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Home from war, troops face 'white knuckled' first month

Jessica Mcgowan / for NBC News

Former Marine Paul Menefee, an Iraq war veteran, makes music in his Union City, Ga bedroom, on Feb. 15. Since transitioning to civilian life, Menefee works as a music producer in Atlanta. At home, Menefee spends most of his time in this blacked out bedroom making music and relaxing. Drawing blinds and blacking out windows is a habit Menefee started after his military service to help him feel more secure.

In the first month home from war, one Marine routinely searched his darkened bedroom for the rifle he'd left in Iraq, while another Marine shunned his favorite nightspot for fear that someone in the club might carry a gun. 

In the four weeks after their homecomings, one infantryman drove “white knuckled” at 55 mph while another soldier purposely began living even faster — losing her virginity, going blonde and drinking hard with battle buddies.

Some 34,000 service members will ship home from Afghanistan during the next year, President Barack Obama told the nation last week

Amid the gleeful glow of arrivals, many of those troops may quickly confront sensory overloads, social awkwardness and, perhaps, deep cravings for personal freedoms, according to interviews with four younger veterans who weathered such moments.  

“The first 30 days are interesting,” said Alex Horton, who spent 15 months in Iraq as an Army infantryman, including during the 2007 troop surge in Baghdad and Diyala Province.

Today, he works for the Department of Veterans Affairs. "I’ll call it the unraveling. That first week back you’re still high on everything, kissing your wife or girlfriend, sometimes seeing your kids for the first time. But then the tension starts to build.

“You experience culture and weather shock, and notice your senses are heightened,” said Horton, adding that another common theme — albeit something he did not go through — involves disrupting the daily routines established by a spouse and kids during a service member’s absence, and consequently, dealing with strained relationships. 

Distant from family
To that point, two veterans interviewed for this story, including Horton, said they suffered romantic breakups after returning from combat, and two got divorced. 

Jessica Mcgowan / for NBC News

Former Marine Paul Menefee, an Iraq war veteran, shows off his spiritual tattoos at home in Union City, Ga., on Feb. 15. The "Blessed" tattoo is one many Menefee has gotten after his two tours in Iraq.

"Trying to get back to my regular life was hard because I wouldn’t talk much to anybody. I didn’t want to talk about what went on in Iraq, didn't want to describe the details," said Paul Menefee, a former Marine who was deployed twice to Iraq and fought in the Battle of Fallujah in late 2004. 

"Things that happened, I didn’t want to remember. I was trying to cope in my own way, not deal with the images in my head," added Menefee, who eventually divorced his wife. "I was distant from my wife, mother, cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles. At Sunday dinners, I pretty much stayed off to myself."

Old habits came home, too. During his first 30 days back at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Menefee grew jittery in a Wal-Mart checkout line because other customers were queued up behind him. He left the store immediately. He avoided nightclub outings with friends because the bar crowds seemed unpredictable.

He chose seats in the backs of restaurants so he could watch all the patrons and map each exit. At home, he kept his blinds drawn, his door locked and always looked left then glanced right when passing a hallway or an open corner. 

On interstate highways, Menefee — a truck driver in Iraq — often pulled four lanes to his left if he spotted a blown tire or crumpled, food wrapper lying on the right shoulder: The types of hiding places in which insurgents routinely planted IEDs in Iraq. While driving in an American city, he would take an early left or an abrupt right if he saw garbage or roadkill on an approaching curb.

"You don’t realize that (your senses are) very fine-tuned to your environment, everything from hearing things to seeing things," Horton said. "I imagine this is what blind people feel with their other senses. You rely on them so much (in combat), they have no business being that acute in the civilian world."

"When I got into a car and drove on a highway for the first time," Horton added, "I was white knuckled."

For former Marine Christian Gutierrez, who returned from Iraq in spring 2008, the open road at first carried a mix of old caution and fresh freedom.

During quick trips to the grocery store, he frequently would exit his car then quickly circle back, thinking he'd left his rifle in the front seat, momentarily forgetting he didn't carry a weapon anymore. 

"But I love cars and love driving. So I drove a lot because it was my time," Gutierrez said. "That moment was your moment. You had control of your car. You had control of that moment."

'Lucky I didn't die'
Soon, he bought a motorcycle to further feed that rush of independence, to expand his new-found personal space — and because combat left him with another sharp bit of wisdom: Your moments on this planet may be few.  

"Being back taught me that if I want to do something, I’d better do something right now. You never know," he said. 

That same compulsion drove Iraq veteran Laura Cannon to use her first 30 days home to mark, she said, "the beginning of a new life for me," a time in which she stepped away from both Evangelical Christianity and the strict rules under which she'd been living since enrolling at West Point.  

"I knew that if I didn't make drastic changes, being at war would be the last adventure I would ever experience," said Cannon, a former Army infantry member who was part of the 2003 Coalition invasion. "Surviving a war completely changed my perspective. I needed to start living for me. So I made a mental list of goals to accomplish. No. 1 — lose my virginity. I was 24 for God's sake!"

During her first month home, Cannon also bought an SUV, broke up with a boyfriend, dyed her hair blonde, visited Ground Zero, posted a personal best in a 5K race, and found time to "party my ass off with my war buddies — heavy drinking."

In Iraq, "there was (stuff) blowing up everywhere. I'm lucky I didn't die. I hadn't done enough with my life," she said. "I had survived a war. I had a second chance to live differently. I was not going to let others control me anymore. It was time to make more adventures and maybe get some baggage along the way. I was so far behind. Lots to catch up on."

"The rapid pace at which I compensated for my repressed life, especially in the first 30 days after the war," Cannon added, "were completely catalyzed by combat."