For soldiers, normal is adjustment

Published 9:45 am Monday, May 21, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — Ron Chapman sees his military career in numbers.

Chapman, 42, returned in April to his home in White Bear Township from a sweltering, sandy camp in Kuwait, the last stop in three deployments over five years. He’s been home only two months in the past two years. In the lives of his three children, he said, that time has added up.

“It’s one-fourth of my 20-year-old’s life, I’ve been gone,” said Chapman, a hulking man in a Kuwait-emblazoned T-shirt and a Minnesota cap. “One third of the 14-year-old’s life. And exactly half of (my son’s) life.”

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Chapman, a chief warrant officer, is one of 3,000 Minnesota National Guard members who have returned to the state over the last month. Most, like Chapman, are part of the largest deployment of Minnesota Red Bulls since World War II. Now Chapman and his fellow veterans face reintegration — a delicate adjustment back into family life, and for many a rough road back into the working world.

While in Kuwait, Chapman worked relatively safe 10-hour days as an information technology manager. He had brushes with danger — Chapman once identified a man his battalion stopped in Iraq as a bomb maker — but most challenging in Kuwait was sleeping each night in a bare-bones bunk and trying to parent over Skype. When school grades were not up to par, Chapman found himself asking, “Why is it that Dad has to see this from 9,000 miles away?”

Back home, Chapman’s family was further hampered by his wife’s deteriorating health. Chantel Chapman, 40, had two attacks related to multiple sclerosis. Prescribed steroids that made sleep elusive and food taste awful, Chantel said her family was kept afloat by volunteers with the nearby Mahtomedi Yellow Ribbon Network, which helps military families.

The group made sure the Chapmans’ driveway was plowed all winter and provided a home-cooked meal one day every week. They brought presents during the holidays and repaired the garage door. Chapman was especially impressed when a general who helps organize volunteers for the group raked his yard.

“You don’t hear that a lot,” Chapman said.

Now that he’s back, Chapman has tossed aside any thought of easing back into his role as husband and father — for Chantel’s sake.

“You’re supposed to go slow,” Chapman said. “But she needed a break.”

First Lt. James Johnson, who coordinates reintegration events for the Minnesota National Guard, said returning service members are advised to gradually find a “new normal” with their families and not upset any routines.

“They kind of hit the pause button in their minds,” Johnson said. “They expect things to be similar to when they left. The family has changed, the dynamic has changed.”

But Chantel said she’s been grateful for the relief.

“We are a well-oiled machine together,” Chantel said. “The cogs were stuck while he was gone.”

As a result, Chapman is balancing household duties with the pressing task of finding a job. His brigade has about 20 percent unemployment, more than three times the overall rate for the state.

Johnson said the Guard is helping members with job interview training and resume polishing. It’s important for veterans to find secure jobs so they can focus on reconnecting with their families.

The day after he landed back home, Chapman sat down for an interview with TCF Bank and had another soon after with Best Buy. But his search has been complicated by the gaps in his resume caused by deployments.

Explaining them, and the potential of leaving a job again for active duty, is “a little bit uncomfortable because it’s a risk,” Chapman said.

Jim Finley, director of veterans employment services for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, said most job-searching veterans find it tricky to translate their military skills for civilian employers.

“If you tell them you drove a tank, they may not get that,” Finley said.

The returning service members will go through reintegration events with their families 30 days after coming home, and again on day 60 and day 90. DEED will be on hand to provide job search training, directing the veterans to one of 49 job-hunting centers across the state.

A federal grant that funds veteran employment services in the states is projected to get a small bump in 2013, according to the Department of Labor. Minnesota’s portion of that grant — currently $2.75 million — fluctuates, but has gone down slightly in the last two years.

“We could always use more funding,” Finley said. “It’s an uphill battle.”

Minnesota National Guard spokeswoman Melanie Nelson said the sheer number of resources for veterans and their families connected through the state’s Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Network helps to fill the gaps.

With a community behind him, Chapman said he hopes life is closer to normal by September. His kids will be back to school, he said, while he hopes to be settling into a new job. Before then, Chapman said he wants to get in some golfing and grilling: “I want to do summer.”

Chantel said she feels complete and her children feel more secure with her husband home. But not everything is settled, she said.

“I’d like to say it’s over,” Chantel said. “But it’s not over. We have a lot of family rebuilding to do.”