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At home again.

Marine copes with life after Iraq

By Jordan Dresser

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Sometimes, silence will tell you everything.

On the morning of Feb. 5, Emery'l LeBeau walks calmly from room to room in her apartment, preparing to spend eight hours selling iPods and CD players in the electronics department at Laramie's Wal-Mart. She is careful to be quiet. She gathers things and treks wordlessly back upstairs wearing a towel on her head to dry her hair.

Soon she descends, carrying her 1-year-old son Noah to the kitchen for a snack while he looks around with wide eyes.

In the living room pictures of Noah and his brother Jacob, 7, are everywhere. LeBeau sits on the couch next to Noah's father, boyfriend Lance Corporal Norman Willow Jr. of the United States Marine Corps, and begins feeding the baby yogurt.

Willow and LeBeau, both Northern Arapaho, met in eighth grade but didn't become a couple until they began exchanging e-mails when he was in Iraq early in 2005. After he returned home to the Wind River Indian Reservation in March 2005, he moved to Laramie where LeBeau attends the University of Wyoming, and there he has stayed.

The living room is calm. The only sound, just loud enough to hear, comes from the television playing the latest music videos from Chris Brown, Alicia Keys and T-Pain. LeBeau eyes the clock because she has to be to work in a few minutes. Without a word, Willow takes the yogurt from her and begins feeding Noah. He does it because he knows it needs to be done. LeBeau leaves and drives to work.


Since Willow returned from Iraq, LeBeau said, she has tried to keep things quiet and to be gentle with him to ease his anxiety. It's not difficult for her to do.

''It's in my nature,'' LeBeau, 26, said. ''I'm a pretty quiet person.''

While Willow was in Iraq, LeBeau said, she kept the TV tuned to news, wanting to make sure he was OK. To ease her concern, she stayed busy by doing homework, spending time with Jacob and praying.

Seeing Willow after his return from Iraq was a special moment, LeBeau said. The airport in Casper, Wyo., was filled with his family, friends and a local TV crew.

''It was like the whole rez was there,'' LeBeau said with a laugh.

Willow took his time greeting loved ones and being interviewed by reporters, she said. Amid the chaos, he turned around, and there was LeBeau. They greeted each other and talked for a bit before he was whisked away. A sense of relief overcame her once she had seen him. She thought it was cool that in a room full of people, he could sense her standing behind him.

That is how it has been ever since. She has stood behind and supported him through the good and bad times of adjusting to life after war.

Easing anxiety

Back at the apartment on the morning of Feb. 5, between giving Noah spoonfuls of yogurt, Willow begins to explain how being a marine and going to Iraq changed him.

''I got a short fuse,'' Willow, 26, says. ''At the drop of a hat, I will get mad.''

After he went to a Veterans Administration clinic, Willow says, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was given pills to ease anxiety attacks, but no longer takes them because they make him feel tired, drugged out. He has found something that does ease his anxiety and anger - a child sitting in front of him eating yogurt.

''I just try to find out other ways to make myself chill out,'' Willow says while parked with Noah. ''Especially this guy makes me chill right here. Since he was born ... it's crazy. Maybe he is something sent to calm me down.''

When Willow hears a strange noise, he says, he jumps and feels nervous. When he has an anxiety attack, he experiences shortness of breath, and his heart races. He surmounts the discomfort by breathing and reminding himself that ''I'm in the states now, I'm all right.''

LeBeau said she rubs Willow's back and head to help him through anxiety attacks. ''I just talk to him and try to get his mind off whatever is bothering him,'' she said.

A large wooden flute atop the entertainment center in the living room also substitutes for his pills, Willow said. After buying it at a pow wow this year, he has taught himself to play a few songs and turns to it when he needs to quell anger and anxiety.

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''I'm getting pretty good at it,'' Willow said. ''I taught myself. That kind of soothes me. I just sit there and play it.''

His flute music soothes everyone in the house, LeBeau said. Noah ''loves it,'' she said. ''He sits down on the floor and watches his dad play. It calms him down. It calms everyone down.''

'You kind of lose it'

Willow, whose father and grandfather are Army veterans, grew up on the Wind River Reservation and remembers watching Marine Corps television commercials there. He said he always wanted to be a marine but didn't think that was possible until recruiters spoke to him while he was in high school in 2001.

''They said, 'Do you want to join the marines?' and I said, 'Sign me up.'''

After 13 weeks of boot camp, 52 days of infantry training and nearly two years as a security guard at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Willow said, he learned that he was headed for Iraq. On July 5, 2004, he shipped out for duty with the 2nd platoon of Alpha Company, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines.

Though scared, Willow said, he realized that there was no time to be afraid because he had to do his job as an infantryman. Months of enduring vehicle bombs, intense heat and the deaths of fellow marines affected him.

''It feels like if I'm going to die, I'm going to die, and if I'm going to live, I'm going to live,'' Willow said. ''You really don't care after awhile. You kind of lose it, lose your mind.''

When he felt weak, he prayed, Willow said. Before he left for Iraq, his great-grandmother had blessed him with a medicine that he believes helped to protect him. ''It felt like a shield around me ... it just felt powerful,'' he said.

In February 2005, Willow learned that he would be leaving for home the next month. But instead of feeling joy on his last day in Iraq, Willow said, he had mixed emotions after learning that three of his friends, also scheduled to go home, had been killed when a car bomb detonated nearby.

''I was pissed, just pissed off,'' Willow said. ''We were all brothers.''

Hearing that, LeBeau said, made the war a reality for her. ''It's kind of heartbreaking to hear,'' she said. ''It's hard to hear.''

Arriving home wasn't as easy as he thought it would be, Willow said. On the first night, the excitement and anxiety were overwhelming. ''I had to drink whiskey just to pass out and go to sleep,'' he said.

Willow said he turned to alcohol in the first few months home just to deal with daily anxiety.

During those months, LeBeau said, she took a step back. ''I just kind of let him go,'' she said. ''I thought it was something he had to get out of his system and something he had to go through on his own.''

Living in Laramie, not being home on the reservation, is right for him, Willow said. ''Too much alcohol up there for me,'' Willow said with a laugh.

While he doesn't see a counselor for post-traumatic stress disorder, Willow says he is coping and that life is good. He works at Wal-Mart as a truck loader and started classes recently at Laramie Community College seeking a construction certificate. He said he wants to return to the reservation eventually, buy land and build a house for his family and LeBeau's.

''I just want to be happy,'' Willow said. ''There are going to be bumps in the road, and I just hope that we can all live together happy.''

Playing basketball, going to the park and hanging out at home with his family are his favorite ways of spending free time, Willow said. He likes watching war movies, but sometimes can get a little too involved in them.

''I find myself talking to the TV,'' Willow said, laughing. ''Emery'l has to say, 'Hey, this guy, chill out.'''

While she takes time to listen to Willow's war stories and helps him cope with anxiety attacks, LeBeau said she will never understand what he went through in Iraq. ''I don't act like I do because I never will. I just try and be there for him here and now.''

All she knows, LeBeau said, is what it's like living with a marine home from war.

This story originally was published by reznet (www.reznet, an online journalism training and mentoring program for Native American college students.