilian, O'Reilly said.

"If they're not employed, the next thing that happens is financial difficulties," O'Reilly said. "Financial difficulties lead to relationship difficulties, which lead to other challenges."

O'Reilly said about one-third of the troops returning this year will be unemployed. Some were unemployed before deployment and others might plan to go back to school. A study of troops who returned in 2007 found their unemployment rate was twice the state average.

Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association Chaplain Dan Carlson works with Guard members who come back to law enforcement jobs. Many Guard members are police officers or firefighters.

Carlson said for many, public safety jobs are a mission, much like the military, so they don't have trouble coming back to work. But he said deployment changes everyone.

For many, the change is positive. for some, it's hard to leave behind survival skills learned in a combat zone.

Carlson said employers and returning troops need to talk about what's changed during the deployment. "Every story and every individual is very unique. So it's critical they spend some time to figure out what experiences those returning vets have had," Carlson said. "And a lot has changed in your organization, and you need to identify those changes and then see what issues you may have because of the change."

Workplace issues range from simple policy adjustments to crisis interventions.

ASKING FOR HELP

Minnesota is recognized as a national leader in programs designed to support returning troops. But some don't take advantage of them.

John Weisenberger, a veteran of the Vietnam War, is a veterans representative for the Department of Employment and Economic Development in western Minnesota.

He said some veterans have to find new work when they return to civilian life for a variety of reasons. Some can no longer work in a retail job because they don't have the patience with customers. For others, driving in traffic triggers flashbacks to the streets of Iraq, and they need to find jobs that don't involve travel.

Weisenberger's job is to help veterans find work or go back to school. But he said the best programs can only help those who ask for it.

"There's a lot of this macho, mano-a-mano thing; 'I don't need help. I can deal with this on my own,'" Weisenberger said. "As a Vietnam veteran who went through some stuff, I can testify to the fact it took me 20 years to realize I needed help. I hope it doesn't take these troops that long."

The tough economy might make it more difficult for returning Guard members to find a new job, but Weisenberger said veterans return from deployment with new skills and new challenges.

He said recognizing how they've changed is critical to a successful transition from soldier to civilian.