We’re Safe Here Because They Cared Enough to Go There.
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This November it is an honor to tell the stories of three local veterans. Each of their experiences of life after deployment is unique. Each carries its own weight and meaning about the aspects of coming home again. Let us be forever mindful that stories like these are being told across the nation by the hundreds of thousands who have served.
National Guard // Emmaus
Erin Roe was not exactly sure why she was going into the military back in 2002. She was quite young, so young her father had to sign for her, just 17. A recruiter called her home while she was still in high school. It seemed like an okay thing to do, joining the National Guard, besides her best girlfriend was also signing up. It was 374 days after 9/11. Many young people signed up during that period. While she was serving in the Guard, she got married, had a son and then—she was deployed to Iraq.
She was trained as a light-wheel vehicle mechanic and serviced BRADLEES, a tracked vehicle, in the Habbaniyah area of Iraq. This was an old British base with palm trees located in the Suni Triangle, on a Forward Operating Base (FOB).
Roe was shot at once, but did not see any action, although mortars were thrown into the FOB from time to time. She participated in many convoy runs.
Her son, Neal, was eight months old when she left and was two years old when she returned. He lived with Roe’s parents, who raised him while she was deployed. She called every Sunday.
“I set myself up for failure, getting married and having a child so young, getting divorced, but I overcame what was put in front of my face.”
Roe doesn’t know how she would have dealt with being away from Neal had he been older at the time of deployment. At least at that age, he doesn’t remember the time apart. For Roe, however, it is burned into her brain and has been one of the toughest things she has dealt with since coming home.
Re-entry. Going from a tight-knit group of brothers and sisters in arms, who share the same concerns back to civilian life where people in Walmart are more concerned with buying things and being consumers. Going from being told what to do and when to do it, to being in charge of your life, your child.
Roe struggled with her son’s natural rejection as he clung to his grandparents. It took several years of readjustment until they settled into a comfortable mother/son relationship. Roe claims to be nurturing only to a point, but more of a provider.
“Neal is way more love-y and homey than me. He gets that from his grandmother, who raised him those years away. From my father, who is a lawyer, he gets drive and ambition. I tend to adopt the ‘suck it up’ and ‘keep moving’ attitude,” Roe admits.
Neal received all the family’s good traits during those years, all mixed into one young boy. Roe’s family was Neal’s extended village. “I think he is better off,” Roe says.
Today, Neal is very proud of his mother. His eyes particularly shine on Career Day when she arrives at his school in uniform and explains what it’s like to be in the National Guard, serve her country and be deployed to the Middle East.
“You did such a good job,” he praises her, “they loved you!”
The recruiter did such a good job on Roe that she became a recruiter herself as an occupation once she returned home. Now she sets up table displays during lunch periods and calls high school students from lists to encourage them to join the National Guard. She serves the Allentown, Whitehall and Northwestern Lehigh schools. Lately, she recruits more women than men. She is a good example.
“What is wonderful about the military is that you can be from any walk of life, any nationality, etc., and you can fit in, have genuine comrades who will look after you. I love the military. The friendships you make are phenomenal. ”
“People still want to serve their country and so the National Guard appeals to them. They enjoy the college tuition benefits, the close to $600 a month you can make from working only two days a month, and today, odds are very slim that you will get deployed. But you never know, there is risk involved,” Roe says.
Roe does not believe in allowing fear to control her life.
“I learned a lot in the military,” Roe says. “I still struggle being surrounded by people who don’t appreciate all they have, who mosey through life staring at their smartphones, who don’t live within their means nor look out for one another. The military taught me to be so appreciative.”
That alone is a huge gift.
Roe plans to become a “lifer”- stay in the National Guard for 20 years. She’s presently majoring in business at Kutztown University and recruiting students based out of the Allentown Armory. She’s pretty good at it. When you believe in something as strongly as she does, you can be pretty convincing. If she wasn’t quite sure why she went into the military back at 17, as she is quickly approaching 30, she’s rock-solid sure about why she is staying.
