When combat veteran Andrew Burt returned to the United States after a year in Iraq, he felt a little like a time traveler.
In a relatively short time, gas prices had shot up and all of a sudden everyone was walking around wearing earbuds.
"When I came home, headphones (everywhere) seemed like the new thing -- even in grocery stores," he said. "I was used to people having iPods when they were running or on the bus, but now people are using them constantly."
Returning veterans face a number of changes when they come home from combat -- from the small cultural shifts Burt describes to major life decisions, like figuring out what's next after leaving the military.
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Add on to that the adjustment of living with family again after a long absence and the stress of navigating government bureaucracy to sign up for benefits, and post-military life can be overwhelming for a newly discharged veteran.
But many vets find success with the help of others who have been there, and by finding what one advocate termed a "second mission" into which they can channel their energy and focus.
"I feel that the second mission is a really, really big thing," said Jason Alves, VetCorps representative at Washington State University Tri-Cities, and a veteran himself.
"Veterans have this connection to something bigger. When they get out of the service they miss being part of that," he said.
Finding a new purpose outside of the military can help veterans make sense of a world that to them may seem disordered and chaotic.
Burt, now a WSU Tri-Cities student, said the minutia of civilian life and having to make decisions about small things sometimes was overwhelming after he returned from Iraq in 2010.
"When I came home, it was really difficult," he said. "I was so used to getting into that mode of being in the military -- always being told what to do and where to go. When you come home, you have freedom. I wasn't quite sure what to do with that."
Kelly Snell, veterans employment representative for WorkSource Columbia Basin, told the Herald that not only is a "second mission" important, but veterans also need a second unit or team to help them succeed.
"The thing is in the military, the soldier ... you're kind of taught the bare bones, the essence of what teamwork is," Snell said. "You're taught to do your job and be 100 percent confident the person next to you is doing their job and it'll all come together. They come back and that doesn't exist out here now. They need a team."
Snell said when he meets veterans recently separated from the military, he works to give them the structure and guidance they need until they're ready to stand alone.
He also battles the misperception that military skills don't translate into the civilian world.
"Everybody likes to say military skills don't translate. Everything they did in the military world translates," he said.
Often it's a matter of teaching veterans to talk about their military service in language civilian employers understand and focusing on broader-based skills rather than specific activities.
"So many employers are opening their eyes in Benton and Franklin counties to what veterans are and what veterans can do for them," Snell said.
Employment is only one challenge. Many veterans bear psychological scars from the stress of combat, but Alves said a "second mission" can help them heal.
Burt said he has some lingering anxiety related to his time in Iraq. Two years after leaving, Burt still feels a prickling sense of awareness whenever he drives over a highway overpass.
Burt enlisted in the Army National Guard while still in high school and shipped to Iraq in 2009.
He spent more than a year in the conflict-ridden desert nation as a driver transporting military goods and troops as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
And in Iraq, overpasses are dangerous places.
"I would have to do a scan. I was in the mode of 'I've got to get to my place I'm going really quick before something happens,' " Burt said. "To this point, I still have anxiety sometimes when I do certain things. ... It's one of those things that takes a while to go away."
But through the support of fellow veterans, Burt learned that what he's experiencing is a normal reaction to the heightened stress of being in the middle of a combat zone.
He also found his "second mission" through attending college and with the help of Alves and other members of the Veterans Coalition and Support student organization of which Burt now is vice president.
It was a process of first thinking he wanted to follow a family tradition and go into law enforcement, but eventually the teaching bug bit and Burt now is majoring in education and minoring in history. He ultimately would like to become a college history professor teaching military history.
He also enjoys helping others through the student veterans club.
"I think it's one of those things -- you have to have something else to do to take your mind off (combat)," Burt said. "One focus of the veterans club is to help with those kinds of things -- to transition into the civilian world and enjoy your time being back. If you need help, there are people who know what you've gone through. A lot of people need to talk. Having someone who's been through it makes it easier."
Geoff Smith, an Iraq War veteran, said his "second mission" has involved "paying it forward" by helping other veterans get connected to benefits.
Smith served in the Army in Iraq providing security for convoys from 2005-06. He enlisted as an 18-year-old after seeing the 9/11 terrorist attacks happen early in his senior year of high school.
He said his transition happened fast -- he found himself a civilian just 30 days after being in combat.
But he couldn't shake his memories of Iraq. They resurfaced in his thoughts again and again.
"That can eat your lunch and consume you if you let it," Smith said.
He found help from Vietnam veterans Mike Black and Jack Carolla who steered him onto a path that led him to working at the Columbia Basin Veterans Coalition, where he helps veterans file for disability claims and is working on getting accredited by the Vietnam Veterans of America as a veterans service officer.
He also earned an associate's degree in criminal justice from Columbia Basin College, and is working on transferring so he can earn his bachelor's. His ultimate goal is to get a master's in social work and possibly work counseling veterans.
"Every bit of work I plan on doing from now until I'm six feet under will involve veterans," Smith said. "I owe it to other veterans who aren't here. I have a personal obligation to fulfill. There are veterans I owe it to."
Resources for veterans
* Jonathan Wainright Memorial VA Medical Center, Walla Walla: 509-525-5200, www.wallawalla.va.gov
* Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs: 800-562-0132, www.dva.wa.gov
* Columbia Basin Veterans Coalition: 545-6558, bit.ly/vetscoalition
* WorkSource Columbia Basin: 734-5949, bit.ly/worksource
* WSU Tri-Cities Office of Veterans Affairs: 372-7143, bit.ly/wsutcveterans
* Columbia Basin College veterans services: 542-4633, bit.ly/cbcveterans...