A year ago, military bands played triumphantly as 2,200 members of the Oklahoma National Guard returned from Afghanistan to the tearful embraces of loved ones.
Stepping back into civilian life after such a deployment isn't easy. The 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team lost 14 soldiers during its deployment.
Those who returned home safely were at risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress. About 37 percent of the returning soldiers faced unemployment. A year later, some are still struggling.
Even before Spc. Lauren Sloan-Prince arrived home, she noticed she was different. From Afghanistan, the soldiers stopped at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, where they went through a demobilization process.
“I had a lot of anger issues, a lot of hostility issues,” Sloan-Prince said. “At first I thought it was just a phase, combat stress.”
Doctors at Camp Shelby were concerned. They gave Sloan-Prince, 25, a referral to see a therapist when she returned home to Oklahoma City. She has since been diagnosed with moderate to severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
It has been a rough year for Sloan-Prince, who has experienced most of the problems a returning soldier could expect — struggles with job, family and emotional well-being.
Sloan-Prince describes Afghanistan as “gorgeous but deadly.” The first thing she noticed was the lack of indoor plumbing in most of the country.
“It smelled like feces,” she said. “It kind of stings the nostrils when you get off that plane.”
Her primary job was serving on a female engagement team. She accompanied combat patrols as they went into the countryside, searching and questioning Afghan women. It was culturally unacceptable for men to do that job.
When not in the field, she worked in a building that was exposed during numerous mortar attacks by insurgents.
“It was scary,” Sloan-Prince said. “I did hide under a table a couple of times. It was a natural reaction just to get down.”
Things took a turn for the worse when her unit, the 279th Infantry's Bravo Company, started suffering casualties. Her best friend, Pfc. Sarina Butcher, 19, of Checotah, died Nov. 1 when her vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Sloan-Prince called Butcher “Little Sister.”
Others in the unit who died were friends and mentors.
“I still feel like people don't understand,” she said. “When I tell my story, they nod their head. But no one will ever understand me and my story unless it is someone from the 279th Bravo Company.”
Problems at home
Back home, Sloan-Prince began fighting with her husband, Joseph Prince, over petty things.
“Something wasn't right,” she said. “I was acting out my anger issues, arguing with my husband for no reason, just being hateful to people for no reason and getting mad over the tiniest things.”