by Sue Ann Rybak
Sinead Kelly’s newborn son, Dylan, was just six months old when Kelly, a single mom, left for her first deployment to Afghanistan in March 2006.
“When I came home for R & R, he didn’t know who the hell I was,” said Kelly, who served with Bravo Company 710th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division. “We tried doing little things like having a pillow with my picture on it. But, he didn’t understand. When I left he was sitting up and babbling and by the time I finally got back for good in July – after my extended deployment – he was almost 2 years old. I had this little midget running up to me – and of course – I was bawling.”
Sinead Kelly, is the younger sister of Specialist Eamonn Kelly, of Glenside, who was featured in the Local on May 16 in part one of a three-part series on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
More than 2.5 million troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since America’s war on terrorism began more than 10 years ago.
Thanks to the advances in medical technology, more troops are returning home safely to the arms of their loved ones. But for many, the invisible scars of war often make that long-imagined homecoming anything but peaceful. Instead, home becomes a battlefield as vets struggle to adjust to new family roles, reconnect with loved ones and maneuver a minefield of red tape as they wait in limbo for disability benefits, education and employment assistance – all the while struggling to deal with the physical and psychological trauma of war.
And women like Kelly are playing an ever-increasing role in war.
According to the Department of Defense, “close to 15 percent of the active duty force and 18 percent of reserves are women, and they are a population that continues to grow. Since 2001, more than 292,975 women veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They comprise almost 12 percent of all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
It is said that when service members enlist, their family enlists with them. The Kelly family is just one of whose families that are struggling to return to everyday life. Sinead Kelly was just 19 years old when she joined the army on Jan. 20, 2004.
Being a single mother away from her newborn baby was hard enough, but then the unthinkable happened.
“My first deployment really, really sucked,” Kelly said. “Four months into my first deployment in Afghanistan, one of my best friends killed himself. I was scared of the dark for a long time after that.”
Kelly said she was “shook-up.”
Kelly said she had trouble coming to terms with the suicide. She said she felt immobilized by grief and feelings of guilt, had difficulty concentrating and experienced nightmares.
“After he committed suicide, I didn’t want to go outside the wire,” Kelly said.
But, then tragedy struck, again.
Josh, a close friend from high school, was killed in a car accident right before Christmas.
“It really affected me,” Kelly said.
Adjusting to motherhood
“When I first came back, Dylan was back and forth between me and my parents,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t used to being a parent. Dylan was used to his routine with my parents.”
Kelly said at the time she didn’t realize she was suffering from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“I felt like a time bomb ready to go off,” she said. “You tell people ‘yeah, I am good.’ But, you’re not.”
Referring to the war, she added, “You don’t know what to expect – you don’t know.”
Genevieve Kelly, Sinead’s mother, said she would scream at Dylan a lot.
“She was very short fused with Dylan,” Genevieve said. “Dylan would act out at school.”
Ed Kelly, Sinead’s father, said it was a difficult time because both he and his wife were working.
He said it was difficult because not only were they juggling work and helping to raise the baby – they were worried about their daughter getting killed in Afghanistan. He said it was “a lot more simple” when Sinead was in Afghanistan because Dylan wasn’t caught between two different living situations.
“At first, you are just so relieved and happy that your child is safe,” said Ed, 54, a licensed contractor. “It was like a three-day high. The difficult part was that whenever Dylan seemed settled – she would come home and then have to go back.”
“They always had a strong connection,” Ed said. “Dylan wanted to go with Sinead but she wasn’t providing him with the structure he needed.”
Ed said there was a lot more confusion when she was home.
“She had all the right ideas but she didn’t have them in place because she was going through a lot of different stuff, too,” he said. Sinead saw the battlefield – she wasn’t sitting behind a desk. She was in the thick of it.”
The transition to everyday life was even more complicated by Kelly’s decision to return to school.
“Right before my second deployment, I went to school for the six-month college option,” Kelly said.
She said working full-time and going to school while adjusting to being a mom was extremely stressful. Kelly said finding affordable childcare was difficult, and Dylan’s behavior often caused problems at school.
Military children often have emotional difficulties and require mental health support as a result of their parent’s service.
