They are home.
But the 3,000 Iowa and Nebraska National Guard members who deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team — Iowa's largest single deployment since World War II — know that being home doesn't mean the fight is over.
Some have struggled to find work. Some have leaned hard on family members while struggling to reconnect with friends.
Some have only recently become comfortable in public without a bulletproof vest. Some have to remind themselves that the other cars on the highway aren't enemies — they are neighbors, acquaintances, fellow countrymen.
Don't get them wrong: The Nebraska and Iowa National Guard members who were photographed, interviewed and videotaped for this article are glad to have served their country in Afghanistan. They are glad to be home, too.
One year ago, Omaha World-Herald photographer Alyssa Schukar and reporter Joseph Morton lived with the Nebraska and Iowa soldiers in Afghanistan, recording the triumphs and the trials of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
Today we present five —four men and a woman — trying to readjust at home after nearly a year at war.
Alexis Trucke: "I'd like to deploy again, someday"
She lives near Soldier, Iowa, now, but many days Spc. Alexis Trucke finds herself driving the 20 miles to the house she used to want to drive away from.
To Danbury. To her childhood home. To her parents.
“I see them about every day,” says the 19-year-old Trucke, likely the youngest soldier of the 3,000 Iowans and Nebraskans who deployed to Afghanistan and returned home in July.
“I didn't see them for a long time. It's just good to be around them now.”
Trucke felt differently before she left for Afghanistan. She ran with a crowd that her family didn't always like. She fought with and grew distant from her big sister Jennie.
And when Trucke got back from Afghanistan, she moved to Des Moines to start community college and have a good time in a bigger city.
Except she didn't have a good time. She was miserable.
“I didn't have any family there,” Trucke says. “I figured out I really needed that.”
Part of the problem, Trucke thinks, is that so many friends and acquaintances can no longer relate to her, nor she to them.
Friends would get Iraq and Afghanistan confused. They worried about trivial matters, Trucke thought — why did the next party or the latest gossip matter so much?
It's a common story, Trucke knows, one experienced by older Guard members as well.
How can you explain to a peer why you have to sleep with the TV off now, with complete quiet in the house, because you need to listen to the sounds outside for potential intruders?
How can you explain why you jump out of your car seat when a pebble hits the windshield? How do you explain that the Afghan war is real, and not a series of TV sound bites?
“A lot of people assume the war is already over!” Trucke says. “They don't understand.”
And so she spends less time with her friends and more with her family.
She had a two-hour conversation with her father over Christmas, the most in-depth discussion she has had with anyone about her time and struggles in Afghanistan. She felt better afterward.
Jennie is getting married in August, and Trucke will stand next to her sister as maid of honor. And several times a week she finds herself steering toward Danbury, toward people she knows that she needs.
They may not understand either, not completely. But they are family, so they'll try. “I'd like to deploy again, someday,” Trucke says. “As for now, I think I'm good where I'm at.”
Jeremiah Afuh: Finding a job is "like everything else. You have to fight for it."
In Afghanistan, he gave orders.
In Nebraska, he handed out résumés.
Capt. Jeremiah Afuh returned from Kabul in July, fresh off nine months deployed with the Nebraska National Guard's 1-134th Cavalry Squadron. But when that deployment ended — even as Afuh bounded off a bus at Lincoln East High School and bear-hugged his five nieces and nephews — he knew another battle awaited.
He was home. But like many returning Guard members, he was also jobless.
“Stress and anxiety,” he said about coming home to no full-time work.
“Family members would say that, due to my service to this nation, it shouldn't be that hard for me to find employment,” says the Lincoln resident and 13-year Guard veteran. “But I'd tell them it's like everything else. You have to fight for it.”
So Afuh fought.
He had grown used to being a full-time Guard member, first on an 18-month deployment in Iraq, then on a temporary full-time assignment in Nebraska, then back into a war zone in Afghanistan.
But last summer he prepared his résumé, getting help from a veterans service representative in the Nebraska Workforce Development Office. He worked to explain his captain's duties to job interviewers in civilian lingo, minus all the military acronyms.
