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 at 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, 2011, 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.”
Their marriage suffered.
“You marry someone, and they are your best friend. And then you come back and you are different,” she said. “And I can’t undo it.”
Her 4-year-old son, Nakona, was adjusting to having his mom back. He had some health problems while she was deployed and was clingy when she returned. It was worse when she put on her uniform for yellow ribbon events the soldiers were required to attend.
“When he saw me in my uniform, he would cry,” Sloan-Prince said. “He would think I was leaving again.”
She felt separated from her family. Her coping mechanism was to go out drinking and partying with friends.
“I was acting like I wasn’t married and didn’t have a family,” she said. “I didn’t understand why I felt this way. I thought I was going crazy.”
A couple of months after returning home, she knew it was time to get help.
She saw a therapist and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Now she is on medication and attends both group and individual therapy sessions through the Veteran’s Administration.
Job and money issues were no better.
Sloan-Prince returned to the job she left behind at JC Penney, but noticed she was being short with customers.
She had grown used to making good money in combat. Depending on rank and experience, an active-duty enlisted soldier working in a combat zone can make $2,500 to $3,500 a month, and combat troops do not pay any taxes on their wages.
Col. Warren Griffis, director of the Oklahoma National Guard’s employment coordination program, said jobs are available for returning soldiers, but pay is an issue.
“The level of compensation they were getting in a combat zone is not comparable to what is out there,” Griffis said. “There is a big disparity.”
When Sloan-Prince was passed over for a promotion, she quit her job. Griffis’ office helped her with her resume.
“The process of getting employment these days isn’t what it used to be,” Griffis said.
“The resume is key. We are working steadfastly to convince our unemployed the importance of a good resume.”
The Guard has placed more than 350 soldiers with local businesses and helped about 900 more with their resumes, Griffis said.
Sloan-Prince worked briefly at another job but was laid off.
She is back in school now, while she works to get her PTSD under control. She’s been declared 50 percent disabled because of her symptoms.
She said the treatments don’t magically cure her, but they have helped.
“It is hard,” she said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It is a long process. I knew something was wrong with me. I had to get help for my family. And I know that Little Sister would want me to go to the VA.”