Service and Sacrifice

Veterans of the post-9/11 Era Tell Their Stories

By Guy Fletcher and Paula Arias | Photography by Tuner Photography Studio | Posted on 11.11.13 – Feature, People & Places

They are our newest and youngest veterans, the ones with freshest memories—even if not always pleasant—and the newest scars, physical or otherwise. The post-9/11 vets occupy a unique place in our national consciousness because their stories—and, in many ways, their wars—continue. While their complete history is yet to be written, they still have stories to tell…

Frederick Magazine recently talked with several post- 9/11 veterans to discuss their service, their desire to serve, their experience as strangers in strange lands, and how being in the military changed them in their civilian lives. Joining us for the story were: Chris Bickel, a Marine who was severely wounded in Iraq; Meisha Krutar, who twice volunteered to join the Navy; and Carlos Turcios, whose service in the Maryland Army National Guard included tours in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Special thanks goes to Frederick Community College and its Veteran Services Office for assisting with this story.

Krutar: “It was the summer before my senior year of high school in 1998. I was actually trying to get into Juilliard or another major music school. I had been involved in music and theater my whole life, so it was a very natural step to want to do that, but the question came down to, ‘How were we planning to pay for it?’ My mom said, ‘What’s the harm in going down to the recruiters and finding out what they can do for you?’ So I walked down to the recruiting office and about eight and a half hours later I got done picking their brains and having a good time. And I walked out saying, ‘Alright, we’ll go down to military processing and get this ball rolling.’ … [I chose the Navy] because I thought the Air Force was for pansies and the Marines the Army were a little too killer-centric. And I always liked the water and wanted to be near the ocean. What better way to do it than to be on a boat?”

Carlos Turcios

Carlos Turcios

Turcios: “I was in Navy Junior ROTC at Gaithersburg High School. So the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, our instructor—he was a retired naval officer—walked in and told us the news. I chuckled because I thought it was some kind of joke, but he actually rolled in a TV and showed us what was going on. I stayed in the high school ROTC program and when I was 16½ a recruiter was sitting on my mom’s couch when I got home from class one day. He was talking to my mom about college benefits and that the main purpose of me joining the National Guard would be to get a free education, so I told him tell me all about it and let me know what I need to do to sign up.”

Bickel: “I was well out of high school and I was 25 when I joined the Marine Corps in 2004. I wanted to join in part after 9/11 and also I was having a hard time getting into the fire department, so I was going to use military service as a way to sort of get a leg up to join the fire department. After basic training at Parris Island, I went to School of Infantry at Camp Geiger in North Carolina. That was for two months and then I went to the fleet. A month later, they sent me to Iraq for the first time.”

Krutar: “After basic training, I went to Virginia Beach for my first training school for intelligence and then I was stationed in South Korea. I was scared to death to go there; I don’t eat fish or shellfish and I have some allergy issues, as well, and I thought I was going to starve to death. But it was great. I have always enjoyed traveling and I really just loved living around the South Korean people for over a year. Every culture is so incredibly different but the first thing that always struck me in all of my travels was, everybody else you know works to live instead of living to work and they make the most of their time and spend so much time being together instead of just existing around each other. … I was on watch during 9/11 and it was almost 11 at night for us. Well, being Navy intelligence, we had a little warning [about the attacks], but not much at all, especially not half way around the world. But it hit our wires first and next thing you know it was on TV and we went to base lockdown immediately. We had seven minutes to get to cover or that was it.”

Turcios: “When I graduated from high school in 2004, I was sent out to Fort Benning, Ga., where I got basic training. It was funny because it was all-male and I grew up in a strictly coed environment my entire life. I never did private school or anything, so I think it was the closest thing to an all-boys school. It was eye opening. The first time I shot a weapon. I kind of got the sense that it could become my career. I think even back then I had solid confidence that I would be [in the National Guard] for a long time.”

Krutar: “After Korea, I was stationed in Washington state at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. I deployed to the Middle East in December 2002, mostly operating out of Bahrain. I mentally prepared myself [for being in a combat area] by understanding I am a perfectionist, so I have always made sure to be as exceptional as I can about my job and that’s the only thing you got. … Of course you are worried. You fear, absolutely, but there is no room for it. It can’t be in the forefront or you can’t function.”

