Staff Sgt. Ken Felchle is cuddled by his son, Connor, during a visit to Connors preschool class taught by Becky Dwinnell, right, at Cook Inlet Academy last week. Felchle is one of seven local Alaska National Guardsmen who have returned from military duty in Iraq.
Photos by M. Scott Moon
Ken Felchle remembers the meaningful visit before he and six other National Guardsmen from the Kenai Peninsula began to deploy for Iraq.
It was summer 2004, and he came to meet two Israelis.
“We met them when we were up in the valley, they came down with us and went to my school,” said Staff Sgt. Felchle, a seventh-grade history and outdoor survival teacher at Kenai Middle School. “I remember them saying and I experienced it in Iraq their time in Alaska, because of all their hardships, they saw people living life the way it was supposed to be lived.
Sgt. 1st Class Troy Zimmerman speaks about his Iraq war experiences during a Veteran's Day ceremony last November.
Photos by M. Scott Moon
“And I couldn’t wait to get back home. In Iraq they have so many struggles. In Alaska and in our country, we live life the way it’s supposed to be lived. I thought about that while I was over there, and their struggles.”
When the Alaska National Guard Company B 3rd Battalion (Scout) of the 297th Infantry returned two weeks ago, Felchle couldn’t wait to set foot on the Kenai Peninsula ground he so dearly loves. Much of the same could be said for the other six Guardsmen.
Felchle, Sgt. First Class Will Schwenke, Staff Sgt. Gregory Fite, Staff Sgt. Roy Brendible, Corp. Matt Lay, Sgt. John McGrane and Sgt. First Class Troy Zimmerman count their blessings when considering there were no major injuries to anyone in their company of more than 130 soldiers.
Sgt. 1st Class WIll Schwenke talks to his wife Val before a dinner last week. Schwenke said he is spending a lot of time catching up with his large family after having been gone so long.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
But just coming home isn’t the end of their deployment story. For each, there is a time to adjust and adapt to the peninsula way of life. Families, jobs, friends much has changed and moved along while they were away for 1 1/2 years. They know they’ll reclaim and find their spots, but nobody is promising a transition with ease.
No big agendas
Schwenke works as an eligibility technician for the state of Alaska. His wife, Valerie, has been through one of his deployments before but thinks the adaptation is a bit different this time.
“I know one of the things we’ve laughed about is driving,” Valerie said. “When he was in Iraq, they didn’t go much faster than 10 mph. Also, if a car comes close to them, it has to pull over and not get close to them. When he first got back in Anchorage, that was kind of an experience for all the guys. I had two in my car, and they were both gripping the door handles and saying ‘slow down.’ I was saying I’m only going 30 mph.
Sgt. 1st Class WIll Schwenke, right, shows photos of Iraq last week to his children Zena (in stripes), Maggie (red), Daisy (white) and Joey.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
“There are some adjustments, seeing bags on the side of the road like trash, in Iraq, those things could be explosive devices. It gives them a little bit of a jolt, but he’s adjusting pretty good. It’s such a relief to be back home in America where you don’t, for the most part, have to worry about those things.”
Valerie says time sharing is among the things getting the attention of her and their children.
“He’s been real careful to spend time with each of them, because we all want to horde him to ourselves,” Valerie said. “That’s going on. He’s really, really good, stepped back as far as jumping into everything and being the disciplinarian like he was before. We’re taking things slow and giving it time. He’s interacting with the kids, but as far as rules we’ve established, chores, schedules, he’s going with the flow. We’re taking it easy and easing back into it.”
Slowly he admits to dropping his alert level to a nonwar atmosphere.
“A lot of things people wondered were when we got home how much life changed, coming out of a combat zone,” Will Schwenke said. “We haven’t come into any conflicts yet, but we’re going back to the lifestyle we had. Hopefully, we don’t ever come into any situations. I still jump when there’s a loud noise, but that will ease.”
He paused, chuckled, and added, “I haven’t heard a gunshot in two weeks.”
Good news indeed. And the briefing sessions during demobilization were most helpful.
Youngsters chase Staff Sgt. Ken Felchle around a classroom at Cook Inlet Academy last week. Felchle has spent some of his transition time talking to young people about his experience in Iraq. He returns to teaching at Kenai Middle School tomorrow.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
“One of the things in the briefing was about, a lot of times, you’re starting where you left off a year and a half ago,” Schwenke said. “But the family has moved along, and you have to bite your tongue as far as disciplining kids. I’ve just let her move on, and I’m going to ease back into it. I haven’t looked at a bill and I haven’t done any disciplining.
“When you come home, don’t set a big agenda. One of the things you’re recommended against, is that it is important to be with your family. Be with your family, and don’t invite over brothers and sisters and family. We talked about spending the next few weeks with just us.”
This is a hard situation, but understandable for those who love their soldier families.
As for Val and Will, they’re also making progress with little things like what or where to eat. One briefing in Iraq hit on a popular theme.
“All of the guys want a home-cooked meal first, and the wives are thinking ‘I want to go out,’” Will said. “We’ve eaten out, and we’ve had some home-cooked meals.”
On his first day back home, he enjoyed Alaska salmon at home.
Staff Sgt. Gregory Fite plays with his grandson Charles in his home last week.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
“It’s been real good,” Will said of his first week plus back home. “I caught a cold when I got here, and I’m not quite over it. I’ve been relaxing at home, fixing cars, cleaning stuff at home. I’ve been spending time with kids, taking my kid to school. It’s kind of a vacation for my wife. She’s just relaxing, and I’m happy to do it.
“Valerie has been good, keeping the family together. I’ve got to give her a lot of credit. This was my second deployment, so she’s had some experience. She had her family here to help out.”
But nothing beats a husband and father. And he’s happy to be back home.
