Soldiers Revisited: Damon Rooney
06/10/08 7:50AM By Steve Zind
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(Host) It's been two years since the soldiers of Task Force Saber came home from Iraq, but the war is never far from their thoughts.
The 400 members of the Vermont Army Guard had seen combat in a particularly dangerous area of Iraq - and six of their own were killed during their deployment.
We profiled a number of the soldiers when they first arrived home in 2006 in a series called Soldier Stories.
Recently VPR's Steve Zind caught up with three of the soldiers we interviewed to see how they're doing two years after their deployment ended.
Today, in the second of our series of profiles, Damon Rooney talks about life after the war.
(Zind) Rooney was a tank gunner with the Vermont Guard in Iraq. When we spoke with him at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, two years ago, he told us about the moment that stood out most in his mind during his 18-month deployment. It was the first time he had to shoot an enemy combatant.
(Rooney) "And as I got the clear, you know, `Storm 2, you have,'-that was my call sign - `Storm 2, you have the clearance to shoot.' I was like, `This is it. This is the real thing. This is my proving point to say, ``Could I actually kill a man?'' And I ranged and engaged the target, effectively neutralizing the threat. And that was a big moment for me. It was the first time I was put in that situation."
(Zind) Rooney says he still thinks about that moment every day.
(Rooney) "Yeah, I do. It still sticks with me. My counselor asks me about it. `Do you find yourself kind of living it out, not just thinking about it?' Yeah, I'll space out. It's the fact that I get lost in it."
(Zind) With the memories of his experiences in Iraq still fresh, Rooney went to work at a sporting goods store. It was a tough transition going from a gunner to a sales clerk.
(Rooney) "It was really hard when I first got back. It felt so bizarre. When I worked at the sporting goods store, it was, you know, ‘This doesn't compare to anything.'"
(Zind) Back home in the Northeast Kingdom town of Albany, Rooney also found that the war was affecting him in many ways typical for returning soldiers. His post traumatic symptoms included an aversion to crowds. Loud noises upset him. And he was bothered by dreams that he was still in combat.
(Rooney) "Usually involves me by myself in very bad situations. In a truck or a tank getting hit by an IED or being surrounded by myself in a city with insurgents, and there's times when I've just been engaging hostiles and shooting people left and right. You wake up, the cold sweats. I don't sleep much, that's for sure."
(Zind) When Rooney and the rest of his task force arrived home, they were briefed on the difficulties of readjustment and encouraged to get counseling. But Rooney felt he was doing pretty well, functioning in his job and his relationships.
(Rooney) "That's part of the reason why I didn't initially go to counseling when I got back. I was, ‘I'm not that screwed up.' It finally took a friend to convince me. I had let loose while on a night in town, having a couple beers. I got a bit of the loose tongue and he was, ‘You need to go, you really do.'"
(Zind) Rooney says as time has passed, the post-traumatic effects have lessened.
Like other soldiers, he misses the camaraderie of the deployment, even though he's not often in touch with the men he served with.
The deployment also gave him a sense that he was doing something important. He says it's hard to find that in a civilian job.
And despite grappling with the dreams and other effects, he'd welcome another deployment to the war zone.
(Rooney) "A lot of the guys have been talking and a lot of us don't share this opinion, but myself, I'm ready for another one. It's something that I was very good at and I understand. It's just so different than over here. It's a day by day lifestyle. You clean your weapon, you clean your gear. Look after your vehicle and scan your sector and that's it. There's no bills to pay, there's no going to this appointment, going to that. It's scary but it's simple. Well, I guess it's not so simple, but it's not so menial as it is over here."
(Host) For now Rooney is living at his mother's house and working for the Lamoille County Sheriff's Department as a school resource officer talking to students about substance abuse and other problems. He plans to enroll in college this fall.
He's also re-enlisted in the Vermont Guard for another 6 years.
For VPR news, I'm Steve Zind.