He applied for job after job, keeping an eye out for government jobs that might fit with his skill set.
He tried not to get discouraged as, one after another, employers said no thanks.
After all, this sort of job hunt is not unusual for Iraq and Afghan vets.
A recent survey says that as many as 17 percent of the two wars' 2.4 million veterans are unemployed, nearly double the national unemployment average of all Americans.
And though Nebraska and Iowa Guard members tend to keep their full-time civilian jobs while they are deployed — in fact, federal law requires this — the self-employed or those in limbo when they deployed, like Afuh, sometimes find it hard to get a new gig.
“Just from talking to other soldiers, I knew that a number of individuals were having trouble,” Afuh says. “And so was I.”
While the search dragged on, Afuh busied himself with his four nephews and a niece, a rambunctious crew that ranges in age from 13 to 3 and provides an endless supply of youth sporting events and dance recitals and fun.
And he still had his part-time Guard career. In fact, Afuh has been elevated to battle captain for the Guard's battlefield surveillance brigade.
But it wasn't until a recent March morning that Afuh felt truly comfortable back in Nebraska. It wasn't until an email popped into his in-box, informing him that he had been chosen to be an operations support assistant for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
His eight-month job search — a search lasting nearly as long as his last deployment — is over. His first day at work is sometime in April.
“I'm on Cloud 9, just ecstatic,” he said. “I've been trying for such a long time. I just can't wait to start.”
John Kerschner: "I believe in our freedoms, and I believe in taking personal responsibility for them"
Spc. John Kerschner kept the jokes ready. He'd deploy them strategically whenever the other Iowa National Guard members started to call him “Grandpa” or “Old Man.”
Q: How old is John Kerschner, anyway?
A: I sat behind Jesus in the third grade.
Kerschner isn't quite aged enough to have learned multiplication tables with Christ.
But at 46, the specialist did have a couple of decades on many of his fellow infantrymen. Actually, Kerschner's age was one of only two numbers differentiating him from his fellow soldiers.
He and his wife, Cinnamon, have 10 children.
Ten. Yes, people often ask him what, exactly, he was thinking when he joined the Iowa Guard in 2009 and deployed in 2010, leaving 11 of the Kerschner Dozen home in Clearfield, Iowa.
“My standard answer is, 'I have to set a good example,' ” says Kerschner. “I believe in our freedoms, and I believe in taking personal responsibility for them. Saying it is one thing. Doing it is another.”
Now back from Afghanistan, Kerschner tries to remember to set that good example when he's in traffic.
If he's on a highway, and another car pulls out abruptly in front of him, he can feel his blood start to boil.
Unchecked, it becomes full-blown road rage, he says, an anger that doesn't have much to do with the driver of the other car.
“I have to remind myself, 'OK, this is a leftover feeling from something else,' ” Kerschner says. “ 'These people aren't my enemies.' ”
Kerschner has some experience in coming home from a war.
He joined the U.S. Army as a younger man, fought in the Persian Gulf War and got out. Back then, he and his wife had only one child.
But as the family expanded, Kerschner couldn't shake the feeling that he had made a mistake by leaving the military.
On Sept. 12, 2001, Kerschner sat in his idling car in an Army recruiter's parking lot. He fought with himself.
Go in, you need to do this. No, you are too old.
The “no” won then, but “yes” finally prevailed in 2009.
A year later, Kerschner found himself in extreme eastern Afghanistan with the Iowa Guard's Bravo Company, 1-168th Battalion. The combat outpost was called Dand Patan. Sometimes Kerschner was so close to the border, he could have nearly punted a football into Pakistan.
In the meantime, Cinnamon Kerschner was home in Clearfield, taking care of the nine children still living at home. The oldest at home was 16. The youngest, a newborn.
“She had good days and bad days . . . but she was very supportive of what I wanted to do. She's just a wonderful person.”
Kerschner believes the example he tried to set is rubbing off on his oldest offspring. His eldest son is a Marine. His second-oldest son leaves for National Guard boot camp this summer.
