Q&A with veterans

Teri McDowell Ott interviews veterans Eric Hanson, John Kennealy, Jared R. Worley and Ryan Bronaugh.

Why did you join the military?

Ryan Bronaugh: I grew up in a very working-class suburb of Dallas. Military service is a long tradition in my family. My dad served two tours in Vietnam (1968-69) with the Army Rangers. My older brother was in the Army while I was in high school and would end up serving 26 years in the Army as a ranger. (He did three deployments to Iraq, five to Afghanistan.) I, however, played baseball. I went to Kansas State on a baseball scholarship. My freshman year, I wrecked my car and hurt my throwing arm. I left school and started working full time. It wasn’t long before I really missed the camaraderie that comes with playing competitive sports. I thought: Maybe I can find that in the military.

Eric Hanson: I was a freshman in high school when 9/11 happened. That obviously left an impact on me. America had never been attacked before (at least, not in my lifetime). As I neared the end of high school, the country was at war both in Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt like I owed something. I applied to West Point and I got in. I wanted to see what I was made of. I also wanted to get out of my small town and see the world.

John Kennealy: I joined the military out of a sense of civic duty. I have always wanted to do something that was in service of others and would help achieve something that was bigger than myself. I’ve also played sports my entire life, so being a member of a team is something that I’ve enjoyed and sought out.

Jared R. Worley: Since the age of 3, I knew I wanted to join the military. My dad served in the Army and his dad in the Air Force, so I come from a long line of military service. Joining the military was simply fulfilling a childhood dream.

What did you expect military service to be like before you entered it?

Bronaugh: I thought I would find an easy job and just ride the system for a while. I joined in 1998, and the U.S. was not directly involved in any wars. The joke was on me. Because I was an animal science major in college and my test scores were pretty high, I was made a corpsman (medic). I would end up serving my entire time with Marine infantry. I never thought I would have to go to war, but I did — three times.

Kennealy: I expected what popular culture told me it would be. That it would be hard, lots of sacrifice and lots of strenuous physical activity, and that there was going to be a more-than-better chance that I would be put in harm’s way, possibly having to sacrifice my life.

Worley: My dad gave me the best advice: Sometimes there will be things that make absolutely no sense and all you can do is shake your head at it and move on. I grew up watching military documentaries and movies, so I was really looking forward to the camaraderie and serving my country.

Was your military experience what you expected? What was unexpected about your military experience?

Hanson: No. It was much more than I expected. In 2010, at 24 years old, I was leading an infantry platoon in Afghanistan. I’d been training for that experience for the previous five years. I consider myself one of the lucky ones from my graduating class, as I made it down range (into a combat zone). Many of my peers weren’t so fortunate. The war in Iraq was all but over by that time, and my unit was not scheduled to deploy. I was slotted for Fort Hood, Texas. During training at Fort Benning, however, I found another guy who wanted to switch duty stations. He was set to go to Fort Polk, Louisiana — typically considered one of the worst posts in the Army. He had already deployed several times and his wife didn’t want him to go again. I wanted to make it down range very badly, as I had been training for this exact thing for a long time.

Worley: My military experience was and wasn’t what I expected. The screaming and yelling at basic training was obviously expected, but once I got to tech school and beyond, I was shocked at the amount of free time I was given. It was like a regular 9-to-5 job: You show up, do your job, study for your next skill level, go home. I think I finally understood why the other branches called us the “chair force.”

What was the most rewarding aspect of your military service?

Bronaugh: The friends and family I established along the way. Because I was a medic, I kept records of everyone’s blood type, birthday and any other information I found pertinent to my job. I still have everyone’s birthdates on my calendar and send them a message every year on their birthday. We all, for the most part, keep in touch to this day (some have passed on: killed in action, suicide, cancer, etc.). Although life after military service and war can be difficult, I’ve never felt alone.

Hanson: The bonds I developed with the soldiers of my platoon during combat. To be in the infantry is to suffer. Every soldier, admittedly or not, has to deal with the fact that he might lose his life. There’s a certain amount of fear everyone has to get through in the beginning. After the first few firefights, the fear is mostly gone. What’s left is a feeling of security in the unit. Everyone trusted each other. Yes, you could die, but at least every single person next to you was in the same boat. There’s unity there. I owe everything to my soldiers, including my life in a couple circumstances. The connection I had with my soldiers is unparalleled. I love them to this day.

Kennealy: Definitely the friendships I made along the way. Being a part of that team is so rewarding. Helping people achieve great highs and being there for them when they experience unfortunate lows develops such strong bonds that have carried on through these last 11 years. It is one of those situations where you have such incredible bonds partly because the only people who can relate to you in that time are the people to your right and left, and you don’t forget that.

What was the most challenging aspect of your military service?

Bronaugh: Losing brothers, and feeling like there is never really enough I can do for their families and/or memory. That, and watching brothers struggle to adjust to life after war.

Hanson: Dealing with the killing. We killed Taliban. They killed us. During the fighting, civilians got killed as well. Each of those has its own unique set of emotions tied to it. In fact, remembering this is bringing tears to my eyes. I feel bad for the wives and children of my fallen comrades. I feel bad for the countless innocent lives that were ruined. There’s a certain sorrow that lingers and I suspect it probably always will. That’s OK, it’s supposed to be like that. You can’t be a part of a war and do war things and not expect some consequences.

After all that, the most challenging aspect for me was reintegrating back into society. I spent five years preparing for the fight. Then one year fighting. I came back with hate in my heart. It’s hard to be a member of society after all that. I felt like I did not fit in. Like I had been initiated and everyone else hadn’t. Like my eyes were open to the darker side of the world and I was pissed that everyone else back home hadn’t the slightest clue as to what they’re asking our young soldiers to do.

