CORVALLIS — John Anderson, a sergeant in the Oregon National Guard, was still surprised when he arrived in Iraq in summer 2003, just as the celebration of victory was giving way to the chaos of insurgency.
He'd joined up four years earlier, a thoughtful and independent 17-year-old high school senior not interested in college. After 9/11, he and the other Guard members knew they'd be called up, but figured they'd serve in the U.S., or fill in at bases in peaceful areas around the globe.
But the Oregon troops were ordered into the thick of it. Posted 30 miles south of Baghdad, the unit had the task of keeping a main supply route open. They spent weeks and months on foot patrol, watching for insurgents who might be planting roadside bombs.
"No one saw how intense it would be," says Anderson, son of John and Barb Anderson, the deacon and pastoral associate at St. Mary Parish here.
Anderson helped kick down some doors, clearing houses of suspected combatants. But the next day, he'd be standing on a corner, laughing with Iraqi children, or shaking the hand of a grateful village leader. Women in colorful dress, not yet oppressed into seclusion by radical leaders, would greet the troops. Anderson was the first American many of the people had ever seen.
Insurgents avoided firefights with the highly-trained and heavily-armed U.S. patrols. Instead, the targets were convoys. Blowing up supply trucks, the reasoning went, was the safest way to foil the campaign.
"It was a strange situation," Anderson recalls. "They would leave us alone and go after the support units. We would go through a village and see everyone leave, but when the MPs or a support and supply convoy would come through, they'd get shot at and blown up."
Anderson and fellow Guard members did see sniper fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar attacks.
"It's kind of a surreal thing," he says of being assaulted by rounds falling from the sky. "It doesn't bother you at the time, it bothers you afterwards. That's because there's nothing you can do at the time. It's such a random event."
During that early stage of the war, U.S. troop vehicles lacked armor. Many didn't even have doors. Soldiers died and were injured by what commanders called "improvised explosive devices."
That first deployment would last 13 months. When he arrived home at age 21, he could not find a job. The economy was sagging in 2004, too.
"After all I'd done in the military, the only job I was guaranteed to get was to go in and be a security guard," he says.
There were hard times in his spirit as well. Moving from intense military life to the civilian world made him feel lost.
"When you're deployed, you are so driven by necessity and you know what you need to do," Anderson explains. "You come home and there's nothing that's going to drive you in the same way. You build this identity but when you come home that identity is gone."
People on the street and employers — even if they said, "Thank you for your service" — didn't seem to care about what had made him a valuable soldier.
Anderson felt isolated and kept it that way. He floated around for four or five years, well into his mid-20s.
The Veterans Administration's 1-800 numbers and seminars offered only shallow, dissatisfying assistance. "The talk about being there to help veterans is very superficial," he says. "People want to hear the easy answer. It's a tough time all the way around. There's no easy solution to get people taken care of and get them what they need."
The National Guard tries to offer help to soldiers with post-traumatic stress, but since Guard members fan out to hundreds of civilian lives, the logistics don't work well, Anderson says.
He joined a veterans' support group at St. Mary Parish and was able to process some of the confusion and anxiety. He started his own yard business and felt hope.
His second deployment lasted 10 months during 2009-'10. He was based in southern Iraq at Camp Adder, which contains the ancient city of Ur, traditional birthplace of Abraham. Combat had ceased. Anderson commanded a scout vehicle that cleared the way for convoys traveling all over the country. It was stressful work, scanning the path for roadside bombs and urging Iraqi citizens and their various conveyances — from cars to goats — out of the way.
Anderson managed to avert the blasts. "I've always had really good luck with IEDs," he says.
Now, at 29, he's still enlisted and could possibly be sent somewhere again.
"It definitely took some getting used to," he says of the life of a part-time warrior. "I won't say I've enjoyed it, but here I am twelve years later. With the economy and the way things have gone, we need the benefits." He and wife Tonya have two children, ages 7 and 13.