A new generation of veterans

For young islanders returning from Iraq, Friday’s 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.

For young islanders returning from Iraq, Friday’s 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 didn’t know what it was. I had been in Iraq less than a week. And now there were rounds landing all around me. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do. You can’t shoot back because you can’t see the enemy and you don’t know where they’re 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 we’re 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 wasn’t 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.

They’re proud of their time in Iraq and may head back for more. As members of the National Guard, they defended polling places during Iraq’s 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 I’ve 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, that’s for sure,” said Christopherson, who is currently studying engineering at Seattle Central Community College. “It makes test deadlines not a big deal.”

Coming home

Both veterans say coming home has been nice, but life just doesn’t have the same driving purpose as in Iraq.

“It’s 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 don’t want anybody to think about me and the fighting or to think I’m a murderer,” he said. “So I don’t 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.

“I’ve always felt this was important for me to do because I’ve always been proud of the United States,” he said. “That’s not popular now, especially on Bainbridge. But I’m 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. She’s used her theater as a vehicle to express anti-war positions, screening Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and this week’s 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 doesn’t talk much to me,” she said. “We have very different ideologies.”

Tom Faddis’ announcement that he’s applying to work for a private security firm in Iraq has reawakened his mother’s concerns for his safety.

“These independent contractors don’t have medical insurance,” she said. “And he’s still in the National Guard, which has a Catch-22. When he’s on active duty he’s 100 percent covered. But if he gets hurt, he’s off active duty and only gets 30 days of coverage. Then there’s 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 Legion’s Colin Hyde post 172 on Baker Hill Road.

“We really want to let them know we’re behind them,” he said. “We want to do what we can to help.”

Join the Legion

Faddis and Christopherson were welcomed as the Legion’s 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 Legion’s featured speaker during Veterans Day events held at the Legion’s hall on Friday.

The island’s 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 veteran’s benefits.

Roth Hafer, the post’s senior vice commander, expects a flood veterans unmatched since Vietnam.

They’ll 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 we’ll 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 it’s 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, war’s 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 VA’s 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 doesn’t cloud his support for its veterans.

“You may not agree politically, but you don’t take it out on the veterans,” he said. “We’ve 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. It’s 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 Legion’s 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.