Veterans returning home from combat readjust to civilian life in Routt County |

Veterans returning home from combat readjust to civilian life in Routt County

Scott Franz
Joseph Nerney's family celebrates his homecoming in August.

— Kathy Nerney no longer obsessively checks the clock in her kitchen that keeps track of the time in Afghanistan, and the rare casualty reports she listens to now on the evening news don't spur the sense of fear and worry that they did last year.

These are the signs that Kathy's 22-year-old son, Joseph Nerney, and many other military men and women from Routt County are back home safe after fighting terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"A lot has changed for Joe," Kathy said this month at her home in Steamboat Springs as she picked up a portrait of her son taken shortly after boot camp.

She placed it next to a recent photo of him proposing to his fiancee at sunset on a beach in California.

"The world is his oyster now."

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As Kathy boasted about her son's upcoming wedding, Joseph's godchild, Sophia, poured imaginary tea for a trio of teddy bears dressed in military uniforms.

Eager to prove the impact Joseph's service has had on even the youngest members of the family, Kathy asked the 3-year-old where her uncle spent a year of his military service.

"Afghanistan," Sophia quickly replied, correctly pronouncing the name of the faraway country.

Even at her age, she understands Joseph's two tours in the Middle East forever will be a significant milestone in his life. The deployments are something a superhero would do, Sophia said before she pranced around the living room pretending to be Batman.

Her uncle soon will decide whether to re-enlist or continue with his civilian career.

Triumphs, challenges

As Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom continue to fade from the front pages of newspapers and the casualty reports become increasingly rare, Joseph Nerney and other veterans from the Yampa Valley are adapting to life after combat and embarking on exciting new civilian careers.

They are emergency dispatchers, ski coaches, law enforcement officials, airport managers, students, newlyweds, fathers and mothers.

All the sleepless nights, 12-hour workdays and streams of missions they endured overseas made them stronger.

But these soldiers are navigating many challenges here at home as they work to bridge their combat experiences with their civilian lives.

Elijah Stevenson is adjusting to the slower pace of life at home with his family. Life-and-death missions in the cockpit of his MV-22 Osprey have been replaced by the simpler tasks of taking the children to school and selecting where to eat dinner.

John Daschle is growing more comfortable with his own transition from keeping stock of fuel levels at a major airbase in Afghanistan to fielding emergency calls for Routt County communications.

Colorado Mountain College student and Army veteran Mike Cusanelli is grappling to understand the reasoning behind his country's ongoing deployments to Afghanistan. He hopes his education, being supported by the GI Bill, leads to a career as a backpacking guide.

And Undersheriff Ray Birch continues to show concern for young veterans returning from war. He knows very well the stresses they carry home with them.

There are other challenges, too.

As the soldiers readjust here at home, adrenaline must be tamed. Military habits must be shed. New chapters must be written.

Welcome home

When Ray Birch returned home in 2009 from his second tour in Iraq, the Yampa Valley was much brighter than he remembered.

"One of the first things you notice when you come back is how bright and colorful everything is in this country," Routt County's undersheriff said Monday in his office. "I know it sounds a bit odd, but when you're stationed in the Middle East, the terrain is different. The roadways and the buildings and the foliage are dingy and brown."

Birch, who in 2008 left to spend 191 days guarding an air base from insurgent attacks in Kirkuk, Iraq, said his return to civilian life happens in several phases.

His first week back, he avoids public areas and crowds and stays close to his family.

To further dispel the stress, he takes his horses for trail rides with his wife, Marlene, near their home in Hayden.

On one such ride this week at the indoor arena at the Routt County Fairgrounds, it was easy to see how the quietness can alleviate even the most dire stress.

A month after his return, he's back at work.

After six months, he expects everything to be "flowing pretty normally."

"I think I've just been blessed that I've made the transition fairly smoothly with my job and my family and my community," he said. "It takes a lot of hard work, and it also makes you sensitive about the other members who are coming back."

Although he's been back from Iraq for years, Birch's military career continues.

As a chief master sergeant in the Air Force Reserves, Birch, 55, travels to Colorado Springs one weekend each month to train and oversee 90 men and women who are in his squadron.

"I also have that added responsibility of making sure they're adjusted, that they're going back to school and their family lives are OK," Birch said, adding that he thinks younger veterans typically have a harder time readjusting to civilian life.

The undersheriff said he has experienced many of the challenges these vets face. He said there's a temptation to overreact to complaints from people here that seem mundane and petty to soldiers who risk their lives every day when in combat zones.

There's also the task of realizing you no longer can bark orders and control everything.

"If it's a two-week drill I'm returning from, my wife gives me three days to get out of chief mode," Birch joked. "If it's a deployment, she gives me two weeks. I have to work on that. How do I treat my kids? How do I treat my grandchildren? I've got to talk to them like a father and a grandfather and a husband and not as a chief master sergeant. And those are huge challenges all vets have to learn to overcome."

An elite group

Among Routt County's nearly 1,300 living veterans, soldiers from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom are a small and elite group.

Data collected from the U.S. Census Bureau shows only about 1 percent of the county's veterans has served in the two conflicts that started after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

By comparison, about 43 percent of the county's veterans served during the Vietnam War era.

The amount of benefits paid to local veterans also has increased dramatically since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

In 2002, $504,000 was paid in benefits to area vets. In 2011, benefit funding stood at $1.3 million.

Mike Cusanelli isn't reflected in any of those numbers. The 25-year-old New Jersey native is too new to Steamboat.

