IRAQ to WISCONSIN: When Homecoming is Hard
Three Milwaukee veterans tackle a daunting transition
By Xeranda Sanford
It’s February, 2006 and 21 -year -old Rob Dyson just found out that he’s going to be a father. With no idea how he wanted his future to turn out, he decided to join the military, for the sake of his child.
“I actually signed up for the army because I knew I had a baby on the way. Just so I can better myself and make sure she’s well taken care of. So I knew I had to make sacrifices such as being away from her for a long period of time but I figured in the end it would be worth it,” Dyson said.
While most 21- year- old men were out partying, having fun and living life, Dyson was on a battle field more than 6,000 miles away from home, in 100 degree weather, wearing 60 pounds of army gear.
His pregnant girlfriend and mother were left to worry.
Matter of fact, Dyson remembers his mother being so worried that she couldn’t watch the news anymore, afraid that something might have happened to him.
“My mother didn’t like it because I was the youngest one of the children, she didn’t want her baby over there in a dangerous environment,” he said.
While living in Iraq, Dyson’s unborn daughter crossed his mind repeatedly. He worried that he might not make it home to see the birth of his first child.
“I tried not to think about it too much, just because I knew it wasn’t too much I could do about it anyways. Just pretty much had to do what I had to. Hopefully the time goes by fast.”
And it did.
Four- year- old Emani Le’mora Dyson, too young to comprehend the dangers and complications of war, is devastated that she can only hear the voice of a father she has barely seen throughout her young life.
“She was sad just because of the fact she couldn’t see me, and only talk to me whenever I called so she couldn’t just call me for the most part,” Dyson said.
Now a 25 –year- old Iraq war veteran, Dyson leans back in a chair and reminisces about life overseas.
He remembers himself as a young man, with ambition and courage who protected his squad with a heart full of compassion.
Dyson worked convoy security. His job was to provide protection while escorting semi trucks carrying military supplies, throughout Iraq to different bases.
He recollects being scared before his first deployment; he remembers the smell of death smothered by humidity and bullets tinking against the armor of his truck. He remembers clinching the trigger of his gun and firing in the direction of threatening sounds, not sure if mortality followed.
“I don’t actually know if I ever killed anybody, I just fired back to provide cover.”
According to friends and family, Dyson was a laid back guy. After returning from the army, he admits that his patience is much shorter.
“People close to me tell me that I have more of a temper now, I guess now I get angry pretty fast,” he said.
Last year during his second deployment he did detainee ops. This time instead of guarding his squad, he guarded the enemy.
“We did detainee operations which was pretty much working in the prisons with all the Iraqi that was captured by the military forces we pretty much guarded the prisons, making sure everything was secure,” Dyson said.
24 years old, with a son on the way and no promising future, Khalid Wagner was troubled.
Living in some parts of urban Milwaukee can be tough; full of violence, negative influences and peer pressure. Young Khalid Wagner was engaging with the wrong crowd.
But the street life became a thing of the past when he decided to enlist into the U.S. National Guard.
“I wanted to better myself, because I was kind of young and still not finding nothing, like a career type job. I didn’t want to work at the jobs I was working at. You know living check to check, and not having a future so that’s why I joined,” Wagner said.
Initially trained as a diesel mechanic, Wagner found himself doing more than fixing coach buses.
“I did prison guard this last deployment and the one before that I did convoy security from time to time. It doesn’t matter what you specialize in,” said Wagner.
From a 24-year-old unsure young man, to a 29- year-old Iraq veteran with a criminal record, Wagner has seen it all.
When Wagner was back home after his first deployment, he realized being home was just as dangerous as being in the war. So to protect himself, Wagner kept a familiar weapon in his car.
“I got a gun charge on my record now”, said Wagner. Next month he hopes the Wisconsin legislature expunges the gun charges from his record.
Khalid’s lanky frame hangs over the table. With eyes pointed down and elbows propped up, on a table, Wagner began to relive his past.
“I seen brains and stuff blood and guts all in the truck, I didn’t see them get killed but I saw the after affects of it,” he said.
He describes a time where he looked straight ahead at death.
Wagner was riding on a convoy truck, securing the squad in front of him when he looked up to a bridge ahead of him and realized they were about to be attacked. Stationed in front of them were Iraqi trucks lined up on a bridge, with weapons drawn positioned towards Wagner and the squad. In a panic, he radioed his commander and told him about the possible danger. The commander tells them to stop driving and “check it out”, instead the driver decides to stop ten feet away from death. Wagner quickly grabbed at the 50-caliber weapon, but soon realizes the gun could not reach the targets.
Infuriated, Wagner kicked the driver in the head and they proceeded to drive.
“I snapped or whatever, and then he went on the other side of the bridge, I’m like still don’t do that we’re rear security, and that kind of messed me up a little bit because they could’ve just shot right down at me,” he said.
“I ain’t know what was going on, I just heard that they attacked the next convoy that came through.”
Once a guy who was able to go out and never look over his shoulder, Wagner is now diagnosed with general anxiety. He isn’t very social anymore.
“I’m kind of jumpy, alert sometimes. I don’t like people walking to close to me, “ he said, “ like when I’m in the mall or wherever.”
