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A new generation of veterans
For young islanders returning from Iraq, Fridays holiday takes
on profound meaning.
This Veterans Day has special meaning for 21-year-old Tom Faddis.
The same goes for Faddis buddy, Corey Christopherson, also 21. It used to be that Nov. 11 was a day to honor his grandfather, father and uncle who served in World War II and Vietnam. But now Veterans Day is personal.
It was unreal at first, when the mortars hit, Christopherson said, recounting the first time he came under fire during his one-year tour of duty in Iraq with Faddis, also a 2002 Bainbridge High graduate.
I had never heard a mortar before, so I didnt know what it was. I had been in Iraq less than a week. And now there were rounds landing all around me. There wasnt a whole lot I could do. You cant shoot back because you cant see the enemy and you dont know where theyre launching from. So I got down and tried to get some overhead cover from a Humvee.
The attack came with a flood of seemingly contradictory emotions for the young islander.
What I kept thinking was that the next one was going to land on top of me, to tell you the truth, Christopherson said. But were always thinking about this moment in training. Are we going to do well? Am I going to get through that first time or will I crack? But I got through. It was a good feeling. I knew I wasnt a waste to the Army.
Both Christopherson and Faddis came home last spring unscathed and are transitioning back to civilian life. Faddis is helping to manage the movie theater his mother runs, and Christopherson is studying at a community college.
Theyre proud of their time in Iraq and may head back for more. As members of the National Guard, they defended polling places during Iraqs recent national election. They protected police stations and guarded nuclear facilities from insurgent attacks.
Christopherson enjoyed serving with his Iraqi allies, learning Arab slang words and answering a puzzling array of questions about Michael Jackson.
Iraqis asked us a lot about infrastructure too, he said. They wanted to know when everything would be up and running. They were glad Saddam was gone but were eager to assume responsibility. Occasionally, someone would walk by and mad dog you a bit, try and stare you down. But most were glad we were there to help.
And so were Christopherson and Faddis.
It was meaningful, Faddis said. It was the best thing Ive ever done.
But few things with deep personal meaning come easy.
I learned a lot about myself, my limits and what I can do, said Christopherson, who also survived an ambush on his convoy. It was very tense sometimes. Other times it was standing around with a helmet, body armor, ammo, gun, boots and long sleeves in 130 degree heat.
The towering challenges he tackled in Iraq make most hurdles he now faces an easy hop.
It gives homework a different perspective, thats for sure, said Christopherson, who is currently studying engineering at Seattle Central Community College. It makes test deadlines not a big deal.
Both veterans say coming home has been nice, but life just doesnt have the same driving purpose as in Iraq.
Its different living a normal life, working 9 to 5, Faddis said, who is helping his mom, TJ Faddis, run the Lynwood Theater.
Faddis said he worries a bit how people on Bainbridge Island will react to his time in Iraq.
I dont want anybody to think about me and the fighting or to think Im a murderer, he said. So I dont talk about it. I was in very few fire fights but sometimes people get testy on the island.
Christopherson said he and Faddis were somewhat of black-sheep at Bainbridge High. They had long expressed their patriotism before signing up for the Guard, and weathered a general disdain for their values from fellow students and some teachers, Christopherson said.
Ive always felt this was important for me to do because Ive always been proud of the United States, he said. Thats not popular now, especially on Bainbridge. But Im proud of all aspects. When you look at other nations, the U.S. is superior on all counts.
But everything was negative in school. Many students were definitely not proud to be Americans and teachers were critical of America.
Sometimes that criticism come from sources closer to home.
Faddis mother has been outspoken in her opposition to the Iraq War. Shes used her theater as a vehicle to express anti-war positions, screening Michael Moores Fahrenheit 9/11 and this weeks feature The Oil Factor: Behind the War on Terror.
I certainly tell Tom I appreciate him and support him but this war was not the war to go to, TJ Faddis said, adding that she and her son rarely speak of the war.
He doesnt talk much to me, she said. We have very different ideologies.
Tom Faddis announcement that hes applying to work for a private security firm in Iraq has reawakened his mothers concerns for his safety.
These independent contractors dont have medical insurance, she said. And hes still in the National Guard, which has a Catch-22. When hes on active duty hes 100 percent covered. But if he gets hurt, hes off active duty and only gets 30 days of coverage. Then theres a four-year gap until his (Guard) service is up. This is how we take care of our military boys.
But there are others willing to help, said Bill Beck, a member of the American Legions Colin Hyde post 172 on Baker Hill Road.
We really want to let them know were behind them, he said. We want to do what we can to help.
Join the Legion
Faddis and Christopherson were welcomed as the Legions newest members, joining veterans from World War II, the Korean War and conflicts in Vietnam, Panama, Somalia, Kosovo and the first Gulf War.
Christopherson is the Legions featured speaker during Veterans Day events held at the Legions hall on Friday.
The islands Legion post was established in 1942 by World War I vets who knew war-weary G.I.s would need their help once they returned from the battlefields of WW II.
The Legion offers some financial assistance, camaraderie and guidance as young soldiers navigate the process of obtaining their veterans benefits.
Roth Hafer, the posts senior vice commander, expects a flood veterans unmatched since Vietnam.
Theyll have complicated needs as well, he said, with many suffering emotional and psychological problems borne from a prolonged, guerilla war.
When this war in Iraq is over well quickly have a chronic situation, Hafer said. Vietnam and Iraq were similar, they were elusive, complex. (Vietnam) also had us asking how good people can do such horrible things. It also had us asking who is our enemy?
In Vietnam, a soldier might go to a village where the kids run out and offer him candy. But at the next village he might get shot at by kids. So its no surprise he shoots next time he sees a kid because he knows they might have a bomb. What does that do to a person? It takes an enormous toll.
According to Hafer, wars trauma has contributed to a host of problems including high rates of suicide, unemployment and mental illness.
Joblessness among veterans is about 15 percent, or roughly three times the national rate, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Disability compensation has grown almost 50 percent in 10 years, without factoring in cost-of-living increases.
The sharp rise in treatment, especially for post-traumatic mental disorders, has swelled the VAs compensation spending to nearly $25 billion this year.
Hafer hopes to give veterans more hand-ups than handouts with additional support for job training, transportation vouchers to get to work and psychological counseling.
Hafer, a Vietnam vet, said his opposition to the Iraq War doesnt cloud his support for its veterans.
You may not agree politically, but you dont take it out on the veterans, he said. Weve got differences of opinion at the American Legion. Some guys swing to the right of Attila the Hun. Some guys are at the other end of the pole who think the Iraq War was a damn mistake. But where we come together is our service for veterans. We have a stereoscopic vision. Its shared, encompassing the left and the right.
But when you look down the scopes, we got helping vets in our cross-hairs.
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A day of honor
The American Legions Colin Hyde post 172 on Baker Hill Road will host its annual Veterans Day Dinner and Awards Ceremony Friday evening. A cocktail hour runs from 5-6:30 p.m. Dinner will be served from 6:30-8 p.m. Iraq War veteran Corey Christopherson will speak about his experiences in the National Guard at 8 p.m. Call 842-6839 for reservations.