Meisha Krutar

Meisha Krutar

Turcios: “I was living in Sandy Spring, working in retail, so I stayed there and then I went back to Fort Bragg [N.C.] for a couple of weeks for annual training. I was in training one day and I said, ‘You know what? I heard about this tour [in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba]. I am bored, I have nothing else going on. I am kind of tired of riding the bus back and forth to work and I miss being in uniform.’ So they let me go to Cuba as a communications specialist; it was a lot of on-the-job training and I went on that tour with a knowledge that I would be working outside my specialty. But it was a lot of fun, a really different environment, but an isolated environment. You are on an island, but you only get to stay on that little slice of the island. You can still see Cubans and see them watching you.”

Bickel: “In Iraq, I was an infantryman, but we went with an artillery battery in Rimadi as support. Well, the area I was in that time wasn’t really busy but also it wasn’t really tame, either. Every once in a while we would get into an engagement and mortars were pretty frequent. To some extent, I guess it was [scary], but I mean you know you had your weapons and you had your training. We were there six months. We had a guy get killed and another guy lost his legs. I came back to the United States for six months.”

Krutar: “My average workday [in Bahrain] was between 18 and 22 hours. There were weeks on end where I never made it back to my barracks, especially when we were kicking off and we were ‘Shock and Awe.’ I went from being reconnaissance to target analysis; I’m telling people where to drop bombs. Also, my boss, three weeks into deployment, had a stroke. So I was it. I was the worker bee. I was the one sending out all these flights, making sure they are told where to go, where to stay away from so they don’t get shot down. We are running three and four flights a day, so I had to be up for every single one of those planes to send them off as well as up for every one to come back. They were running six- and eight-hour missions, so I had to run through six and eight hours of tape, plus their optical photographs. If you aren’t on top of your job, the wrong people die.”

Turcios: “[In Iraq] I was put in a small FOB or Forward Operating Base. It was called a Convoy Support Center, so it’s basically a truck stop. Imagine a big welcome center you see when you drive down I-95 and you just have tons of trucks; well, our truck stop was about the size of maybe Downtown [Frederick] or larger, maybe just within the city limits. We were a small aid station, like a first-aid station, and there were eight of us in there. It was really dusty and really, really hot, and there was only one way to get resupplied. That was kind of stressful because you only had one two-way road from the Forward Operating Base to the main air base. That was always an adrenaline rush, whether we were evacuating a patient or going to just re-supply; it was kind of like, ‘Who’s drawing the short stick today to go down there?’ The distance was maybe just 10 miles, but it can be a long 10 miles.”

Bickel: “My second tour in Iraq in 2006 was also in Rimadi, but there was a lot more violence. We were there a month when I had a rocket come through the door of my Humvee and blow off a good portion of my right leg. So they just took the same Humvee I was wounded in and we drove it to Charlie Med. It wasn’t too far away, probably just a 10 minute drive. I was pretty sure I had lost my leg. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to keep it. After Charlie Med, then I went to Baghdad, but Baghdad is not like a conventional hospital. It’s sanitary, but it is like a tent, it’s a huge tent basically. A number of huge tents, I am sure, but I only remember one. At that point, I wasn’t real sure I was keeping my leg. At one point, I was surprised when I woke up and still had a leg.”

Turcios: “[Iraq] was when I started to really open up my eyes on the military medicine side. I think I saw a piece of a guy’s brain once—that was the worst, the absolute worse. On the other side, I treated a couple guys who flipped over their vehicle. I was by myself in the aid station because the rest of my team was working out. It was funny because it was my first actual call and these two dudes stroll up, and they are limping into my aid station and I am like, ‘I only have two hands, I only have one of me, so I have to work on you guys one at a time.’ Then my team finally showed up and started helping me out. We got them evacuated and I think they were fine, they probably only had some minor concussions or something like that. There was a steady flow of adrenaline every day.”

