“It never goes away,” 34-year-old Shane Thomason, an Iraq War veteran and lifelong resident of Leitchfield, said of the effects of the war, which marked its tenth anniversary on Tuesday, March 19.
During the decade of conflict, thousands of soldiers sacrificed their lives to protect Americans’ freedom and help build democracy in Iraq.
Now, with the conflict nearing its end, Thomason said he and other veterans are focusing on recovery and reflection.
“We were there a total of 16 months and 14 days,” Thomason said of himself and the unit with which he traveled to and operated in Iraq.
Thomason said he, along with current American Legion Post 81 Commander Tim Elliot, was part of a group of 80 Kentucky soldiers who were attached to a Minnesota National Guard Brigade consisting of about 5,000 soldiers total.
“To this time, we’ve had the longest deployment as a brigade since World War II,” he said. “Our total deployment ended up being 22 months: the 16 months and 14 days were in Iraq, and 6 months [were spent at] Camp Shelby at train-up before that in Mississippi.”
“We landed in country on April Fool’s Day, 2006 and [our deployment] carried all the way through August of ‘07,” Thomason said.
Thomason said during his time in Iraq, he was part of a ten-man compound who primarily specialized in Quick Reaction Force (QRF), clearing roads from Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), providing security for injured convoys who were awaiting medical evacuation, and providing humanitarian aid to villages.
“Our high point when we were there the first ten months was when we found the first EFPs (Explosively Foreign Projectile), which is the biggest killer of the roadside bombs,” Thomason said. “Then we were moved to convoy escort for our last six months there.”
Thomason said the isolation that accompanied deployment proved the most difficult element of his time in Iraq.
“There was very limited internet access and no phone access unless we travelled over 150 miles south,” Thomason said. “Not having very much communication back and forth that most people have while they’re deployed kind of took its toll mentally and physically.”
Thomason said he took his leave of service ten months into his tour, and originally was supposed to have only two months remaining after he returned to Iraq; however, he said shortly after he returned, his tour was extended an additional four months.
“At that point, you don’t care how long you have to stay anymore. You’re just numb,” he said.
Thomason, who has been out of active military service for seven years, admits to suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his time in Iraq and said he was home for a number of months before he came to terms with his struggle.
“When you come back, it feels like something’s missing,” he said. “I missed the comraderie and the adrenaline.”
While Thomason has since attended therapy through Veteran Affairs, he said he still feels the affects of the conflict today.
“When I’m driving down the [Western Kentucky Parkway] and see something on the side of the road, if I don’t have a passenger, I can zone out and just picture an IED,” he said.
“I check bridges a lot of times just to make sure nobody’s up there throwing something down,” he said.
“It’s hard,” Thomason said. “But what helped me the most was getting involved with the American Legion out here because they have good people who know how to help veterans with their problems…the war affects people in different ways.”
Thomason recommends that all veterans contact the American Legion, who can assist them to become registered with Veteran Affairs, who aid veterans with whatever ailments, physical or mental, they may endure.
Thomason, who now meets with the Legion twice a month and assists in Veteran Affairs, said he understands the shame that accompanies the mental strain of war and admits that it took him two years before he was able to approach the Legion for help.
“When you come back, the last thing you want is anything from the government. You can deal with it [on your own],” he said. “Then one day you’re not [coping with your problems]. And it’s not that you’re crazy or depressed. It’s that you’ve reached a point where you can talk [to someone about what you’re going through].”
Thomason said any local veterans can and are encouraged to call the American Legion at 270-259-8130 and should ask to speak with either himself or Elliot.
“Leave a message,” he said. “Someone will be in contact with you.”