We’re Safe Here Because They Cared Enough to Go There.
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Army & National Guard // Bethlehem
Even though Bethlehem’s Brandon Zittrer served in the Middle East for three-and-a-half years as an Army cavalry scout, when you meet him, it is hard to find a happier, more grounded man. This is most unusual, as Zittrer was conducting reconnaissance and surveillance missions and saw a lot of action. He returned home in 2009, has been in the military for a total of 11 years and is currently serving in the National Guard.
The transition home was not a big one for Zittrer, contrary to most veterans. One of his supervisors suggested that a soldier will probably acclimate better if he or she can differentiate between THEN and NOW. Easier said than done for most veterans but for Zittrer, he was already blessed with the right frame of mind before he entered the military.
“I am the make-the-best-of-a-bad-situation type of guy. I have done without, on foot patrols in Iraq. No day was ever easy over there but attitude is the most important,” says Zittrer.
Not an emotional guy, Zittrer has a light switch in his psyche that he can turn on and off. He says that’s how he was able to cope and perform well while being deployed.
Upon his return to the Valley in 2009, Zittrer was given the assignment of bestowing Military Funeral Honors. In full dress blues, he sometimes attended seven to ten funerals per day. Over the course of 18 months he participated in more than 1,200 services and says he felt privileged to do so.
“It was an amazing job and it was an honor to do it well.”
Life at home includes marriage to his Freedom High School sweetheart, Brandy, and being a role model to his 11-year-old stepson.
Zittrer transitioned slowly from bestowing Funeral Honors to starting his own business, a company that does all aspects of residential construction such as stonework, tile, hardwood floors, remodeling and refinishing interiors. As you would expect, no job is too large or too small—the tattoos on his arms depict two long zippers, unzipping a world of bricks and gears and construction items.
He named the business Soldier’s Construction. He now employs seven others and hires vets whenever possible. Four of the seven on his current crew have served.
Childhood experiences have proven useful in his post-deployment experience. His mother, Sonia Huntzinger was extremely involved in the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce so he grew up meeting people, learning how to run a business and was exposed to aspects of economic development in his community already as a youngster.
He selected the title of his business so people would know his background and the folks of the Lehigh Valley would support it. He credits the Chamber with being a huge influence on his business, and networks regularly at their events. He genuinely enjoys getting out and meeting people in order to grow his business.
“I learned from the military that no one wants to work for a jerk,” says Zittrer. The military, he says, demonstrated to him that there were many different ways to lead. “If I show respect and value my men, they will be loyal,” he adds.
Zittrer admits he does get frustrated at times, for no one works as fast and furious as he does. Although he gets angry at times, he rarely barks at employees.
“When I get fired up, the Army comes out. My guys are not afraid of me. I am a very positive person, but they know I don’t take any bull. All my guys are incredible,” he says. With workdays sometimes adding up to 12 hours a day, Zittrer says he likes to frequently take the crew to breakfast and lunch.
“I go to a job, I understand what my clients need to be happy; I relate that to my guys and give them the flexibility, maneuverability and freedom to take their ideas and run with them. I have faith that they will do it properly,” he adds.
One of his workers, Devon Reilly relays, “I’ve worked construction before. Working with Soldiers Construction is different.
Something about the way Brandon is able to please the customer. It gives us all a crazy level of pride and excitement. We are all deeply involved in the job. There is a lot of positive energy buzzing around. It sometimes amazes me what Soldiers Construction is able to accomplish, seeing these beautiful projects evolve from start to finish. The owners’ happy faces make it completely worth it.”
And herein lays one of the secrets of Zittrer and his Soldiers Construction success.
“Every day I get up and look at my family, my new truck, my motorcycle, my home that I built, my dog, and I appreciate everything. I am living the dream. I am filled with gratitude,” Zittrer says.
Like so many of his brothers and sisters in arms, Zittrer has seen many horrific things as part of his military service, but he has been blessed with a happy, positive, grateful attitude toward life; one that he makes every effort to impart to his crew men and his clients, hoping they will pay it forward in their own lives.
