Veteran’s transition to civilian life aided by more than just luck
AURORA — He can look around him, scan the news reports of soldier suicides exceeding combat deaths and see the sad truth: Many veterans, returned from war damaged in ways both obvious and invisible, have struggled to reintegrate into civilian society.
Yet Kevin Anton, who served a tour in Iraq as an Army intelligence specialist, has settled into a post-military life that propels him toward clearly defined goals to a steady drumbeat of utter normalcy. His challenges tend toward the traditional — how to pay the bills, how to advance his career, how to do right by his kids.
No debilitating physical injury, no trace of PTSD, no adjustment anxiety.
“I did literally and figuratively dodge the bullet,” says Anton, 25, now a first-time homeowner and father cruising down a career track in nursing. “But at the same time, I don’t feel it was all luck. Part of it was just the path that I chose.”
When he joined the Army, he had no idea what the military held for him and figured he’d probably end up as an infantryman. But as he processed in, he was told that his test scores indicated a possible aptitude for intelligence — a slot that came with a financial bonus.
“I was going in kind of blindfolded,” he says.
The nature of his Army job, which he can describe only in general terms, kept him largely out of the line of fire during his deployment — though hardly out of danger zones. In his early 20s, Anton kept fear at bay by taking his training and preparation seriously (he lost more than 30 pounds) and focused relentlessly on the task at hand.
He and another intel specialist would attach to a larger unit — the 101st Airborne, in his case — and operate on such a sporadic schedule, accompanied by significant firepower, that he would have made a difficult target.
“At the end of the day, I was never scared,” Anton says. “I was just kind of ready. Maybe I can project scared in a different way. It heightened my awareness of what was going on around me. I was able to hide a lot of my anxiety.”
He projected confidence and sought emotional detachment from the grimmest elements of combat, even as he recognized the injury and death happening around him.
“It became real, but at the same time I was able to block it out in terms of what it would do to affect me,” he says. “And it hasn’t affected me to this moment.”
Family also has played a prominent role in his ability to cope in the Army and adjust afterward.
Anton’s father counseled him to fear nothing — “Everybody lives and dies,” he told his son — and take his challenge one day at a time, with optimism. Anton tried to talk with his dad weekly, when he could, and he always heard the same refrain, even though he would later learn that his worried father would weep afterward.
“He thought he had lost me,” Anton says. “But he did what he said a dad needed to do — have the best, optimistic approach. Because if you show weakness, your son is going to think it’s a fail situation. He was very positive. It got me through the whole Army experience.”
The discipline Anton learned in the military followed him back into civilian life. For the most part, it has helped him power through academic coursework to become a licensed practical nurse and now pursue his bachelor’s degree while he works at a rehabilitation center.
“I can still tell, his work ethic and his behavior is definitely a military-type personality,” says Lindsay Matkin, Anton’s supervisor at Azura of Lakewood. “He wants everything structured — he’s here to work, and he’s going to get everything done in an orderly fashion. He likes everybody else to do their job like he does his.”
That triggered a long discussion with Matkin after some employees felt Anton was unapproachable based on his sometimes brusque response when interrupted on the job.
“His biggest thing is respect, being structured and doing things a certain way,” Matkin says. “People not doing it that way, interrupting a conversation, he thinks that’s completely rude. I think that’s completely military-based.”
Anton was shocked.
“I felt bad,” Anton says. “I’ve had to realize they see me portrayed like that, so I take it a lot easier and try to help, be a team player no matter what. As I’ve gradually gotten used to the civilian world, I’ve learned to take a ‘chill pill,’ and know that it works a little different.
“What I say to myself every day when I get a little upset: ‘We’re only people taking care of people.’ ”
Matkin attributes much of Anton’s successful integration into civilian life to his love for family — a caring side of him that spills over into his work with patients. And Anton acknowledges that his relationship with fiancee Edna Ramos has kept him well-grounded.
“She has helped me to live a normal life,” he says. “She points out all the things we have — the kids, the house, the cars, the dog, the income, the education. She constantly pushes me to realize we have a lot more to be thankful for than to be angry about.”
Anton thanks God that his time in a combat zone spared him the experiences that damaged so many others — soldiers for whom he harbors the deepest respect. The turns of circumstance that led him to where he is now, healthy and headed along a career path he enjoys, hinged on so many things: good fortune, yes, but also the influences of family and work have been what he calls “a melting pot that made me who I am.”
“No one thing has done that to me, but my family — my father, my mother, my brother — got me into the career that linked me up with Edna,” he said. “The kids are influencing me drastically every day. My career is influencing me a lot every day, too. Being a nurse is a privilege to take care of other people and have that responsibility.
“At the end of all that, the thing that slingshotted me to all that was the Army,” he says. “I think I’ve served my country to a certain extent, but it has definitely served me, too.”
Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/ksimpsondp