Daniel Fondonella will tell you he’s a lucky man. Unlike 16 of his fellow Westchester servicemen, he came back alive. (You’ll find their names on a plaque by The Rising 9/11 memorial in Kensico Park.) The early days of his return, when loud noises startled him and some guy called him a baby-killer, are behind him. He doesn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a harrowing psychological condition that afflicts 20 percent of servicemen and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike 15 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he has a job. He got married earlier this year and has an apartment in Yonkers.
In a way, Westchester County’s veterans are like Fondonella’s dog tags: hiding in plain sight. According to figures provided by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office, of the estimated 40,000 veterans from New York State under the age of 30 who served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, an estimated 726 live in Westchester County. Hard numbers are hard to come by. “Because of Department of Defense privacy restrictions, the Westchester County Veterans Affairs department isn’t notified when a veteran returns home,” says county spokesperson Jessica Pride, “so we can only guesstimate the numbers.”
“There are veterans everywhere,” says Christopher Arnold, who should know. He’s a former Army sergeant who served in Iraq for 10 months and was recently discharged from the Reserves. Now he’s the chief of staff for State Assemblyman Bob Castelli, a Vietnam vet and tireless advocate for veterans’ causes. Castelli is leading the opposition to a federal plan to shut down Montrose VA hospital, which has one of the leading treatment programs for TBI and PTSD, so that developers can replace it with luxury condos.
While many veterans come back “okay” from the two wars, says Arnold, others battle to pull their lives together, searching for relevance and empathy in an affluent area where residents can turn off the wars by turning off the TV.
Arnold spent his first three months after coming home to Yorktown Heights from Iraq “locked up in my parents’ house, processing what had happened.” He finished school, managed a friend’s restaurant, and looked for an office job. He thought he’d nailed a managerial position but later found he lost it because the company was reluctant to hire a reservist. “What employer wants to hire you when you could be deployed?”
Zach Quadland, 23, left active duty last May and came home to Bedford Hills, where he lives with his mother in a house that’s for sale. After four years in the Marine infantry, he has seen more than most kids his age. A sort of nervous energy seems to possess him, as if his combat experience still inhabits his musculature. He has two tattoos: under his right bicep, “warrior” in Hebrew with spearheads; under his left, the initials “USMC” and a knife. He wears a remembrance bracelet “for one of my boys who got killed in Afghanistan. He got blown up, an IED [improvised explosive device]. I’d rather not talk about it.”
Quadland had wanted to be in the Marines since he was seven, when his dad, a Vietnam vet, took him and his younger brother to an Army-Navy surplus store in Brewster. “I was eighteen three days after I graduated high school and went to boot camp. I was nineteen when I went to Iraq and a combat veteran at twenty.”
By 2008, he was a member of the Second Battalion Ninth Marines, trained to be point man for a sniper team. But once he got to Iraq, he ended up guarding detainees and working a security detail in Ramadi. By that time, he was a platoon sergeant, third in command for his unit. A day after the Iraqi man threw a shoe at then-President Bush’s head, Quadland and his 14-member unit had to fend off “a lynch mob” of college students. “We were surrounded by two hundred guys who were chucking rocks. Insurgents were using the college kids for cover, and we were taking random pot shots from a guy on the corner.”
Despite this, Quadland calls his time in Iraq “fairly inactive.” But Afghanistan’s Haman Province in 2009 was another story. “Where we were was the most kinetic area of operations that any unit had since Vietnam. We were averaging three firefights a day every day for five months.” His unit was hunkered down in a camp near acres of marijuana fields. Every day there was what the unit called “happy hour.”
“Between four-thirty and dusk, they’d attack the patrol base, shoot machine guns, and RPGs. It was more harassment than anything. We’d shoot back and they’d go home and call it a night. I don’t think you can ever go through that kind of thing and come back the exact same way you left.” Quadland spends his days smoking Parliaments, walking his rescue dog, Beast, doing odd jobs for friends, going to the gym, and hanging out at the Mount Kisco Fire Department, where he’s volunteered since he was 17. He’s hoping to get into the NYPD Police Academy and is biding his time taking classes in sociology and Arabic at Westchester Community College.
