For veterans Nathan Toews ’12 and Cameron Kerr ’09, coming home brings new battles
by Matt Getty
July 1, 2012
One moment Nathan Toews ’12 was locked down in a firefight in Afghanistan, a rocket-propelled grenade screaming toward him. The next moment he woke up in the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., looking for a daughter nurses and doctors said didn’t exist.
“I was pretty pissed,” recalls the former U.S. Army sergeant, who had served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2004 to 2006. “I mean, I have this distinct memory of sitting in a hospital in Germany holding my daughter, watching a basketball game. Imagine people telling you things that you thought were real weren’t real—pretty important things too. I was quite a handful to deal with. I argued with everyone. A lot.”
But he was wrong. Holding that baby, watching that basketball game—none of it had happened. The false memory was just a vivid side effect of that rocket-propelled grenade. In addition to shredding much of Toews’ right arm and leg, piercing an eye with shrapnel and plunging him into a coma for a week and a half, the explosion left him with a traumatic brain injury. The damage would require two years of surgeries and physical as well as cognitive therapy, but for now it had done something perhaps more jarring: It had brought him home.
For Toews, like the thousands of veterans returning from the wars that grew from the rubble of the twin towers nearly 11 years ago, home presented new battles.
“I basically had to start over,” says Toews, who earned the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t walk. I don’t know how long it took before I even knew where I was. The standard procedure for guys with brain injuries is every morning you wake up, they ask you, ‘Do you know your name? Do you know where you’re at?’ The first memory I have is them asking and me answering, but I don’t know how many times they asked before that.”
Facing the Future
Cameron Kerr ’09 faced his homecoming from Afghanistan five years later with a clearer head but no less daunting a challenge. Wide awake in his hospital bed for nine hours after his first surgery, he didn’t bother thinking about how things might have gone differently if the Afghan soldier he was training hadn’t stepped on an improvised explosive device or if he hadn’t rushed to the soldier’s aid and stepped on one himself. Kerr just looked down at the empty space where his lower left leg used to be.
“I made a decision that night,” says Kerr, who received the Purple Heart for his actions. “It was like, ‘OK, my leg’s gone. That’s a fact. It’s not going to grow back. So what’s going to be different?’ I thought, ‘Well, showering will be different, putting on pants, walking.’ But then I started thinking about what’s going to be better. I thought, ‘OK, I’m never going to have to fold socks again—that’s a plus.’ I just realized there was no point in thinking about the past, so I was going to focus on the future.”
Kerr was determined to find a bright future, but for many of today’s newly returned veterans the days ahead can look as threatening and uncertain as deployment did. Since 2002 more than a million returning soldiers have required medical care; an estimated one in three suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression; and unemployment, divorce and suicide rates among veterans continue to rise.
“As a general rule, when wars do not involve shared sacrifice, veterans face problems when they come home,” says Associate Professor of Asian Law and Society Neil Diamant, who studies veterans’ experiences around the world. “In the case of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have a very small percentage of the population involved in conflicts that are not very well understood by the general public. One of the sad things is that veterans often do have battles after the battle.”
The Next Battle
For Toews and Kerr, that next battle was recovery. After two months at the National Naval Medical Center learning to separate reality from false memories and undergoing numerous surgeries, including a craniotomy that left him with half a skull for eight months, Toews headed for outpatient therapy at a polytrauma rehabilitation center near his home in Kingsburg, Calif. There, he underwent three weeks of medical procedures, memory tests and physical-therapy sessions that included learning to walk and then run on a treadmill while wearing what he calls a “silly-looking helmet” to protect his brain. Next came more than a year’s worth of more surgeries, battles with intense migraine headaches and more physical therapy to overcome a nagging paralysis in his right hand.
Yet these problems actually helped Toews process the abrupt shift from war zone to home life—a transition that leaves many veterans reeling. “I don’t recommend everyone go out and get a brain injury, but that did help me,” Toews says with a chuckle. “My injuries always kept me focused on something. I needed to learn to walk. I needed to learn to eat. I needed this surgery or that surgery. Always having that next objective—that was important.”
After the Airport Applause
Kerr agrees, noting that finding his stride on a prosthetic leg helped to shift some of his attention from his platoon, still in Afghanistan. But he also warns that the leap from outward responsibility to intense self-focus can be a trap.
“As a soldier you’re trained to think externally; then when you’re home injured, all of a sudden the focus is all on you,” Kerr explains. “Suddenly, [Sen.] John Kerry and all these distinguished visitors want to talk to you. You have to be careful that you don’t let it go to your head and start thinking, ‘I’m special. I deserve this.’ Because it’s going to end at some point, and then you have to figure out what’s next.”
The tendency to revere and then quickly forget veterans has been a recurring trend throughout U.S. history. “It’s tempting to buy into the rhetoric that surrounds thanking veterans and applauding at the airports,” says Diamant. “That might make it seem as if veterans are going to have an easy road, but history shows that doesn’t last.”