And dad thinks he'll stay in the Iowa National Guard until mandatory retirement, around 2020.
“I don't want to say it was an enjoyable experience” in Afghanistan, he says. “But it was a worthwhile one.”
William Gomez: "My dream has always been to become a soldier"
He started on the kill floor of the meatpacking plant, and there was only one good thing about that, William Gomez thinks.
It made him burn to do something else.
The kill floor is where the plant, then called IBP, tended to put the new guys, so that's where 19-year-old William Gomez found himself when he moved to Sioux City, Iowa, from California for the job in 1998.
He had never seen a kill floor. He had never seen the knocking boxes, where the bovine meets its maker.
He had barely even used a knife.
But as Gomez trimmed fat from meat, as he worked his way off the kill floor, as he graduated to quality control and forklift driver and eventually supervisor, he never lost his desire to get out.
Even after a decade, he had another future in mind. He wanted to be like his father and uncle, who served in the Mexican military.
The Los Angeles native wanted to fight for his country. He wanted to fight for the United States.
“I had to wait many years, make some money, get my GED, all that stuff,” Gomez says. “But I wanted to go into the service so bad. My dream has always been to become a soldier.”
Become a soldier is exactly what Spc. William Gomez did in 2007, when he joined the Iowa National Guard.
By 2010 he was on his first deployment, patrolling Afghan villages north of Kabul.
Twice, members of his unit were attacked while sleeping in their forward operating base. Six times, he found himself in serious firefights.
“During (a firefight), your training kicks in automatically, and so I knew what to do,” Gomez says. “But when it's over, you see it in a different light. You see that it's scary.”
You might think that this action made Gomez second-guess his decision. You would be wrong. He now lives in Schuyler, Neb., and works as a meat inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nine months after coming home from Afghanistan, he finally feels safe without his bulletproof vest and his boots.
He's still glad he followed his dream.
“It was hard, getting used to normal life again,” Gomez says. “But I want to defend this country. That's why I joined the Guard.”
John Matheson: "Say something nice about my wife. ... She's a hero in my book"
Sometimes when Sgt. John Matheson watches CNN, he sees a Kabul road he used to drive.
Sometimes it's a building he used to enter. One time it was an Afghan policeman he actually knew.
“That's Freedom Circle!” he yells at his wife or his buddies. “That's crazy! I went through that gate a bunch of times!”
It pains Matheson that a lot of the footage from the 24-hour news cycle shows bombings or insurgent attacks in Afghanistan. Still, he is proud of the idea that he was one of only a tiny fraction of Americans who deployed to Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001. And an even smaller percentage actually got to travel around the hustling, bustling and sometimes dangerous city of Kabul.
That's what Matheson did, as an aide to Lt. Col. Tom Rynders, commander of Nebraska's 1-134th Cavalry Squadron in Afghanistan.
Rynders was the Nebraska commander who advised American military leaders that many of the Kabul area's security forces — Afghans that the Nebraska Guard had been mentoring — could stand on their own after the Nebraskans left. That makes the Nebraskans the last Americans to train Afghan police and soldiers in Kabul.
For better or worse, Matheson thinks, that makes him witness to a little piece of history. “I still don't know if they are ready, but it's kind of, like, 'mission: complete.' That's what we were supposed to be doing over there, and that's what we did,” he says.
Matheson, a licensed journeyman electrician, returned home to Omaha in July and figured out that work had dried up. He used the GI Bill to go to truck driver's school, and for the past few months he's been steering an 18-wheeler for Dr Pepper.
In his spare time, he watches for TV news on Afghanistan. In his spare time, he regrets a little bit that he missed two years' worth of school activities and late-night talks with his three children, now ages 19, 16 and 11. Matheson deployed to Iraq in 2008, then turned around and went to Afghanistan the next year.
“Could you do one favor?” Matheson asks. “Say something nice about my wife, Sandra. She's a trouper. She kept everything working here while I was gone. She's a hero in my book, man.”