Tall, stocky and well- groomed, 25-year-old Marcus Pinister is the proud father of a one-year old daughter.
“She turned one in August,” says Wagner.
But being a father is just one of his accomplishments.
Sergeant Marcus Pinister returned to Wisconsin last February after spending 10 months in Iraq.
“I wanted to do something different. It wasn’t for school. I had other options, it’s just something that interested me at the time. It gave me a lot of experiences,” said Pinister.
Wanting to do something different has exposed young Pinister to other aspects of life.
“He found a little piece of metal and started to cut himself all over his body in a 5 by 10 cell,” Pinister said.
He can’t forget the day an acclaimed Iraqi police officer’s blood ended up all over him after the man cut himself repeatedly. He can’t forget having to throw the man to the ground for his own safety. He can’t forget being told if the blood was contaminated he could not return home.
And after returning home, he was faced with similar burdens Rob Dyson and Khalid Wagner experienced as Iraqi veterans.
Proud to be an Iraq vet, but disappointed to be an unemployed civilian, Khalid Wagner has been looking for work since January 2010.
Taking advantage of his educational benefits, Wagner is going to school for business management and computer science at the University of Phoenix located in Brookfield, Wisconsin.
But that alone, just isn’t enough.
Eight months ago, Wagner was in training to be a routes salesman for a company called Snider, the company that makes Jay's potatoes chips. He would’ve been making 1,500 dollars a pay check but it was snatched from him before he got a chance to start.
“I actually went to the orientation, worked there for like a week, and then at the end of the week they told me they couldn’t hire me because of my record.”
He was denied a janitorial position shortly after.
“A guy from the vet center called me and told me about it. And I called the place and they told me to send in a resume, and he said I didn’t have anything on there that would qualify me being a janitor which is an easy job, anybody can do it.”
After being fired from Coca Cola in 2008 because of his second deployment, has left Wagner confused, and discouraged.
“I was making pretty good money, right before I left but I guess they found out I was leaving two weeks later so they kind of got rid of me,” said Wagner.
After reaching out to the VA and receiving no help, Wagner became irritated and also blamed his criminal background.
“Because I got caught up in some mess here, the first deployment I came back home,” he said.
“I’m trying to get that off my record now, because they’re trying to say I’m dangerous to society because of my training and they didn’t have no problem with me going overseas, with the skills that I got.”
Wagner claims being an Iraq veteran is hindering him from finding employment. If he keeps getting deployed, he wondered, how can he keep a job?
“I dedicated five years so far, been deployed two times. I haven’t really been able to stay home get a job and keep it,” said Wagner.
Even though Wagner is depressed and anxious, he has support at home from his girlfriend, he says things will eventually get better.
“It took a strain on me mentally and that goes with everything, and
I’m not feeling motivated because I feel like I thought I did something good for my country. It’s been pretty hard, but I’m staying as motivated as I can and going to school to see where I get from there,” said Wagner.
Rob Dyson was unemployed for 6 months. Not interested in the job opportunities the VA offered, he applied for jobs on his own.
While unemployed, Dyson struggled to maintain his livelihood, although he had a little cash saved up.
“I knew I had to find a decent job to make sure my daughter was taken care of, as well as myself. So I wouldn’t have to live check to check.”
Eventually Dyson landed a job in Racine as a correctional officer.
Reminding him of his job duties overseas, work as a correctional officer was kind of a second nature for him.
“We just enforce the rules of the prison and provide security for the inmates, and make sure things are running smoothly.”
Unlike Pinister and Wagner, Dyson feels being an Iraq veteran helped him, find a job.
“Having the military experience helped me get this job.”
Being a vet to him is an accomplishment, not a hindrance, but like Wagner and Pinister, if they could do it all over again knowing what they know now and experiencing what they experienced, they would.
“I applied to 80 or 90 jobs in the seven months I was unemployed,” said Marcus Pinister.
Seeking the help provided to him by the VA, Pinister found himself in reintegration programs, and meetings with various counselors, but still saw no progress.
Tired of sitting around waiting on the VA, Pinister needed to find work and find it fast to help take care of his daughter.
“I just had a kid I figure, I had a little money saved up but I didn’t want to blow it all its so much other stuff I want to do and you need work for that. I had to go out and find a job myself.”
Pinister claims the VA is only interested in helping older veterans. Veterans who are younger are encouraged to go to college.
“They never helped, I did it on my own,” he said, “ They had meetings where they said they were going to help, we had job fairs, but it never places you in a work place.”
Doing it on his own led Pinister to a third shift position at General Mills in Milwaukee, where he has been working since the beginning of October. Although it doesn’t require boot camp, it does require him to make Chex Mix.
“The job I have now, I actually got because of a friend. That’s the only way I got my way in. Honestly the military kind of helped because they looked at what I did and I might have leadership skills and a little reliability. That’s kind of what helped me get in there also.”
Many jobs were being offered to Pinister. Jobs that he calls “typical for Iraqi veterans.” He didn’t want to be a security guard, police officer or correctional officer. He wanted to leave that lifestyle behind him, and focus on his passion.
“I want to open a barber shop.”