Kennealy: For me, it was not being able to deploy overseas. I missed out on my generation’s war. All throughout basic training, advanced individual training and airborne school, everyone kept telling me that I would probably be deployed within six months of getting to my first duty station. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen — even after trying to volunteer multiple times. This makes me feel like my service wasn’t on par with those that did deploy. In fact, there is definitely a hierarchy in the service between those who have been down range and those who have not. The bitter pill to swallow with that is that it isn’t your choice to go or not. It’s based on your job and unit who goes and who stays. When people thank you for your service, you feel like a fraud. When people find out you served, the first question they ask is if you went to Iraq or Afghanistan. When you tell them neither, you can feel the weirdness in the air. There’s almost an apologetic feel to it so you try to move the conversation along to something else.

Worley: I swore into the Air Force in February of my senior year of high school just before graduating in May. I didn’t leave for basic training until August, but being away from family and on my own at 18 was a struggle at first. A lot of kids my age were getting married in tech school to get their base of preference, but I wasn’t about that. Camaraderie in the Air Force is almost nonexistent unless you are deployed, serve in a unit that’s routinely in combat or by sheer luck. But maybe that’s just my unit; there were a lot of individuals rather than a team.

How have people supported you during and after your military service? What has been helpful?

Bronaugh: For the most part, people have been very supportive. I don’t usually lead off by letting people know I am a combat veteran though. I think one thing that has been most helpful has been people just understanding that some days I need time to myself or time with my combat family. While I was in college, after getting out of the military, pretty much all my instructors and professors were very helpful in this way.

Hanson: I came back from Afghanistan in 2011. Every year after that got consecutively worse until 2016. Then I went to therapy, admitted I had PTSD and started to address that. That was helpful. It also helps talking to my old soldiers. Almost every single person in my platoon has had to deal with the aftermath of war in their own lives. Knowing I’m not alone helps. Plus, I have a really great life now.

One other thing has really been helpful, and that is to look at my experience through the framework of “moral injury.” This concept was introduced to me by a civilian college teacher with a theology background. This idea really helped me make sense of what I was feeling.

Worley: My family were my biggest supporters while I was in the Air Force, but when I got out, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure if college was the next right step for me. So I worked for the first year or so after. In January of 2012, I decided to apply to Western Illinois University and give it a year to see what happens. Western offered great support through their Veterans’ Resource Center (VRC). The VRC and Western had priority registration (about a week before everyone else) and the VRC would handle just about everything else in terms of using your GI Bill.

How could you have been supported more as a veteran? What would have been helpful?

Bronaugh: Free beer for life would probably not have been helpful, but it would be awesome. Really, the best support I get is when people are just understanding and patient with me. Sometimes things fall off my radar and things fall through the cracks because there is just no way to know what kind of day I am going to have when I wake up. Something might trigger a memory or emotion and I get spun out. It isn’t easy for everyone to understand, but the more people that do understand, the better things will be for veterans.

Kennealy: I almost wish there was a little less support. I’ll explain what I mean. This generation of service men and women have been described as heroes from day one and generally supported throughout the last 20 years while at war. What happens, though, is all of that support and adoration puts expectation and guilt on you. Survivor’s remorse or indignation at being labeled a hero because of what they saw or did there presents a real mental health crisis for our service members. To be sure, it is nice to be appreciated for any job. But when people assume or tell you that you’re a hero just for volunteering, it can be seen as either disingenuous or an ideal that you don’t feel you can live up to. It is unfortunate because, not that long ago, our Vietnam veterans were viewed in a dramatically different way. I have told dozens of people who have thanked me for my service to try to look for a Vietnam vet and thank them for their service, because not a lot of people have historically. Those service members don’t get nearly the amount of praise and credit that my generation and the World War II generation get. It would be nice for that to change.

Lastly, it would be helpful for service members – and even our society – to recognize that mental health issues aren’t something to be ashamed of. They should be treated like any other medical issue. That is tantamount to our growth and future. Being able to say that it’s OK to not be OK sounds easy but takes tremendous strength and courage. Unfortunately, we’re losing too many of our brothers and sisters because they don’t feel like they can say it. Maybe it’s because of the high expectations that I mentioned earlier, or maybe it’s because of the stigma that still exists. Either way, we need to scream from the mountaintops that mental health is important and help is supported.

Eric Hanson graduated from West Point Military Academy in 2009 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army. In October of 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan, where he led an infantry line platoon in combat operations for the following year. Upon return, he served as a company executive officer and battalion staff officer before leaving the Army in 2014. Eric is now a farmer in Warren County, Illinois, and the proud father of a 3-month-old daughter.

John Kennealy served in the U.S. Army, stationed at Ft. Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with the 10th Special Forces Unit (Airborne). He received the Army Achievement Medal for exceptional work performance and accomplishment of missions. He currently works with JPMorgan Chase and is working on his MBA. He lives in Algonquin, IL.

Jared R. Worley served in the U.S. Air Force as a radio operator based at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. After serving, he worked for a couple of years before deciding to give college a try. What started as one year at Western Illinois University turned into six years, two degrees, a wife and four children. He now works for Boeing Defense in St. Louis as an instructional systems designer developing courseware that trains military pilots and maintenance personnel.

Ryan Bronaugh is a published author and combat veteran who served 7.5 years as a Navy Corpsman, serving with multiple Marine units, including combat deployments to Iraq, earning the rank of HM2/E-5. He is a father, friend and, foremost, servant of God. His work primarily focuses on military life and writing to heal. He lives in Galesburg, IL.