Amid adjustment to civilian life, veteran still feels tug of military
AURORA — Life has settled into a fairly predictable — if sometimes exhausting — rhythm of forward momentum for Army veteran Kevin Anton and his young family.
Since his exit from the military in 2009 after a tour in Iraq as an intelligence specialist, he has become a licensed practical nurse through community college, found his fiancée, become a father, bought a house and then continued toward a nursing degree while working full time at a rehabilitation center.
Yet in the midst of this personal declaration of independence, this segue into the civilian population, something still nags: The farther he ventures into his post-military life, the more Anton, 25, becomes acutely aware of forces tugging him back to a lifestyle that perfectly suited his personality.
So how does he think he has adapted?
“Not well,” says Anton, sitting at the kitchen table of the house he purchased in July. “My first year, I was a superstar in civilian life. I didn’t whine, I didn’t have anything to complain about. I was more put-together in my emotions.”
Still, he has found much to treasure since leaving the Army to go on inactive reserve status and pursue a new path. His fiancée, Edna Ramos, has been a steady and loving partner. He has eagerly embraced the role of father to his 18-month-old son, Kevin Jr., and 5-year-old Isaiah, Ramos’ child from a previous relationship.
But changes came in waves: New circles of friends, almost instant family, a challenging and stressful career path, the financial juggling act of jobs, school and bills.
“I think there’s a lot of chaos in the civilian world,” he says.
That concept has resonance for Laura Williams in her work with veterans as a counselor for the Colorado Division of Behavioral Health. She doesn’t know Anton, but she has heard his words echoed many times.
“As civilians, we get so used to so many choices, it’s background noise for us,” she says. “But there are many that find the military and the predictability and structure something they can lean into and trust and be part of something bigger. That’s not so easily replicated in civilian life.”
Adjustment issues like Anton’s are “extremely typical,” adds Marguerite McCormack, a counselor and trauma expert who frequently deals with veterans. And they can emerge in the most mundane elements of daily life, like frustration with the cable guy who leaves himself a four-hour window when the military carries draconian consequences for being one minute late.
“Military people think we’re unbelievably slow and find that frustrating,” McCormack says. “They think we’re undisciplined, whiners, because they were in a culture that teaches you to endure difficult conditions, be in discomfort for long periods and to improvise. They see here people have tremendous comfort and no awareness of how privileged they are.”
Both counselors note that often these adjustments are merely rough spots on the path to civilian life — not unlike the transition from college life to the work force.
“You have to develop a whole different set of behaviors, attitudes and accountability,” says McCormack. “It’s not a disease.”
Williams adds that with such a small percentage of citizens serving in the military, it’s easy for returning vets to feel alienated and out of touch, or simply to long for a familiar lifestyle.
“For some the military is a natural fit, for others it’s more of a struggle,” Williams says. “I don’t think you can beat it for a sense of belonging and mission.”
In some ways, Anton has used that sense of mission to advantage — particularly in the workplace, where he says he often completes more than his usual assigned duties while attacking a broad to-do list.
“My nursing supervisor has me figured out,” he says of his job at a Lakewood rehab center. “Just gives me a list of things to do and lets me go. I’m a list guy.”
He can trace that obsession to his Southern California childhood, when even his recreational free time consisted of items to be accounted for in a succession of after-school tasks.
Play basketball.Check. Do English homework. Check. Watch two hours of TV. Check. Finish chores before the Lakers game. Check.
“I’m obsessive about doing everything I can in an orderly way,” he says.
And while he doesn’t talk much about the tug of the military, not even with Ramos, it’s never far from his thoughts.
“It comes and goes,” Anton says. “In the back of my mind, I keep saying to myself I’m going to join the Reserves. I’m just waiting for the timing to be right.”
For now, he’s planning to finish his bachelor’s degree in nursing at the University of Phoenix. And Ramos, who’s also an LPN, wants to pursue further schooling to become a midwife.
But once the hectic pace smooths out a bit in a couple of years, perhaps Anton could re-up with a degree, become an officer, maybe even shift his medical career toward becoming a combat medic or a nurse in an Army hospital.
He has had on-again, off-again conversations with a recruiter.
It’s not a hard sell to Anton. When he pulled out after his four-year hitch, he brought with him to civilian life many ingrained traits that the military had reinforced.
“He’s very disciplined — as opposed to myself,” Ramos observes. “It gets on his nerves if something is out of place. It throws him off. He’s so used to routine.”
Pausing to consider the positives of a shift to military life, Ramos thinks in terms of Anton’s happiness — she knows it would be a challenge for their family, but he would be content in his job, she’s sure of that.
Her job, she figures, is to “hold down the fort.”
“I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t re-up,” Ramos says. “I don’t think he’d think twice about it. It’s just a part of him. He loves the military.”
Remnants of old Army habits seep into civilian life. With Anton sometimes stringing together a seven-day work week on top of school, Ramos tries to make family time relaxing for him. And yet, he continually craves another job to take on, another task to complete.
“I feel lost sometimes,” Anton says. “I work very hard, but she never gives me anything to do.”
“I’m working on it,” says Ramos. “He’s always ‘on.’ But I don’t want to tell him, ‘Go rake the yard.’ ”
“I would so love that,” Anton says. “I feel like when I’m home, I should be doing something. I escape by going to the gym, but then I feel guilty.”
At the gym on the grounds of Buckley Air Force Base, Anton meets his friend Brian Hotchkiss to work out anywhere from three to five times a week.
They met shortly after Anton returned from his Iraq deployment in late 2008, and Anton was Hotchkiss’s supervisor. But they didn’t really become good friends until Anton left active duty.
They lift weights, do cardio workouts either on the track or on stairs or just play basketball if the mood strikes them. Anton concedes that he’s “in pretty horrible shape at the moment, a sucker for stress, eating wrong and not taking care of myself.”
He considers his physical condition below his standards — and about 40 pounds above his ideal weight. Physical training was an everyday element of his military life and yet another aspect that he misses.
“He has mentioned that he’s not happy with where he’s at physically,” says Hotchkiss. “That’s one reason I’m glad to have him to work out with. He’s motivated to get in shape, and that keeps me motivated to stay in shape.”
Once the two of them have settled on a workout goal, Anton proceeds with methodical discipline — which Hotchkiss notes perfectly reflects the personality that made military life such a comfortable fit for his friend.
“I can definitely see that if he wouldn’t have gotten out, he’d still be doing very well, so I can see why there’s that draw for him,” says Hotchkiss, who has climbed the Army career ladder past Anton to the rank of staff sergeant — something Anton is sharply aware of.
“Everyone who came in around the same time frame, they’ve been staff sergeants for awhile and are ready to be looked at for the next rank,” Hotchkiss adds. “I see a little bit in him that wishes he’d stayed in, so he could be in that same position.”
Anton might not have left the Army but for the wishes of his parents, Nicaraguan immigrants who moved to the
Los Angeles area years before he was born as their native land descended into political violence.
Wrought with fear during his wartime deployment, they urged him to leave the military. That weighed most heavily in his decision. He loved his Army job and the regimented expectations, and opportunities, it afforded him.
“It saved my life,” says Anton, who enlisted after a fight with his father over the direction his life was headed after high school. “I said I’d never join. I didn’t like the idea of people telling me what to do — that’s why I rejected it.
“But once I got in, I knew it was for the long run.”
Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/ksimpsondp