According to a 2009 Study by the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, one-third of children between the ages of 5 and 12 were likely to develop social and psychological problems after their parent’s deployment.”
“The commander of my unit at the time was not very understanding,” Kelly said.
She said Dylan didn’t have a healthy schedule. Often, he would go to bed late and have to wake up early in the morning. Kelly said it hurt that he preferred to stay with my parents – and she admitted it was what Dylan needed.
Returning to Afghanistan
Kelly said she was more prepared the second time she was deployed to Afghanistan in January 2009.
“I knew what to expect,” Kelly said. “That time we actually Skyped with Dylan. I know it sucks, but I think he is used to it,” referring to her being away from him. “During my second deployment all I wanted to do was go outside the wire. I wanted to do something.”
Then on June 5, 2009, the second anniversary of her friend’s suicide, her MWRAP hit a land mine. Kelly said it was almost like a joke from her guardian angel.
“It was like he was saying ‘I still got your back – even now,’” Kelly said. “I was frozen for a second. All I heard was the driver telling the gunner to get the cover down. I thought, ‘damn I don’t even have my seat belt on.’ I think the people in the vehicle behind us were more scared then us. All they saw was the whole vehicle go up in smoke. It wasn’t a convoy. We were just plotting points – if we would have went out in humvees, we would have been f—ked.”
She said they couldn’t leave the vehicle because they didn’t know if they were sitting on a landmine.
“It was just down the road from Altimur where a Czech solder had just gotten his leg blown off,” Kelly said.
She said they were lucky that no one died or was severely injured.
Kelly was deployed to Iraq in July 2011.
“Iraq was nothing like what I was used to in Afghanistan,” Kelly said. “Our job was to clear out the Witmer Troop Medical Clinic at Camp Liberty and turn it over to the Iraqis. It was sad leaving Iraq when we shut the clinic. Imagine how many people died there? I wouldn’t go in that building in the dark,” Kelly said. “There are probably a lot of ghosts roaming around in there.”
The need for more services
Jason Hansman, Senior program manager for Health programs at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) said veterans are not the only ones affected by the trauma of war, military families are often impacted.
“When you have a father or mother who might be dealing with mental health issues related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury, it is eventually going to trickle down to the rest of the family,” said Hansman, an Iraq veteran. “One of the most important things people can do to help vets is to stay educated on the issues and hold their elected officials responsible for what they are reading in the news.”
He said the VA reported this year that a veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes – that’s 22 veterans every day.
“It’s a national tragedy that so many vets are taking their own lives,” Hansman said.
He said the public should be outraged by the lack of services available to veterans and demand that the government pass legislation to support Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been serving in war for more than 10 years.
One such bill is the Mental Health Access Act of 2012. It requires the Department of Defense to create a comprehensive, standardized suicide-prevention program, expand eligibility for a variety of Department of Veterans Affairs mental health services to family members, strengthen oversight of DoD Mental Health Care and the Integrated Disability Evaluation System, improve training and education for health care providers, create more peer-to-peer counseling opportunities, and require the VA to establish accurate and reliable measures for mental health services.
According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the average wait time for benefits from the VA in Philadelphia is 337 days.
According to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s website, as of June 24, 20,587 veterans are waiting for a response to claims for a disease, injury or illness suffered in the military.
Returning home, but does anyone care?
Sinead’s father, Ed, said vets often feel isolated and alone. He said it’s one of the reasons why veterans are struggling with depression and substance abuse.
Ed said when Warriors’ Watch, which organizes motorcycle riders and police and fire personnel to escort soldiers home, escorted her home from the Philadelphia International Airport it had a positive impact.
“She told me ‘I didn’t realize anybody cared,’” Ed said. “Warriors Watch really helped her – I am not sure how much, but it made her realize some people really do care.”
Ed said his family is lucky that they got off relatively unscathed. He said both his children, Eamonn and Sinead, have been affected by the war – but many veterans never recover. He said that in addition to Sinead losing a friend to suicide while in Afghanistan, she has lost several friends who committed suicide after they came home, adding that part of them never came home.
He said their scars – although not visible – were there.
Updated on July 2. 2013. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Sinead’s friend in Afghanistan hung himself in the bathroom.
* Photos courtesy of the Kelly family