Coming Home From the War on Terror, Many Soldiers Have Their Own Terrors to Deal With

One Special Forces major recommends ways civilians can help veterans readjust to American life after Iraq, Afghanistan.

Major Stephen C. Flanagan of the U.S. Army Special Forces served four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Tewksbury, Mass., native is in the mid-career Master in Public Administration program at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The previous year, he had completed courses in the human development and psychology program in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

His next stop will be teaching at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the behavioral sciences and leadership department.

Flanagan, 32, recently met with Register correspondent Justin Bell at the Harvard Catholic Student Center at St. Paul’s Parish in Cambridge, Mass., to discuss how he felt God’s protection in combat and the struggles soldiers have returning to American society.

What prompted you to join the Army?

I didn’t do great in high school — did decent — good enough to get into Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [for] electrical engineering. 

I actually went to the activity fair at the beginning of the semester; I still remember they had a poster up — “ARMY ROTC.” They had some pictures: rappelling, white-water rafting. ... I got involved with the Ranger challenge team. ... At the end of the year, they offered me a three-year scholarship.

I was thinking it was going to be a peacetime Army; this was the spring of 1998, [when] I signed up. I got commissioned in the spring ’01. Of course, I was actually in the infantry- officer basic course when Sept. 11 happened. 

We were about to go out to training, and we went [back] in for some reason, for a few minutes, and that’s when I turned on the TV. I think I saw the second plane hit live, and I was on the phone with my mom. And I went back out to formation; and the commander told us on that morning, “We’ll be going to war because of this.”

In your combat tours, would you speak to the moment where you thought, Wow this is no longer training; I’m really in combat now. Was there a particular time?

The first combat tour [in Iraq] I went on with the Rangers in 2003 that (fear or anxiety) was kind of with me the whole time. I’m in a foreign country; it’s a war zone. [Y]ou’re hearing gunfights, and mortars are coming into our camp.

I probably got more comfortable, generally — as far as like I felt at home … But, still … there’s always guys getting blown up by roadside bombs, and … we’re rolling on a mission to go capture or kill some terrorist leaders. You know they have weapons and body guards.

I said a lot of prayers over there and certainly before a mission and a lot of times on the way to the target. ... I know a lot of guys don’t have faith … and I just don’t know how they do it. For me, it’s having peace with God. ... And so I think that helps a lot.

Could you speak to a specific time when you felt God really taking care of you?

God whispers to you through your successes and screams at you through your pains ... fears and dangers. ... So I really felt that; my faith has probably [been as] strong as it’s ever been in some of those times in combat. I was reading the Bible and praying a lot. I was almost never in any place where I could have regular religious services or anything.

One time, in Iraq in 2007 on my third combat tour ... we’re driving through the center of town, and all of a sudden we got ambushed from two sides. All the terrain and everything were to the enemy’s advantage. We couldn’t get the vehicles out of the road, and they had pushed a burning vehicle in … in front of us.

We’re sitting there in the open: The “kill zone” is what it’s actually called. … I had to [try to move the truck, and so I ran] through a big open area, getting shot at from both sides. …

I was saying an Our Father just subconsciously … running between a hail of bullets. I remembered looking to the side, and I saw fire coming out of windows; and I was shooting to the side as I was running. And all of a sudden a guy started charging down the hill at me; he looked like he was shooting his AK [AK-47 assault rifle]. ... Luckily, I think one of our Iraqi soldiers actually shot the guy and killed him.

I got up there and was able to work with the Iraqis to get them to push the vehicle out of the way. … I think we captured 14 more terrorists that day, and they didn’t have a single American or an Iraqi army soldier killed.

That just really seemed like a miracle to me … It wasn’t just us on that battlefield; there were angels and demons there with us having their own battle. … I reflect back, and I thank God for sending a small legion to our support.

* * *

I had my own struggle, I had a relationship failure while I was deployed. [It was a] long-term relationship, where my girl started having other relationships and telling me she didn’t want to be with me, and that was really hard. So that’s part of the reason I personally relate to some of the struggles soldiers have. … [T]he suicides in my unit were almost all associated with relationship failures.

[M]y chaplain … didn’t believe in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I wouldn’t say I don’t believe in PTSD, but I do think it’s over diagnosed. ... It’s a nice, easy label, and people like to dramatize, I guess. I mean, most of the guys in my unit have seen a lot of crazy carnage, but it doesn’t mess them up. 

I think reintegration and social support are bigger factors that are understated, while PTSD is overstated, in general. ... [S]oldiers … aren’t the types to say, Hey, I need some friends; I need some social support. I’m depressed. They may not even be able to put words to what they’re feeling, but they often just go and blow their heads off or hang themselves or whatever. And it’s a shame; I think we can do more.

You gave a Veterans Day speech in Tewksbury, Mass., where you spoke of the need for people here to go the extra mile and invite returning veterans to cook-outs and bowling leagues. Was there an invitation that you received on returning from one of your tours that made a difference to you?

I was really struggling when I got back. ... [M]y … relationship … had been rocky for a while. ... I had been with her a total of nine years, since college, and she didn’t want to be with me anymore. And I was devastated because I had envisioned spending my life with her, and that was the most important relationship in my life.

What carried me through was definitely my faith and some key people [who] pointed me to God also and helped me with that. They encouraged me to really get involved with a church and church groups. I just made some good friendships, really good friendships, with some good other Christian brothers that supported me ... as well as some of the family members that were really supportive that were there for me all hours of the night to call.

My landlord … kind of knew what was going on, and she always had an excuse to stop by with the kids and stuff like that. I’d play with the kids; her daughter baked me cookies. And that was a nice human touch. 

[Y]ou go from being deployed and with your team, 24/7 — there’s a lot of camaraderie; you’re like brothers — and then you get home. ... [S]o there was a big void there, I guess.


Register correspondent Justin Bell writes from Boston.

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