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POST-MILITARY LIFE: A new normal

When Daddy came home from the war, 7-year-old Brianna presented Sgt. 1st Class Erik Myrold with a hug and his first family Order of the Day: a laundry list of homecoming activities.

When Daddy came home from the war, 7-year-old Brianna presented Sgt. 1st Class Erik Myrold with a hug and his first family Order of the Day: a laundry list of homecoming activities.

Call it Brianna's version of a surge.

"She wanted to do everything on the list right away that first day," Myrold said recently, six months after returning from Iraq. "She wanted to wrestle with me. She wanted to play Barbies. She wanted to play outside."

The intensely scribbled list went on:

Go for a bike ride with Dad.

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Go swimming with Dad.

Go fishing. And hunting. With Dad.

A Minnesota National Guard soldier from Grand Forks, Myrold had been deployed to Iraq in March 2006 after six months of training in Mississippi. Counting an earlier deployment to Bosnia, he had been gone for 32 months - nearly three-fourths of the life of his younger daughter, Madison, and nearly half of Brianna's.

"I reminded her that Daddy is going to be home a long time now," he said. "We'd be able to do all those things on her list."

And they have.

For Myrold, 38, "reintegration" into life at home, into something the National Guard hopefully calls "the new normal," has gone about as smoothly as he and his family - and the Guard - hoped it would.

They credit a lot of talk and planning on their part, good community support and helpful guidance from the Guard's "Beyond the Yellow Ribbon" program, a groundbreaking effort aimed at easing the re-entry of returning soldiers.

"The best decision I made was to go right back to work" as a teacher at Grand Forks Central, Myrold said. "It gave me some structure. In the military, you get used to that discipline, and the daily routines at school were good for me.

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"It was my wife who recommended that."

Organizing

the home front

Marge Myrold, 36, had put a premium on structure and organization even before her husband went away to war. She had to. She teaches music full time at Thompson (N.D.) High School and is organist and choir director at the family's church, Wesley United Methodist in Grand Forks, in addition to her responsibilities for Madison, 5, and Brianna.

"Having him back certainly helps with the schedules," she said. "Running the household and the girls' schedules by yourself and not having any breathing time or break time - that was tough.

"I did have some people from church who helped, and a good babysitter. Basically, I learned to manage my time, get things done when the girls were in bed. There were lots of late nights, and you get up earlier so you can get things done before they get up.

"You have to be organized to survive. I think I did pretty well."

Now, the challenge lies in fitting Erik back into all that.

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"Toward the time he was supposed to come home, you worried about how you were going to be with another person around," Marge said. "Before, you made all the decisions. Now you had to discuss things again.

"I was wondering, too, how the girls would handle him being home. With Madison, he's been gone nearly three years out of her (first) four years of life. She was his little buddy before, spending a lot of time with him, but when he came home she was used to being with me more. She didn't really know who he was, and having him tell her what to do and what not to do scared her a little."

Brianna "understood the situation a little better," Marge said. "At school, the kids would talk about what they did with their parents. She listened to that and looked forward to him being home so she could do all those things, too."

The Myrolds took part in workshops organized by the Minnesota National Guard 30 days and 60 days after Erik's return.

"They give some good ideas, things to expect," Marge said. "But I don't think anybody can really explain what you'll go through. Everybody handles it differently when they get home. I know there are young couples hoping everything would go back to what it was, and it never will."

She and Erik "barked" at each other a few times as they felt for their new normal, "but we'd talk about it afterward and work through it," she said.

"He's less patient now. Sometimes he forgets he has to work with somebody else. When you're used to giving orders, it's easy to forget you have to ask somebody else what they think.

"Overall, I think we've done fairly well. There are lots of little glitches and things you work through, and that takes time and patience. We know that's something we're both a little short of because of what we've been through."

Erik admits to the occasional bout of impatience, but he said he feels generally "more calm" now than before his deployment.

"The small things don't bother me," he said. "The IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that were blown up on us, the loss of comrades - when you've had things like that happen to you, you see the small things for what they are."

The extension hurt

Erik Myrold grew up in Crookston and joined the Minnesota National Guard at age 18, nearly 20 years ago.

His unit, the Crookston-based Bravo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry, is part of the 34th Infantry Division, known as the Red Bulls.

