Three tours of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed Richard Parker’s life, and not just because he has to walk with a cane after an explosion blew him off the roof of a building in Afghanistan.
“I’m not the same person anymore,” he says sitting in the woodworking shop below his Pascagoula house, cigarette burning in his hand. Nobody comes back from combat unchanged, he believes.
“Everybody comes back with an injury; it might be emotional, it might — like in my case — be both.”
And people who haven’t lived it or lived with someone who has can’t truly understand, he says. His eyes are fixed, unblinking, as he thinks back to the events that have left him with a broken body, traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.
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“They don’t see the inner conflicts that we do our best to hide.”
This summer, about 4,000 Mississippians attached to the National Guard’s 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team will deploy to Kuwait, with possible dispatches from there to Afghanistan or Syria. It will be their third deployment to a combat zone since 9/11.
Many civilians may not realize Army and Air National Guard, along with reserve members of all five military branches, have often been sent to the front lines to serve with active-duty members, especially since 9/11. The National Guard has provided 39 percent of the Army’s operational forces since the 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil.
Mississippi units have provided 20,000 of the 850,000 National Guard deployments — which include those who deployed multiple times — to Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots.
The separation is stressful for both service members and their families, but those stresses often don’t go away when the service member returns.
“The whole transition part is still hard on everybody,” Parker said. “Being gone and all of a sudden coming back home, you just don’t pick up where you left off.”
More than 1.7 million of the 2.6 million soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are already back — and nearly a million more will return over the next five years. And veterans like Parker say no matter how ready these war-fighters think they are, nothing can really prepare them for what life will be like when they get home.
A different kind of war
In 1990, Parker was serving in Operation Desert Shield with the U.S. Army’s HHT 2/1st Cavalry, 2nd Armored Division when a small figure running across an airfield in Saudi Arabia toward his position created a clear threat.
There was only one thing for him to do.
“I ended up shooting a child,” he said.
“We do what is necessary to protect. If it means I end up killing a child to do it because that child has got a bomb strapped to him, he’s no longer a child, he’s a combatant.”
Experiences like that have changed Parker and many of the hundreds of thousands of service members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. That number swells by 694,550 when you include Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91.
“It’s a different kind of war where you’re not facing an enemy that’s wearing a uniform,” Parker, 46, said.
That experience made it difficult for him to continue in the military.
“It pretty much messed me up in the head, so I got out.”
Back in the Army
After 9/11, and in need of better health insurance for his family, Parker left Ingalls Shipbuilding, where he had worked as a welder for 16 years, and joined the Mississippi National Guard’s 890th Engineering Battalion in 2005.
He deployed to Iraq during 2009-10 and to Afghanistan in 2013 during Operation Enduring Freedom, where an explosion caused a back injury, chronic pain and other ailments doctors are still trying to diagnose.
Parker was sent to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where he continued to work while receiving medical treatment.
“I pretty much lived off of narcotics,” he said. “Lortabs, Percocets, it was like eating a bag of M&Ms now to me. It probably did more harm than it did good." The pills masked the pain “instead of actually going in and trying to fix the issues.”
Parker eventually got into the Community Based Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Benning, Georgia. That provided him with better medical guidance and eventually led him home, where he could be treated at Keesler Medical Center.
“I still live in a great deal of pain,” he said.
Parker has “hardly any” feeling in one leg, so he walks with a cane to keep from falling. “My memory pretty much sucks now," he said, a side effect of PTSD, TBI and medications.
But his own pain is not his greatest concern.
“It’s harder for my family to watch me go through this, to watch my mood swings and my PTSD kick in, and the not sleeping. I think that’s what hurts me the most.”
A different battle
Families often struggle to understand what has happened to a loved one whose life has been altered by combat.
“The brain gets programmed in a war zone to be on constant high alert for threats, and you can’t just turn that off” when you become a civilian, said Linda Cox of the Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi. “They have flashes of rage, they isolate and withdraw. (They) may withdraw because they know they are likely to blow up.”
Parker finds his relief in his woodworking shop below the house.
There, surrounded by tools, he can keep his mind occupied building cabinets and other decorative wood pieces.
His dogs are never far away. One is a certified service dog to help him when he experiences problems associated with his PTSD.
He calls the workshop his “safe space.”