‘Most devastating news’
Zimmerman is a history and Spanish teacher at Nikiski High School. His tour of duty overseas ended early and quickly, the result of a family emergency.
“I had an unfortunate situation, where I came back in April due to a family emergency,” Zimmerman said. “Then I was reassigned to rear detachment (in Kenai), NCOIC noncommissioned officer in charge.”
Zimmerman learned last spring his now 8-year-old son, Takota, was terminally ill with a neurological disease.
“When I was reassigned, it allowed me to work out of the Kenai Armory and stay close to home,” Zimmerman said. “I worked as the liaison between the soldiers in Baghdad and their families on the peninsula.
“It was the most devastating news that a parent could receive. I got the Red Cross message on April 1, and we had no indication before that incident that there was any problem. He was apparently as healthy as any 7-year-old could be.”
Zimmerman’s focus quickly changed. Gone, if it existed, was any carefree mentality. To the forefront was a sense of urgency to some degree, and in other ways a calmness of appreciation.
“The things you missed, you made sure to do quickly once you returned,” Zimmerman said. “My focus was entirely different, just anxious to get back home to support my wife and take care of my children.”
Zimmerman has another son, Trey, 10, and daughter, Tika, 3.
“They know he’s sick,” Zimmerman said. “Tika is 3 so she doesn’t understand the illness. The boys are aware that other boys who have had the disease often don’t live into adulthood.”
Zimmerman said the community support he’s felt has been unwavering, through care packages, letters and reception since being back home.
“We take a day at a time,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve adopted a ‘celebrate life’ mentality. Every day is precious.”
Not all of the returns home have been full of joy and celebration. From one soldier to the next, the first steps back into Peninsula life can be vastly different.
While he was away, McGrane took on the task of dealing with a divorce. His job status is uncertain, as well.
Fite also has job worries, with a bankruptcy filing by Era Aviation. But his family life is as solid as ever, including the celebration of the birth of a grandchild shortly after stepping foot into Anchorage just weeks ago.
“When I thought about rejoining community, I thought about home cooking, things such as that,” McGrane said. “I’ll probably fall back into a family relationship with my brothers, mother and two children. But as far as the realism, the only thing I want to do is play with my children.
“My children are 3 (son, Isaac) and 5 (daughter, Abigail), and I just really want to spend my time relating with them, that I’m back, and I’m not going anywhere again.”
McGrane didn’t experience a great deal of contact with those closest to him. He doesn’t know the reasons, but he was grateful for the support he did receive.
“Most all of my mail and my support have come from people who read about us in the paper, or wrote anonymous letters to us,” McGrane said. “Over 95 percent of my support came from complete strangers. Very little came from people who I expected would support me as an individual, the ones I called friends outside of the Army family.
“It’s one of the issues that I am facing.”
McGrane will be talking with counselors as he adapts to his way of life at home. He noted that in some cases, some veterans from World War II waited up to 50 years before they started to talk about things they went through and saw. Some veterans from Desert Storm also kept things in until just recently, more than 10 years later.
“People have gone on with their lives, but with us, we have gone through quite a lot of changes,” McGrane said. “Every one of us has mentally and emotionally, and to a degree, spiritually, changed a lot.”
While Fite’s worries are on a different level, they do illustrate the change that happens. Aside from Era’s woes, he’s ready to get back to life as he knew it.
“I worry about my job,” said Fite, a ramp supervisor for Era. “My business has sold twice since I left, and now it’s in Chapter 11. I’ve got good family support.”
Contrasting McGrane’s situation, Fite returned to a wife of 25 years, Becky, along with two daughters, a son, and three grandchildren. While demobilizing in Anchorage, one daughter gave birth to his fourth grandchild.
“They gave me a lot of support through the whole thing.”
‘Band of brothers’
Felchle has already been the toast of a rousing assembly at Kenai Middle. He’s spent a morning with his son at Cook Inlet Academy’s preschool, and he’s talked to supportive students at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School, where his wife, Kristi, is a teacher.
“The response has been wonderful,” Felchle said.
Felchle has enjoyed speaking with the public, but he’s also been careful to concentrate on his family.
“This last week, my wife stayed home and her and I, with our son, just laid low and didn’t go out in the public too much,” Felchle said. “That was OK, but we laid low.”
It’s time, he said, that was necessary to the process of adapting to life as he will now know it.
All of the Guardsmen are allowed up to 90 days before resuming their jobs. But Felchle will be among the first to return, going back tomorrow.
“I love my job, I love teaching last year would have been my 10th year,” Felchle said. “I look forward to getting back what I did before. We’re proud of what we did, but it was a huge sacrifice. We need to adjust our lives, and getting back to normalcy.
“I had a lot of kids e-mail me and it was great to be supported by the kids. I really missed being around young people every day. Sometimes being around only adults was a real drag. For my wife and I, life revolves around the school because we’re both teachers. I’m looking forward to having that back in our life.”
For Felchle, nothing beats living on the peninsula. The most simple pleasure of loading up his family, including the dog, and taking a drive in his pickup truck through the area is a special treat.
And he believes little else will compare with the days in Baghdad. From Oct. 10, 2004 through Jan. 21, 2006, the company lived together, worked together, protected together. They changed lives together, and together their lives were changed.
“This was the most significant event in all of our lives, I truly believe that,” Felchle said. “Whether people look at it in a positive light or not, it was difficult. To be away from my family, to be in the conditions we were in, I’m very proud of what we did. I feel that we helped people in Iraq have a better life. So I’m very proud of that.
“I truly believe it was the most significant event, and all 130-some guys are linked together. Regardless of what paths we choose, we’re always going to have that bond. ... It does link us together. They really are our band of brothers.”
Alan Wooten is a freelance writer who lives in Nikiski.
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