Army // Northampton
Physical wounds to the body, especially those incurred during combat, are obvious to spot and usually very challenging to treat. Psychological wounds are inherently different. Bandages and surgeries can’t treat those. Neither does self-medication with drugs and alcohol, but there are alternatives.
Northampton’s Jarrod Kahler, a U.S. Army veteran, found an alternative, an “outdoor” clinic. He is currently going there for therapy with his wife and children and finding success that the VA and his meds couldn’t touch.
The day an Afghani IED blew up under Kahler’s Humvee, it was the worst day of his life. It left him 60 percent disabled, both physically and psychologically. He experiences ringing in his ears, hearing loss, frequent and extremely painful headaches from his traumatic brain injury (TBI) as well as pain in various places in his body that includes a permanently broken wrist.
Kahler was challenged coming back to a family after living in a remote, mountain Afghan village where he washed his few articles of clothing in a sink, lived in a tent and was responsible for himself and didn’t have to converse if he felt like keeping silent.
His wife, Danielle, saw that he was emotionally distraught but Kahler said, “I felt like no one else should have to know what happened to me over there—I wanted to spare them that pain,” so like many veterans, they try to shoulder it themselves. His prescribed meds left him feeling numb and separated.
Although it is challenging for him to hold down a full-time job, with his multiple VA meetings, his therapy sessions, never knowing when a headache will descend on him, he’s working hard at it and is finally thriving in the Lehigh Valley. After three years of therapy and counseling, and getting off all his medications, the Kahlers are closer and happier than ever.
What helped to turn the corner is a recent outdoor adventure program that he and Danielle participated in. River House PA is a local non-profit catering to veterans who have experienced trauma, and their families. The event was an evening bike ride along the Lehigh Canal Trail and a nighttime paddle on the Lehigh River, called Bike & Boat. It was staged in partnership with Wildlands Conservancy and sponsored by the Keystone Wounded Warriors, another non-profit that Boyd Kahler, Jarrod’s father, is very active in.
River House PA chose the night of a super moon to stage their event, which included a stopover on an island for a campfire and sharing. The repetitive motion of dipping your paddle into the water, the calming motion of the current, the magical glow of the moonlit night, all contributed to the healing experience.
“We had a crash course in canoe safety and how to paddle,” Danielle shares. “We had to trust one another, work as a team.”
Kahler had been afraid to try paddling, with a permanently broken wrist. He wasn’t even sure if he could handle riding a bike. He had not been on one since he was a small child and had never been in a canoe, yet there he was on the Lehigh, stretching himself and pushing beyond his comfort zone, a very difficult thing to do for a veteran who suffers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Jarrod was calm,” Danielle says. “We were taken from reality and forgot all about the troubles of the world. Laughter was a constant throughout the entire experience. It inspired us to learn more about canoeing and recreating in the outdoors.”
Kahler would like to go back to school to work as an interpreter for the National Park Service, but is concerned about adding more to his plate right now. Danielle would like to market her love and skill as a photographer, specializing in children. They are also hoping to purchase their own canoe one day soon to take their family out on the river and lake.
“The only time I can really feel free and that I am not suffering with my issues is when I am outdoors in nature,” Kahler admits. “There are no stores, I don’t need money; there is no technology, people can’t call or text if I leave my devices behind. I feel very free.”
Slowly, over time, the stories are coming out and Jarrod is sharing them with his wife and father. Walking on the trails in the woods certainly helps with the release of words and stories, as does paddling a canoe and cycling alongside one another.
Since Kahler returned from Afghanistan, what he is searching for is a little peace. Laughter is an added gift. He found both while recreating with his wife. Fortunately, we have hundreds of miles of biking, hiking and water trails in the Valley where veterans can explore and experience healing. In the natural world, Kahler actually feels this taking place, holistically, and he’s healing in a more permanent way with nature’s guiding hand.
LehighValley STYLE Magazine- Nov 2014