The assumption that he’s a ticking time bomb is probably the biggest challenge Quadland faces. Like when people ask him if he’s ever killed someone, a topic he would rather not talk about. “One of my senior guys explained it to me the best: if I tell you I never fired my weapon, people think you’re a coward; if I tell you I fired my weapon and killed people, the subconscious assumption is, this guy’s a killer. There are people who still get nervous around people from the military.”
The rift is generational. He recalls wearing his Marine uniform to his younger brother’s graduation from The Masters School in Dobbs Ferry. The parents and grandparents came up to him and thanked him for his service. “But the kids, my brother’s friends, gave me a look like I’d just shot their dog.”
It’s a sentiment you hear a lot from veterans: the general public just doesn’t get it. They’ve never been there. They don’t know how to act around former soldiers. “Everybody always assumes I’m suffering from PTSD. I’ll talk with a friend I haven’t seen in a while, and he’ll be like, ‘So, you good?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ And he’s like, ‘No, are you good?’”
For veterans suffering chronic physical or emotional effects of combat, getting to “good” is an uphill battle. It has taken Carleen Levy years to get to “good.” Levy, 33, the human resources manager at Candela Systems Corporation in Somers, is in her 14th year in the Army Reserves, and they haven’t always been easy.
Levy was raised in Port Chester, a first-generation American born to Caribbean parents. She joined the Army Reserves in 1997, when she was 19, after her first year of college. Levy was assigned to the 411 Civil Affairs Battalion out of Danbury, Connecticut. She was sent to Kosovo in 2000, came home, got married in 2002, had a baby daughter in 2003. Her job was to prepare the battalion for deployment to Iraq and then stay behind to provide family support stateside. She traveled with the troops to Fort Bragg to see the battalion off. Things didn’t go as planned.
“While we were there, the general at Fort Bragg said all trained Civil Affairs operators needed to go down-range,” she recalls. “They gave me two weeks to come home to Mount Vernon and put my affairs together.” Her husband was not happy: “His attitude was, I didn’t sign up to be a single parent. He wanted me out of the military.”
Levy and the CA 411 ended up in Tikrit, living in an old hospital on Saddam’s compound. Her job was to “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqis by helping rebuild the country, foster democracy, and oversee the elections, but this did not mean they were safe. She drove roads where any pile of trash, even a soda can, could be an IED. Insurgents would mortar the chow hall at lunchtime, and a suicide bomber drove a van into the gate. “There was never a moment’s peace.”
Tensions at home made matters worse. She missed her daughter terribly. “It was really difficult.” Eventually, her husband began pulling away. “It was easier in his mind to write me off and plan on me not returning home.” Levy became depressed and anxious, and it wasn’t just the home front. The growing number of women entering the military brings with it inevitable sexual side effects ranging from affairs to unwanted advances to rape. It is called military sexual trauma (MST), and the military is only now addressing it head-on. “Sometimes the enemy isn’t always outside the gates,” she says.
Levy came home in July 2005 to a daughter who didn’t know her and a marriage on the brink. She and her husband separated. Suddenly single, Levy struggled to readjust to civilian life. She suffered anxiety attacks and nightmares. She clearly remembers the day when she had to “snap back to reality.” Briefly reunited for the sake of their daughter, she and her husband went shopping. After putting her daughter in the car seat, she noticed a plastic bag of garbage on the ground by the passenger door. In Iraq it could have harbored a bomb, not fast food wrappers. “I stretched and tried to leap over it to get into the car because I was so nervous. And I remember him saying, ‘Hon, you’re home, you’re not overseas. You can step on the bag.”
A therapist at the James J. Peters Medical Center in the Bronx diagnosed her with PTSD and major depressive disorder. She reached her breaking point right before Christmas of 2008. In the midst of divorcing, she was driving north on I-87 when she was struck by an anxiety attack at the tolls near Costco and Home Depot. “I started weaving by the toll booth. A state trooper pulled me over to the side, and I was crying hysterically and hyperventilating. I’d managed to dial my therapist at the VA. The therapist told the cop to call an ambulance.”