“I do a lot of thinking down here. If I don’t want to face issues, I run down here, because I don’t want to deal with it."
“It’s just a whole different world that people don’t understand,” Parker’s wife, Wendi, said. “And if you haven’t been military and you’ve never been deployed, you can’t say, ‘Oh, I know how it is to be in the military,’ You don’t. You have no idea what these soldiers go through and what the families go through.”
Wendi and Richard have been married for 27 years. They live in a modest home off of Ingalls Avenue in Pascagoula with their three teenage children, three dogs and a cat.
“The last two weeks, it has not been pretty around here,” Wendi Parker said bluntly last year. “We have literally been at each other's throats, and if we’re not at each other's throats, we’re distant.
“We had words this morning just because (Richard) said something and I took it another way, and I said something and he took it in another way, and it ended up in a big argument that didn’t have to happen but it did, because we are on two different pages.”
'Everybody has to readjust'
“Deployment has always been difficult for families whether there’s PTSD present or not,” said Liz Kosmopoulos of the Vet’s Center, a veterans’ support facility in Biloxi. “Families re-organize around the absence of the service member, and then the service member comes back and the family has to re-organize again.
“The spouse that’s left behind has taken over all the tasks of the service member to run the household. Some of the children have probably taken over some of the tasks. So the service member comes back in and disrupts — essentially — a functioning unit because they want a role.”
They want to be part of the family again, and “everybody has to readjust.”
For the service member, there's also a shift in thinking.
“When you are deployed, you only have to think about yourself,” said Commander Sonia Johnson, group surgeon for Naval Group Command 2 (NGC2) in Gulfport. “You don’t have to worry about relationships, but that changes when you return.”
Wendi said she felt prepared after going through training with the Family Readiness Group, an Army program to help families support each other during a deployment. "But I wasn’t really prepared for it.”
In 2016, there were 51,000 National Guard members who returned to civilian life from deployment and went through the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program.
Parker said the transition training he received when he retired was “mostly a bunch of briefings. It doesn’t really help you to understand what you’re fixing to go back into in the real world facing. ”
“I came back from Iraq thinking, ‘OK, I can go back to coaching baseball,’ but first time a ball came flying at me, I hit the deck. The only thing I saw was an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) coming at me again.”
'They are literally afraid of me'
Parker and his family are doing what they can to cope with the changes, such as seeing mental health counselors, but his injuries make his mood volatile.
“I try to understand where they’re coming from, and try to get them to talk to me more, because they are literally afraid of me," he said. "You never know with me if it’s safe to talk to me or if I’m just going to flip off the deep end.”
Their sons especially have had a hard time understanding, Wendi said.
“His PTSD is so bad right now, you don’t know when he’s going to flip or not,” their 15-year-old son, Rickie, said in May. There is a lot of yelling, he said.
“Usually when it comes to me, he’s aggressive. You don’t know what it’s going to be like. It got so bad one time, we had to send me away for a couple of months.”
It's something everyone is working on in therapy, Wendi said.
“He gets loud and they take it as he’s being mean, he’s being mad at them, and they don’t understand that that’s just one of the things that we’re trying to work on."
“It's taken a lot to get me where I’m not always yelling,” said Richard.
Still looking for answers
Rickie was 6 when his dad first deployed in 2009. Richard's behavior changed so dramatically after the deployments, Wendi said, Rickie “didn’t know if his daddy was still here or not.”
Before that, Rickie said, “he did everything with us. He was the main person who was always outside with us. I just wish we could go back to that.”
“He was doing a lot more stuff with us before he left than he is now with his injuries.”
Now, they do as much as they can together.
“We go fishing, we go hunting, we’ll go throw the football a little bit, or we’re out here working on wood stuff,” Rickie said. “He can’t do much any more, so we keep it as simple as possible.”
“I feel like I’ve abandoned them for the most part for being gone so long,” Richard said.
But he said, “I keep fighting every day to maintain my family." His wife has seen improvements.
“Now that (Richard) is starting to come around and participate more in (Rickie’s) life and become more a part of what’s going on, he’s (Rickie’s) doing better, but I think it still affects him a lot,” Wendi said in November.
“With (Richard), there’s a whole list of things that have happen for him to get back to where he was, and he’ll never be back to where he was, and we have to accept that,” Wendi said.
“It’s going to take a while,” Richard said.