CASPER, Wyo. — Last April, Spc. Jason Billiot bypassed the homecoming ceremonies for the 700 Wyoming Army National Guard soldiers returning from a yearlong deployment to Kuwait.
He got off the plane in Casper and drove straight to the Wyoming Medical Center. His family’s Jeep had rolled over as they were driving from Cheyenne to meet him, and his wife and three children all needed considerable care when they finally made it back to Cheyenne.
Billiot had no time to decompress, to readjust to the family or let the family readjust to him.
“The things that guys dealt with right after they got back, I’ve dealt with here in the last few months, almost a year later,” said Billiot, a budget analyst with the Wyoming National Guard.
This winter, he attended a presentation by D. C. Faber, a retired Wyoming National Guard major and former Laramie firefighter. It was called, “How and Why We Are Different After War and Trauma: A Veteran’s Perspective.”
The presentation wasn’t about war stories, the telling of what Faber saw in Afghanistan. It was about coming home, struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and readjusting to a concept of time that isn’t hyper-focused on the present.
“It really kind of hit home for me,” Billiot said. “The family I knew was the family from 2009. You reintegrate yourself, but, at the same time, you are reintegrating them to you.”
Faber will give the same presentation on Tuesday at Casper College. Veterans, their families or others who have experienced trauma are encouraged to come.
Faber served 5-½ years active duty in the Army and 14-½ in the Wyoming Army National Guard. In 2007, he was called for a 400-day deployment to train police in the Wardak Province of Afghanistan. He left when his son was 3 years old.
Faber led a combat advisory team of 12 soldiers, working with an Afghani police general. In a convoy of four Humvees, the team patrolled the province of about 600,000 people on a stretch of land about the size of Albany County.
The first day on the ground, Faber’s team drove to a town where the enemy had recently shot up a police station. An improvised explosive device exploded under a truck of Afghani police in the convoy.
A week later, while patrolling with French soldiers, rockets and mortar fire hit them at night. A week after that, they were ambushed with a group of 82nd Airborne soldiers. Instead of charging through the ambush, they decided to turn around and take the fight to the enemy.
The Humvees were riddled with bullets, but just one American was injured.
“That was my first two weeks. I had seen everything I had read about, and that’s probably why we are talking today,” Faber said.
He had nine more months to go.
“Even over there, when you are confronting death, worried about your guys getting killed, killing the enemy, you just kind of realize: I could die over here,” Faber said. “It can bother you or you can decide, it can happen, but it’s not going to happen just this second.”
Focus became a survival tool. The goal: Get through the next mission, the next hour, these few seconds in the here and now. Bring the soldiers home.
Faber did that. All of his 12 soldiers made it through. But the constant vigilance took its toll, Faber said. A soldier confided to him that he no longer dreamed of the future.
Faber contends that the hyper-vigilance required of soldiers — even those not in combat — rewires the brain. And it can be true for anyone who’s faced a traumatic experience — police, firefighters, cancer survivors.
“That’s the way we are built now,” Faber said. “Everything is now.
“When I came home, it was just really difficult to relate to everybody. I wanted to hang only with my son and my wife. I didn’t want to be out in the crowd or in the community.”
In Laramie, Faber formed an informal group of veterans, firefighters and their families to talk about readjustment. He’d been to the VA and to counselors, but talking with others who had experienced the same challenges proved invaluable.
He consulted with licensed counselor Michelle Worden, who works with PTSD clients, and developed a model for veterans and others recovering for trauma. Faber talked it over with other veterans, including Lee Alley, a Vietnam veteran and author of “Back From War: Finding Hope and Understanding In Life After Combat.”
Alley was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for honor and valor and other medals for his service. But, for years, he struggled to deal with his war experience and the reception that he got when he came home.
“Some lights came on because, all of the sudden, the stuff that I was going through, and the stuff anybody who’s gone through combat is going through, it just became so clear,” Alley said of Faber’s presentation.
“In the military, you are taught to deal with the present. And, in combat, you can’t live outside of this five-minute world. Where you are in those traumatic situations, you are almost trapped in that world.”
For Faber, some of what he talks about in his presentation became clear to him by the seemingly straight-forward task of planning his family vacation. For seven years, the family had vacationed in California. In 2009, when his wife asked if he wanted to plan the upcoming trip with her, Faber responded: “I don’t care.”
He meant that he didn’t care about what would happen that summer, several months in the future. He was content, then, to spend the present with his family.
He realized, though, that’s not how his wife heard his answer. To her, it meant Faber didn’t care about taking a vacation with them.
“That phrase, ‘I don’t care,’ that’s truly how you feel. But your family misinterprets it,” Faber said. “We don’t care about the time or the place. What we do care about is the people.”