She spent a week in the hospital. “The stress of it all was taking control of me.” Today, Levy is in a good place. She got a master’s in human resources and found work at Siemens (formerly Bayer HealthCare) in Tarrytown, and in 2010, joined Candela Systems, which retrofits companies with more efficient lighting systems. Thanks to a recruiting effort started by company owner James S. Bernardo, six of Candela’s 27 employees are military veterans. “I find that people of military backgrounds are there to do the job and do the job right. We’re not watching the time, stopping every two minutes for a cigarette break. The rigid structure we’ve developed throughout our service works well here at Candela.”
Levy hopes to get in her 20 years and get retirement benefits. She knows there is “a very good chance” she’ll be redeployed in the next two years, and she’s preparing for it: rewriting her will, arranging custody for her daughter, now eight. They are very close now. When Levy goes to drills once a month, “she calls me every minute. The hardest thing is when I put on my uniform to go to my unit, and she says, ‘Mommy you’re coming home, right?’”
Philip Bauer isn’t from Westchester, but he’s found a home here, thanks to Project HEAL, a Dobbs Ferry-based nonprofit that provides service dogs to disabled veterans. Based at Children’s Village, it is a program of East Coast Assistance Dogs (ECAD), a nonprofit group that trains and provides service dogs to the disabled, including veterans. It began in 2009 as a Wednesday program where vets could come help train the dogs and work with the kids at Children’s Village.
“We found out there were a lot of veterans who had a hard time getting out of their homes, being part of society,” says program director Barbara Jenkel. “So far we’ve given twenty dogs to veterans from all over the country. All of them have some form of PTSD, some have TBI, loss of limbs, bad backs.” Bauer is one of them. He is from a tiny farming and factory town in upstate New York. At 25, a husband and father, he joined the Army three months before 9/11, and less than a year later found himself in Fallujah, part of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, tasked with route reconnaissance (“paint a target on yourself and see if someone’s gonna hit you”). After eight months he was given three weeks of leave in Qatar. During the chopper flight from Al Asad Airbase to Baghdad airport, insurgents brought down the Chinook; 18 people died, 15 survived. Bauer lay trapped under the helicopter for two hours as fire licked at his legs. He was able to pull one foot out after the fire melted his boot, but the right leg was too burned and broken to save. After 12 surgeries, doctors at Walter Reed removed his leg below the knee.
“I became an amputee on Thanksgiving morning of 2003,” says the stocky 35-year-old. “I took my retirement, went home, and spent the next five and a half years trying to kill myself in one shape or form.” Those forms included drugs, alcohol, and a suicide attempt after his wife left him, taking their three children with her. “I came back a completely different person. I started to feel that nobody needed me.”
Bauer ended up in Jacksonville, Florida, in a Wounded Warrior Project, trying to go to school and battling his PTSD. “I wanted to crawl into a cave and be left alone. I felt like I had no purpose, so why am I even a part of life?” His service liaison found out about Project HEAL, but he was skeptical. “I didn’t even want human interaction, how was I going to be around a dog?”
Bauer moved up to Dobbs Ferry and spent two weeks learning how to train a dog to help him get through the day. Project Heal uses the at-risk kids who live at Children’s Village to help train the dogs, and Bauer connected with the kids in a life-changing way. “The giving-back process that I get out of this gives me that sense of purpose that I felt I lost.”
Bauer ended up coming on staff at ECAD, and he lives here with his service dog, Reese, a handsome Golden Retriever specially bred for service dog duty. “Reese helps me go into public, to not feel quite so awkward. In crowds he blocks and covers for me. He picks things up for me, turns on the lights for me, brings me my leg if it’s across the room. He always looks like he actually cares.” Bauer sees himself living in Westchester long-term; he likes the parks and the people. “It’s a very supportive, caring community,” he says. “Love and support: you’d be shocked how far you get with just that.”
Dana White is a freelance writer in Ossining. She co-authored a memoir, The Heart of a Soldier: A True Story of Love, War and Sacrifice, with Army Captain Kate Blaise (Gotham Books, 2006). White’s father, Cdr. Danforth E. White, was a navy pilot shot down over Laos in 1969. This story is in his memory.