Krutar: “Prior to deployment [to Bahrain], I had actually suffered a sexual assault. So deployment, in a way, was a wonderful escape, and it made it so I could not think about any of [the casualties]. I had tunnel vision. But between the combat stress and the unresolved stress [from the assault], I pretty much hit a breakdown where there was no way I could operate. So when my four years in the Navy came up, I just said, ‘I will just go reserves.’ I fortunately had a very considerate and caring chain of command that rallied around me and said, ‘If you ever decide you want to come back, let us know and we will do whatever we can.”

Bickel: “When I returned to the states, I went to Bethesda Naval Hospital. I had 16 surgeries on my right leg over the course of two years and was bed-ridden for the first two months. Until the leg was completely healed, at any point in time I still could have lost it. It could have been infected or rejected the hardware that they put in there. … They put an external fixator on my leg, which is a rod that goes through the femur and then there’s a screwing mechanism. I would crank this Allen wrench four times a day to stretch my femur back out because I had three and a half inches of bone blown out, so my right leg was three and a half inches shorter than my left for a while. Every day I would stretch the bone about one millimeter. I think I ended up having to have it there longer than I was supposed to; I think it was 90 days and then 180 days. Toward the end I had a little staph infection. Well, it was at the end. When I say the end I mean the very end, to the point where I was supposed to have [the external fixator] out anyway.”

Chris Bickel

Chris Bickel

Turcios: “It was our job to just take care of our base and our fellow occupants. It was good because I learned about
understanding the human condition, understanding someone else’s perspective, for the soldiers that had to drive around in these hot vehicles up and down into these main supply routes. As far as the Iraqis, they got used to me. They would bring bread, they would try and bring some sacrificial lamb to eat, they would call me by my first name. They got comfortable enough with me at one point that they asked for some shampoo, but we weren’t allowed to just give away; we were not on a humanitarian mission, we were there as a source of health care for the military and affiliates. But I think the Iraqis had a sense of camaraderie with these foreigners that were on their land, so I felt like we did something good. I think we left not only a smaller footprint but a better footprint.”

Krutar: “I decided to come back as active duty in 2006. I had to go through a huge rigmarole. Getting into the Navy the first time only took two to three weeks. Getting back into the Navy took nine-and-a-half months. I got reclassified as a cryptologic technician. It was interesting. I transferred to Pensacola [Fla.], then to Fort Meade here in Maryland for four years and then to Norfolk [Va.] on the USS Vella Gulf, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser. It was a great experience. Other than the fact that I am a natural klutz, it was fantastic. Unfortunately for a natural klutz, the boat felt like a deathtrap.”

Turcios: “Near the end of my tour [in Iraq], when President Obama had just come into office, I remember sitting around in the main base and we started getting attacks. They started sending over rockets into the base because I guess they figured out everyone was probably watching their U.S. president getting inaugurated back home on TV. Luckily, it missed everybody, it hit in like some little pit, so I just feel like I was really fortunate.”

Krutar: “When I came back from deployment, I pretty much had a slight nervous breakdown, from the stress of deployment and bringing back up the old stuff. I kinda kept stuff down. I did therapy here and there for a while but couldn’t find the wherewithal to stick with it because I hit too many days where I felt fine and would just quit it. I never made sure to get the assistance I needed to really make peace with the past for both the assault and the combat and the stress on the boat. I didn’t feel like I needed to get out [of the Navy] but I knew I needed help. When we got back from sea I started an intensive therapy rotation.”

Bickel: “My right leg is uncomfortable. It hurts, but I guess if I had to compare it to something I imagine it being like if you had a bunch of rubber bands, like big rubber bands, and put them around your leg and walked around with them all the time. I mean it just depends on what I am doing or what I have done. A lot of times the pain will come the next day if I overexert myself. The leg only bends to 80 degrees or maybe 90. I have also had complications like in my ankle just from the way I walk or go up and down the stairs, from overcompensating.”