They were deployed in October 2005 to Camp Shelby, Miss., for six months of training before shipping out in March 2006 for two weeks of in-theater training in Kuwait. Next stop was Camp Fallujah in Iraq, where their duty for the next year-plus was camp security "and the full range of combat operations," Myrold said.

They were supposed to return home in February 2007, but the unit's tour was extended as part of the surge.

"It was an especially hard time for us," Myrold said, in part because of the death on Jan. 9, 2007, of Sgt. James Wosika Jr., one of three members of Company B to die in Iraq within about five weeks.

"Soldiers were planning a memorial for him when news of the extension came," Myrold said.

He also had to explain the extension to Brianna.

"I had planned to be home by her birthday on May 1," he said. "I had to tell her that Daddy had to stay a little longer. She was disappointed, but she understood. She told me, 'I know you're helping people, helping kids over there, and doing a good job.'

"I thought that was pretty good for a 7-year-old."

Myrold was able to talk with his wife and daughters frequently by telephone. "It helped me, and I'm sure it helped them, too," he said. "We talked about how they were doing, school, swimming and gymnastics. It eased the separation some, but not being there with them was hard. You can't make up that time."

He finally got home July 27.

"First thing was a family hug, all four of us," he said.

Then came Brianna's list and a tentative start to a new relationship with her and Madison.

"They turned into young ladies while I was gone," he said, wonder still in his voice six months later. "They matured so much. They had to.

"I couldn't believe how independent Madison had become, and Brianna - her awareness of her environment and the world was amazing."

He was struck, too, by his own awareness of his surroundings as he settled into this familiar but new environment.

"Gravel roads were a little fuzzy when I first came home," he said. "All the IEDs we found and the IEDs that were detonated on us, for the most part, they were on gravel roads. They're very hard to see. For some of the soldiers coming back, that's a real problem, having to drive the rural roads of North Dakota and Minnesota."

But it was good to get back for deer hunting - and camping.

"I bought a camper when I got back," he said, laughing. "I vowed to never again have to sleep on the ground, and I have no desire to ever go someplace hot and sandy again. We went to Icelandic State Park in October. It rained and it was cold, and it was great."

A guest at home

He and Marge are adjusting to their new normal, including his day-to-day presence in a home that had to function without him for so long.

"As long as I do what she says, I'm fine," he said, smiling. Then, turning serious: "We began discussing it (by phone and in letters) in January, listing things that were different, how we were different. She explained how she was running things at home.

"We soldiers were told in the reintegration that for the first 30 days we should consider ourselves guests in our own homes. We should sit back, relax and see how things worked.

"The work and effort she put forth while I was gone is amazing. Just the schedule she kept up was amazing. We're harried now, and there are two of us."

On a recent Tuesday night, the whole family attended a high school basketball game in Thompson, where Madison took part in a halftime gymnastics routine. The next night, Brianna went to dance practice with dad while Madison rang bells at church with mom.

Of the Guard's reintegration program, "I think you get out of it what you put into it," Myrold said. "Marital support, mental health support, help looking for work - it was all available to you. If you already had good support at home, from friends and from coworkers, it wasn't needed so much."

Myrold said he still misses "seeing the other troops daily, just hanging around with them, and I miss planning and executing the mission. We were doing something worthwhile and rewarding in Iraq, and I couldn't be more proud of a group of individuals for what we went through."

For some returning troops, he said, it can be difficult to go back to jobs that seem not as important, not as exciting. But that wasn't a problem for him as he returned to the classroom at Central, where he teaches global education.

"In my case, I don't feel that I'm going back to something less valuable," he said.

He plans to draw on some of his experiences to talk about the Mideast, comparative religions and other subjects, and he willingly talks about the war and his part in it "if they ask," he said.

"They're curious about the climate. They ask what I did over there. I don't preach to them. They have their opinions on how the war is going.

"I've never been asked anything inappropriate, and I'm comfortable answering questions about most things. I'm impressed by the sensitivity of people, the compassion people express."

That includes a neighbor he and Marge didn't know well, a Vietnam veteran who walked over one day with a watermelon. He said he wanted the Myrolds to know he was thinking about them.

"When I meet Vietnam vets, I apologize to them," Erik Myrold said. "I apologize to them for the way they were treated compared to how we were treated when we came home."

Reach Chuck Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or chaga@gfherald.com .

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