After recovery Toews and Kerr faced perhaps their greatest challenge—what to do next. They’d jumped from one mission to another—the first more than 6,000 miles away and the second within the boundaries of their own bodies. Now they needed another.
“Just being home was the biggest culture shock ever,” says Kerr, who’d served as a second and then first lieutenant for two years after going through ROTC at Dickinson. “One minute you’re leading a platoon of soldiers in one of the most dangerous parts of the world, and the next minute you’re home safe with your family and friends. I felt bad leaving my guys and getting out early. I just wanted to be back with my platoon. I wanted to finish my job. It’s like when you see border collies and someone takes away the sheep. The dogs just go insane.”
To stave off that insanity, Kerr sought out his next mission. In March he joined polar explorer and
environmental activist Robert Swan and a global team of 72 scientists, entrepreneurs and citizen leaders on a two-week expedition to Antarctica promoting sustainability. Since returning, he’s been interning with the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., and training for and then running in the Boston Marathon.
Now he’s again focused his attention on the environment, teaming with Swan and other expedition members to launch a mobile, green-powered “e-base” in Qatar to help spur sustainable development in that region. After that, he plans to run in the Dubai Marathon in January to raise money for another wounded veteran to journey to Antarctica with Swan’s team in 2013.
“I’d never been an environmentalist,” admits the former Middle East-studies major. “But I was really inspired by [Swan’s] positive take. So many people just want to point out how bad things are, but this is about showing how we can move forward—how we can make things better for the next generation … I guess you could say this has become my new mission.”
For Toews that feeling of “now what?” came a few weeks after his last surgery, a procedure replacing half his skull with prosthetic bone. He sat in a physical-therapy office staring at his paralyzed right hand, took a deep breath and—finally—made a fist. With his hand still clenched and a wide grin across his face, he dashed into the hall to show all the other patients what he had accomplished. Physically, his recovery was complete.
“Yeah, that was a good day!” Toews recalls with a smile.
But the excitement quickly faded, leaving him to confront the same feeling he’d had in 2004 when he returned from his deployment in Iraq. Having grown so used to the sound of mortar shells that the rumble seemed as commonplace as thunder and passing traffic, something about the peace and quiet of home left him cold. Then, he’d opted to sign a waiver and redeploy earlier than the Army normally allowed, but now another deployment wasn’t an option. Like Kerr, he needed to find that next mission.
He started his search at Dickinson, where he enrolled in 2008 through the Veteran’s Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation program. As an older student whose recent past included heavy combat rather than senior week at the shore, the sociology and environmental-studies double major admits that he entered the classroom with a sizeable chip on his shoulder. “I remember being on guard, ready to pounce, just waiting for a discussion on politics or the military,” he says. “But I was surprised at how open-minded the students were.”
Still, he didn’t feel fully integrated into the Dickinson community until he was nearly 2,000 miles from campus. After receiving an invite to a Serve the World information session from Kerr, who was then still two years away from facing his own future as an injured veteran, Toews headed for Guatemala on the winter-break service trip that would give his life new direction. In addition to losing himself in the work of building a school in Santa Cruz del Quiche, Toews rediscovered his leadership abilities following the tragic drowning of Nate Kirkland ’11, one of the other students on the trip.
“That was tough,” Toews recalls. “I thought I’d left that behind, but I knew this was something none of the other students had seen before. So I kind of put on my professional face and did what I could to help us all get through it.”
After that trip, Toews went on seven more, sometimes as team leader, sometimes as a coordinator, sometimes hanging drywall in flood-ravaged homes in Nashville, sometimes installing ceiling
insulation in post-Katrina New Orleans, but always finding something worth fighting for long after he’d left the fighting behind.
“There’s got to be something like that after you get back,” says Toews, who plans to work with Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., after graduation. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had this opportunity to go to college, and then I found Serve the World. I got plugged into that, and now I know I’m going to plug myself into D.C.”
A New Reality
With time then, both Toews and Kerr have found ways to plug into life after wartime. Like the veterans before them and the many that will come after, they’ve found that coming home is a process that only begins with those first steps back on U.S. soil. Even now, as Toews looks back on those coma-induced dreams of a daughter who once seemed so real, he knows that full recovery remains elusive.
“They say with head injuries you’re never recovered; you’re always recovering,” says Toews. He shakes his head, smiling as he looks into the distance to gather his words. And though those words are tied to his unique perspective on how the brain can manipulate perception, it’s easy to imagine them coming from the mouth of any veteran adjusting to a day-to-day reality so far removed from the battlefield: “Even now—every once in a while—there’s kind of a weird feeling, like, ‘Is this real?’ ”
View a photo slide show of Toews and Kerr.