“Culture shock” is a bit of an understatement when describing the transition from Wagener, S.C., to the war-torn streets of Iraq.
For Johnny Strang, who celebrated his 19th birthday in Baghdad, returning to civilian life had just as many challenges, though.
“It’s the little things,” Strang said about the months-long adjustment for veterans. “I dropped an ‘f-bomb’ in front of my grandma. It just slipped out, but I regret it to this day.”
Strang, 27, has a broad view of the war in Iraq after three deployments, beginning with the 2003 invasion, a stint from 2004-05 and a final mission in 2010.
“It was the adventure of a lifetime, really,” he said.
He describes the invasion in 2003 as a “wild, wild West” experience. The rules of engagement were loose, and the enemy usually wore a uniform of some sort. There were more restrictions on the second deployment, however, and the advent of suicide bombers and guerrilla warfare made it difficult to distinguish friend from foe.
Even in the thick of a tough deployment, Strang said the Iraqi people were grateful and friendly toward American troops.
“I’ve seen some horrible things happen to Americans and Iraqis. But we did good things over there, too,” Strang said.
He found the country significantly changed when he arrived in 2010. Saddam Hussein had been captured, tried and executed; the Iraqi army and police had assumed many of the responsibilities of the U.S. forces.
“The mission had already changed a lot,” Strang said.
As part of a transportation and convoy security unit, Strang didn’t have the same combat experience as troops raiding houses in Fallujah. Still, there’s a perception that it’s only the troops who participated in heavy “Rambo-style” fighting who have trouble adjusting back home, he said.
Strang said that when he came home he sorely missed the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers; it’s hard to relate to friends back home after a year spent overseas. It’s also tough integrating back into a world where work is scarce and food and shelter aren’t free.
Strang matured during his deployments, even as Iraq changed. Seeing the improvements in the nation changed his mindset about the religion, the people and the country. From his perspective, a lot of good was accomplished.
“I’ve always been very supportive of the mission,” Strang said.