STARTING OVER: Some returning soldiers can't pick up where they left off

Iraq war veteran Vincent Holback while serving in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division. Photo provided by Vincent Holback

Some returning soldiers can't pick up where they left off

Editor's Note: Second of a two-day series about the adjustment of coming home from war.

Vincent Holback notices the soda can on the side of the road as others drive right by. When he hears footsteps behind him, he stops to let whoever it is go ahead of him. Even now, three years after returning from Iraq, Holback said trips to the mall create so much anxiety that he'd rather stay home.

Holback, 41, leans forward in his chair, supporting himself, his right hand resting on the cane he uses for walking. "War is hell. You heard that, right?" Holback said. "Well, it is."

Holback, a Charleston native, joined the Army shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The bus mechanic served in Iraq from March 2003 to February 2004. In his combat engineer position, Holback spent his days repairing roads and building berms and other types of infrastructure for the 101st Airborne.

When his unit returned to Fort Campbell, Ky., Holback often locked himself in a room and turned on the TV, but he didn't watch it.

"More than anything, the television was watching me," he said. "I was reliving everything."

He thinks of the convoys that could not stop when insurgents marched children in front of them. He tells of roadside bombs blowing out his vehicle's windows and dodging small arms fire. He remembers coming across remnants of bombed-out vehicles and what was left of the people inside, their skeletal remains still grasping the wheel.

But the day he hates the most is the day he set out to repair a crater in a road created by an explosion. He stood at the edge of the hole talking with his sergeant and his lieutenant and then turned his back, walked to his truck and grabbed some tools. A blast roared behind him.

His sergeant's leg and boot flew past Holback's head. He turned to see his lieutenant lying on the ground, shrapnel peppering his abdomen. Holback and his fellow soldiers held the men together until help arrived.

"That," Holback said, "was my worst day in Iraq."

Upon coming home, he tried to deal with his thoughts on his own. He realizes now that he missed out on a time that he should have been close with his son, who was a senior in high school.

His wife, Karen Holback, said Vincent seemed depressed.

"He wanted to be by himself," she said. "He didn't want to go to church."

Karen knew her husband was in one of his dark moods when he would stay in bed the entire day. He never said much about his experience to her, choosing to protect her from worrying.

There were physical changes, too. Vincent fell 20 feet while fixing a bulldozer in Iraq. He yelled at the operator not to drop the blade. But his words were drowned out by the noise. The operator dropped the blade, and Holback flew off.

Upon his return home, Karen noticed that her husband couldn't stand up as long as he used to.

"Before he got injured, he could keep up with the soldiers half his age," she said. "Afterwards, he couldn't do the things he had done."

Karen said her husband's back pain added to his mental anguish. Despite the troubling war images plaguing his mind and physical ailments, Vincent chose to re-enlist in 2006, but he failed the medical examination. Tests showed that he suffered from both a bulging disc and a deteriorating disc. The Army medically discharged him July 17, 2006.

The Department of Defense benefit system rated Holback as 20 percent disabled, and Army doctors ruled that he did not have post traumatic stress disorder. Because he had less than 20 years in the Army and less than a 30 percent disability rating, he was offered a one-time severance payment rather than a continuing retirement payment.

But Holback can't stoop, stand or bend for too long, and that means he can't pick up his former career as a mechanic.

"I can't use the one thing I was trained to do," Holback said. "What do I do when I am not trained to do anything else?"

Now he is faced with trying to forge a new career so he can take care of his family. In the meantime, he and his wife live with his mother-in-law while he waits for disability payments from Veterans Affairs to go through.

The VA disability benefit system has said Holback is 70 percent disabled, and Holback is waiting for more claims.

This week, Goodwill Industries offered Holback a janitorial job. It would require Holback to haul a floor buffer up and down flights of stairs, which his doctor said he can't do.

"I'm still unemployed, and going crazy," Holback said.

Tuesday marked the first anniversary of his medical discharge from the Army.

He hopes to begin job retraining through a vocational rehabilitation program and has enrolled at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center for treatment for PTSD and back problems.

In the meantime, he waits, like many returning veterans. The Charleston VA hospital hired four new staff members to help new veterans make the transition from the Defense Department to Veterans Affairs.

"It's like you are feeling your way through the dark when you get home, really," Holback said. "You are never the same."