Turcios: “Two years after I had come home from Iraq, I said, ‘I’ve got to do something. I need income,’ and I convinced myself and I finally convinced my wife, and I volunteered to go to Afghanistan. [Iraq and Afghanistan were] completely different. I mean, we have two war fronts but we should basically say we have two different wars. They are two different conflicts, different like night and day. The climate is different, the language is different, the people are obviously different. … [In Afghanistan] I was in another Forward Operating Base, but I got to leave that base more often, so that was new. But I could tell that the stakes were higher there—on average, we would get bombed weekly. Our mission was to interact with the locals, so the operational risk was much higher and you can just kind of feel it in the air. I had the feeling that some of the folks didn’t want us there ever, ever again, and they wanted to make that statement as clear as possible.”

Krutar: “They said they were going to station me temporarily in Portsmouth, Va., down at the naval hospital there and let me have all the time off that I need, all the access to my appointments I need and basically no worries. That was when things really started to perk up, but then only a few months after having transferred off the boat, I suffered my second sexual assault, this time by people I knew quite well. That was kind of the straw that broke this camel’s back. Within a month and a half of continuing treatment, my entire psychiatric team just said, ‘There’s no way she can handle the rigors. We didn’t do our job in trying to protect her.’ So Memorial Day, 2012, was my last day in the Navy. I medically retired. … My first month [as a civilian] it was the first time I ever had any kind of brush with alcoholism. I spent the first month trying to feel not much of anything. I was without any of the support network that I ever had. I felt very bereft from anything I ever knew.”

Bickel: “I have had a hard time [seeking increased disability status from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs]. I wasn’t appealing yet, so I guess it’s what they call reconsideration. It’s all very murky. I have been asking for a reconsideration because I got 80 percent disability. I didn’t get 100 percent and I know guys who aren’t as bad off as I am that do have 100 percent. So it doesn’t make any sense to me. They have this formula because technically—I have it on paper—where you do the math: my leg wound, 10 percent hearing loss in my right ear and shrapnel in my hands. My percentage adds up to over 100 percent. So I don’t even know where I am at the process now because I haven’t heard anything from the VA.”

Turcios: “I’m still in the National Guard, so I could go to Syria or something like that. Right now, it is because I want to be with my wife and my son, even the cat. When I came back from Afghanistan, I was offered three different tours and I turned them all down because I said, ‘You know what? I promised my family I would not go.’ So I am a little nervous. I don’t want to turn away my military family, but I can’t turn my back on my blood family. It’s tough because I get to watch the news and see what’s going on and in our society. You get the feeling of, ‘What’s next? What are our diplomats doing for us?’ So I keep an eye on that, but I try and make it more of a spectator sport now, if that makes any sense.”

Turcios: “I am going to school and I am actively pursuing my bachelor’s degree in business, trying to find a good civilian position somewhere that will support me being in the National Guard. That way I can support my local economy and then continue being a citizen solider. In Afghanistan, they called me a nomad, they said, because the way I looked I blended in well with the population. I could have probably passed through Afghanistan without ever getting stopped. I guess that’s the way I kind of feel like I am in life. I am like a nomad, not drifting, but I can go up to one place and the next and survive.”

Krutar: “I am in my second year at FCC, studying psychology. I want to make things a little better, try to make sure I am available, especially for transitioning vets more than even active duty. The care that’s required to do that—it’s too hard to try to do it on your own. My primary focus on vets is trauma-related issues and using art therapy. It’s extraordinarily cathartic. It’s one of the nicest things that I have done since I danced and did theater. It’s been a lot of getting back to the things that really help.”

Bickel: “I will keep going to school, but I do have a hard time with PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder], as far as paying attention and intrusive thoughts and things like that. You know, people might have a misconception of what a flashback is—you know, a lot of people hear flashback and they think somebody glazes over for a half hour. That’s just not what it is. It’s just when they have a memory that’s so vivid that you are not engaged in whatever is going on. So if somebody has a flashback, you probably wouldn’t notice except for that thousand-mile stare. It’s just having a memory that’s so bad that you can’t focus or concentrate on class.”

Krutar: “I have PTSD and a major anxiety disorder. The good days are when they are manageable. There are a lot of ‘not good’ days. There are a lot of days when I don’t leave the house at all. There are days when I miss school because I just can’t stand being around people. The one thing I won’t be doing today is what I ought to be doing, and that’s going grocery shopping. All I want to do is go home and get into my sweats and never even have to venture out my front door.”