Following the end of his service in the Army in summer 2011, Cusanelli bought a Harley-Davidson and planned to drive it to a new home in Arizona. But the bike broke down in Grand Junction, and he ended up finding a new home in Steamboat.

New freedom

Cusanelli is unlike many of the veterans living in Routt County.

His hair extends to his shoulders, and he openly questions why soldiers still are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He also has a unique reason for joining the military in 2007.

"I don't think I was ready for adult responsibilities yet, and the Army was the easy way out," he said in his home that is steps away from the community college he attends. "They give you food. They give you shelter. It seemed like it would be cool to go out on an adventure."

His departure from the military has created challenges as well as new and exciting opportunities.

Immediately upon his discharge, he said, he found himself partying excessively to unwind from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan, where he was clearing airspace and calling in artillery strikes as a forward observer.

"You've kind of got to tone down your level of intensity," Cusanelli said. "Everything in the Army is sort of serious. Back here, you have to realize that everything isn't that big of a deal. It takes a lot of relaxing to unwind when you come back from something that was intense. It takes time to mellow out and realize what's important and what's not."

He also continues to grapple with the justifications for his combat in Afghanistan.

"When I think about what I accomplished or what kind of good I brought to other people's lives, I kind of feel as if I really didn't do anything positive," he said. "I feel like I wasn't really fighting terrorism or the Taliban. … I don't regret the experience because it helped me grow. I don't regret it, but I'm almost ashamed of it in a way."

Today, he says he plans to do everything he can to have a positive impact on others. After he earns his bachelor's degree in sustainability from CMC, Cusanelli wants to start his own backpacking company and donate some of his profits to purchase more open space.

While Cusanelli started to figure out what to do with his newfound freedom and wide open roads on a motorcycle, other veterans here were learning how to settle back into the lives they temporarily left behind.

Family man

When Elijah Stevenson was busy flying an MV-22 Osprey for combat missions in Afghanistan last year, the Skype and phone conversations he had with his wife and two kids back home in Steamboat Springs were a gift. But they sometimes were strange.

On one end of the line, missions and chores had life-and-death implications.

On the other, Stevenson's kids were being driven to school and everything was safe.

"The conversations you have with your family are good, and you appreciate them, and they make a difference," Stevenson said about the digital connection soldiers have with family while they are in combat zones. "But they also can be a little weird at times."

He arrived back in Steamboat in February to start the monthslong process of adapting to life after war.

As he looked out the window of his new office at Zirkel Wireless, snow fell at a steady pace and the broadband network engineer thought of his family and how different his home in the mountains is from the terrain in Afghanistan.

"You're thankful to be back home," he said. "I think that's the best way to describe it. You're thankful to live where you live, that you're from the United States and you're back with your family."

As a pilot of an aircraft that essentially functions as a plane and a helicopter, Stevenson was part of an elite group of Marines.

He said his time in the cockpit doesn't help him to build better networks in Steamboat, but his military service has instilled in him an ability to "take any task and see it to fruition" and "overcome any obstacles in your path."

Today, he's working to unwind from his service.

"It takes a little while to unwind after combat, and in fact, I'm still in that phase," he said. "You live for six months working 12-plus hours every single day, and your main focus is executing tactical combat missions, life-and-death kind of stuff. And then you shift back to taking the kids to school and where are you going to eat that night."

Accustomed to combat

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven dangerous for U.S. servicemen and servicewomen.

Many soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice for service to their country.

According to a February Congressional Research Service Report, 4,475 service members were killed during the Iraq war through February, and 32,220 were wounded.

In Afghanistan, 2,165 were killed and 18,230 were wounded.

And the toll continues back at home.

The same report reveals 103,792 soldiers who have served in these conflicts have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

As one of the veterans in Routt County who most recently returned from combat in Afghanistan, Stevenson said even his own reactions to the casualties from these wars surprise him.

"I think our media and our society have gotten used to the fact we've been at war for over a decade now," Stevenson said. "It's easy even for me to kind of get disconnected from the fact we have all those people in a combat situation. Unfortunately, I think the (casualties) have become so commonplace that I don't think they necessarily shock anyone when they hear about them."

Proud to serve

John Daschle's service in the Air Force wasn't what he expected it would be. The Steamboat Springs High School graduate joined the military with the sole dream of flying jets.

But his colorblindness kept him out of the cockpit, and he found himself as a logistics officer in charge of refueling aircraft at a base in southern Afghanistan.

"It still kind of hurts. That was my dream," he said about flying. "But I've moved on, for sure."

As he worked Monday as an emergency dispatcher with Routt County Communications, Daschle described how the military has instilled in him a new sense of leadership.

He'll never forget the people he worked with or the friends he made.

"It was an experience that was invaluable, and I'm definitely glad to have done it," he said.

John Daschle’s older brother, Michael, piloted Chinook helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the 101st Airborne.

Routt County veterans each have their own stories of why they joined and how their service changed them. But despite all of the challenges and scars battle leaves, from hearing loss to stress, most veterans here value their military experience and say it has changed them for the better.

"Looking back to when I re-enlisted 11 years ago, I feel that I've dome something, that I've actually done something in terms of the global war on terrorism," Birch said. "I feel like I've done something for my family and for my community and that is something that there is no amount of money or no amount of award or dividend you could ever obtain that would come close to that. In my elder years, I can say I didn't sit on my ass and complain. I actually did something."

Concluding an hour of talking about his own military service, Stevenson said his job as a pilot was just that — a job.

"We're just normal people," Stevenson said. "And I think you think about the military and the government as omniscient organizations. But what you really have is your friends and family members who are out there doing a job. So it's not always this big, top-secret, grandiose kind of thing."

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email