Returning Home

Student  veteran Bobby Cullen spends time with his wife Jessica Cullen, and daughter Ravenna. He says that his success in adjusting is thanks to them.
photo by Shelby Spencer

Veterans put their lives on hold to fight for our country, but they aren’t always welcomed back with open arms.

Student veterans can struggle when returning to civilian life and figuring out what their place in it was.

MCCC has a group on campus to help veterans get through the struggles of returning, but the transition is still a terrifying one.

"You’re all on your own and it’s hard to adjust," student veteran Bobby Cullen said.

Cullen served 4½ years active duty in the U.S. Army, with one deployment to Afghanistan.

He said he had several struggles adjusting to normal life and that it takes a lot of time.

"All the sudden, it’s over and you have to learn to be a civilian again," Cullen said,

"It’s like learning how to walk again. You’re kind of confused."

Cullen’s daughter was born shortly after he returned from the military and he was faced with taking care of a family while trying to figure life out.

"I didn’t even know what to do for a month. I sat there thinking, ‘I need a job, I need money; what am I going to do?’ " he said.

When student veteran Justin VanVolkenburg returned to civilian life, he had to take it slow.

He served seven years in the Army with three deployments to Iraq.

He was able to move back in with his parents and found a job at the Monroe Target store before it closed.

VanVolkenburg decided it was time to leave the Army and start the rest of his life.

"I put my life on hold for seven years. I wanted to get married and have kids and I couldn’t do that to a family," he said.

U.S. Marine veteran Eric Honomichl said that after returning from four years of active duty it took a whole year to get back into the swing of life.

"It was weird, I lounged around and didn’t do anything, and that made it worse," he said.

Coming home after being in the military can be like arriving on a different planet for veterans.

"People didn’t understand my vocabulary and actions," VanVolkenburg said.

"It’s a different world, a different language," Cullen said.

What used to be normal can now be agitating, and it can feel like no one understands.

"When you’re back and trying to transition and you have relationship issues and your friends don’t understand you, you feel alone, very alone sometimes," Cullen said.

According to a VA study, 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

"People think they understand, but they haven’t walked in your shoes," Cullen said.

VanVolkenburg is the work study assistant for the Student Veterans Organization on campus. He said one of the main reasons for the group is to show veterans that they aren’t alone.

He described the support vets get from other vets as being much different than what they get from civilians.

He said that a civilian might say that there is something wrong with you and leave it alone, but a fellow vet is going to say, ‘There is something wrong with you and we are going to get through this together.’

"You help him because he is your brother," Vanvolkenburg said.

"You don’t know what would happen if he was left alone, you don’t want him to be another statistic."

Experience and time in the military has changed these young men forever.

They have seen things they can’t un-see, lived things they don’t want to recount, and lost brothers that they will remember forever.

VanVolkenburg said that he lost two friends from one IED, one of them his roommate.

"When you know more than just their name and face, that’s when it gets really hard," he said.

Cullen said when he came home, others saw a different person.

"They portray me as kind of a grumpy person; they don’t understand what I’ve been through. You can’t explain that to someone," he said.

"I don’t really have friends anymore."

Cullen owes a lot of his success in adjusting to his 22-month-old daughter, Ravenna.

"If I didn’t have my daughter, I’d probably be alone by myself in a cave, not worried about anything," he said.

"It’s different having to take care of someone."

For a lot of veterans, a sense of paranoia is embedded in their lives and can be impossible to shake off.

After returning from service, lots of veterans struggle with loud noises, crowds, and even driving.

VanVolkenburg likes to call this a heightened sense of awareness.

"When I walk into a room, I am analyzing everything," he said.

"What’s in a person’s hands? How do they act? How do they dress? How many people are here? Why are they here? Where are the exits?"

He said this state of mind is something that he doesn’t think will ever go away.

"We want to let it go, enjoy life, have peace, but trouble can occur at any time," VanVolkenburg said.

Honomichl drove trucks in the Marine Corps, and when he returned home driving was a challenge.

He would swerve his car to avoid a paper bag in the road, because in his mind that could have been an IED.

He said he also can’t go to concerts or anywhere really crowded because the noises and people are too much for him to keep track of safely in his mind.

Cullen said that loud noises still agitate him.

VanVolkenburg said he can’t watch certain movies or play certain video games.

"They have made games like Call of Duty so realistic that the sounds alone can make you feel like you’re in war," he said.

There is very little help given to someone leaving the military.

Vanvolkenburg said that they tell you to find your local VFW hall and to get with the VA and that’s it.

"When you leave, they just help you get out of the Army. Once you’re out, they don’t worry about you," Cullen said.

Vets don’t even get their own belongings back right away.

"They ship all your stuff back to you; it takes two months. You have to go pick up your vehicle. It’s financially straining," Cullen said.

VanVolkenburg said that it’s important to really prepare yourself before you leave.

"Plan your exit strategy. You aren’t going to be in the military forever, and when it comes time for people to get out, they are older, broken, have issues," he said.

When veterans do make it back, their homecoming isn’t always what they expected.

Cullen said that he was never one to feel sorry for himself. He didn’t do it for the glory, but when he got home there were times when he felt under-appreciated.

"You get a sense that it doesn’t matter what you did, no one really cares, they are in their own world," he said.

Despite the struggle of adjusting, these men who sacrificed for our country don’t regret their service.

"I always wanted to serve my country. It gave me a sense of maturity. I learned a lot from my experiences. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it," Cullen said.