In The Eye’s lead story this week, Stephen Snowder examines the lives of military veterans at Columbia. In compiling his story, Snowder spoke to more than a dozen veterans who shared their stories with us.
Unfortunately, due to space constraints, some of their accounts had to be excised from the final print version. While the experiences of Justin Neal (GS ’13) and John Schiffer (GS ’15) did not make it to print, they are nonetheless powerful narratives that further illustrate the harsh reality of war, with all its tension, turmoil, and triumph. Read on for their stories, and don’t forget to read the full article.
Justin Neal, from Tennessee, is a senior in the School of General Studies. He enlisted in the Army as an infantryman and went to basic training in February of 2003.
He was stationed in Alaska after basic training, but less than two months after arriving at his permanent duty station, he deployed to Afghanistan.
Neal’s job consisted of conducting foot patrols. He also conducted village assessments: “We would go in there and ask the village elders if they knew of any hostiles, or if they had any weapons,” he explained. “They pretty much always said no.” The real job, though, “was pretty much just trying to draw fire. We were just walking around, like ‘OK, well if we get shot at then we know there’s bad guys in the area.’”
Early one afternoon, Neal was travelling as part of a convoy. Suddenly, he heard gunshots. With his fellow soldiers, he dismounted from his vehicle and started shooting back. The firefight lasted about five minutes, by Neal’s estimate.
Some of their soldiers were wounded, but no one in Neal’s unit was killed. He returned to Alaska in August of 2004. “That was the most emotional thing for me, because when we got back, everyone was greeted by their friends or family. And I didn’t have anyone there... but it really sunk in, like, you’re back.”
Psychological counseling was offered to the soldiers who returned, “but nobody takes it,” Neal told me. “These are wild guys, warriors. No one gives a shit about what just happened in terms of how it’s going to affect you.”
Neal’s immediate desire upon returning from Afghanistan was to go out and get drunk. This has been such a common response to returning that many units now impose a mandatory lockdown for soldiers returning from deployment, requiring them to remain on the base.
One night, while out drinking, Neal got into a fight. “I think I probably had a lot of aggression when I came home,” he told me. His response (again, typical among the veterans I talked to) was to deal with the problem himself---he quit drinking for good, and he hasn’t had an alcoholic beverage since that night.
After Neal left the service, he began attending college in California. His high grades earned him a letter of interest from Columbia’s School of General Studies. “I would not be at Columbia if it wasn’t for the Army,” Neal told me. “I just wouldn’t. And it’s not because of the thing that I did in the Army, or anything inherent about the Army... but what it did for me, in terms of turning me around---I’m a product of the Army.”
John Schiffer, a member of the School of General Studies' class of 2015, served in the Marine Corps from 2007 to 2012. After graduating boot camp, he was stationed in Hawaii. In October of 2009, he was deployed to western Afghanistan.
As a signals intelligence specialist, Schiffer went out with patrols to collect intelligence and provide real-time updates to the units he was with. No one in Schiffer’s unit was killed, although some Marines were injured.
There was a Marine in another unit on the small base, however, who died after being shot on a mission. “One that comes to mind is this guy named Birchfield, and I can remember that he was missing a front tooth. It’s odd that that is, like, my most significant memory about him now. I can remember him laughing, missing his front tooth,” Schiffer recalled. “I was thinking he looked stupid, which I almost feel guilty for now.” The Marine was 24-year-old Lance Corporal Joshua Birchfield. He was killed by small-arms fire on Feb. 19, 2010.
With the death of Birchfield and others on the base, Schiffer recalls that he came to the realization that “that line between being alive and being dead is very, very thin.”
Schiffer came back from Afghanistan in March of 2010. Part of the reintegration checklist that every Marine had to complete upon returning to Hawaii was a visit to the chaplain. Like everyone else I spoke to, however, Schiffer turned down further opportunities to be screened or treated for PTSD. “I think, that close to the experience, I wasn’t really ready to think about it.”
Instead, Schiffer focused his attention on seemingly small details of everyday life---his barracks room, for instance. He remembered thinking, “There’d better be hot water,” and “there’d better be air conditioning. I’d better not get a roommate I hate.” He dealt with nightmares for a few months, but says they began to go away as he buried himself in the work of his newly-assigned role in Hawaii.
Schiffer did a few more years in the Marines, and then left at the end of his contract to matriculate at Columbia.
I asked him whether he still has nightmares. His response: “Not ever as frequently. I think part of the reason for that is, I just keep myself so busy, it’s like, ‘Do I really have time for this?’”