Author Ryan A. Conklin and his mother Pat Conklin were guests on the radio show “Radio Times” on station WHYY, discussing Ryan’s experience as a soldier in Iraq. Ryan Conklin was on the show to promote his book, An Angel From Hell.
The host of the show, Marty Moss-Coane, spoke to Ryan about how some soldiers struggle when they come home from a deployment, trying to adjust back into civilian life. Ryan remarked how the Army didn’t take steps to ensure people integrated back into society. His experience was that he came back to the U.S. and right away got processed out and was quickly back at home with his parents. It happened so quickly, Ryan didn’t have time to adjust. It left him feeling like he was on his own, just drifting around. Not knowing what to do going forward, he looked back with a sense that he still had unfinished business with the military, that he was out of place being away from it. He didn’t have anything in his at-home life that filled the void of the detachment. He missed a lot of things he had become accustomed to, especially the camaraderie of his buddies.
Ryan said that compounding that is that it isn’t possible to flip the switch to move from a combat mentality to a civilian one. In Iraq, the soldiers were constantly on guard in their minds with the anticipation of some attack, no matter what they were doing. When they come home, their mindset is still that way. It’s a struggle to deal with coming down from that apprehension. The host noted that in the MTV documentary about Ryan, Return to Duty, Ryan’s brother and sister remarked how vigilant Ryan was when he returned to his home town of Gettysburg. Ryan agreed, saying that seeing even a single piece of garbage on the highway would make his heart speed up, as his mind considered that it could be something that might blow up. Many other things would effect him adversely as well, such a loud noises from construction sites or traffic.
Ryan’s parents were watching Ryan to see how he was adapting to normal life. His mom could see how he was struggling. She suggested that he do something constructive with a stack of old printed emails – emails that Ryan had sent from Iraq to his parents detailing his experience there. She told him it would be good for him to use them as a basis for opening up and expressing himself through writing. Marty asked Pat about the emails and Pat explained why she had kept them for giving to Ryan when he returned home. Ryan is considered the historian in the family. He is very much into family genealogy. As all the family are history buffs, she felt that the emails would be worth holding on to, not knowing when Ryan might want to refer back to them to revisit what had occurred. Ryan did use the emails, and with them wrote An Angel From Hell.
Marty also asked Pat about an earlier experience when she had had to do something for Ryan: sign her permission for the then 17 year old Ryan to join the Army. Pat acknowledged that it was very hard for her to do. She was concerned for her son, but she could see that Ryan had thought through his plans well. He meticulously explained why he was doing it and how he would use it later in life. It took awhile to convince Pat, but reluctantly she acceded to her son’s intent.
Marty asked Pat about the emotion she clearly felt at the airport watching Ryan say goodbye as he left to return to the Army, as seen in the documentary Return to Duty. Pat said it was very emotional for the whole family and hard on all of them. She felt it was probably hard for Ryan too, but he doesn’t say much to his parents about what happens after he is out of their sight. It was actually harder the second time that Ryan went into the Army because the family knew what had happened during the first deployment. As a parent feeling the responsibility to protect her child and knowing she couldn’t, she was distraught about seeing him go.
Marty remarked that at the airport it was clear the family was trying to protect one another. Pat replied that the family didn’t want to put an additional burden on a departing soldier. They didn’t want him to to be concerned about how the family was bearing up. Once he was in Iraq they would again try to mask their concern, using humor when he called or wrote. They wanted to show Ryan that they were going to be okay.
With the communication with Iraq. there was the difficult situation with the blackouts. Where there was an incident with casualties, the Army would put a blackout on the internet and phone connections, to control the release of information about it. Ryan had warned his parents about it. He told them that if they didn’t hear anything for several days, that’s good. The Army would notify the family within 48 hours if their loved one had been injured, so if 48 hours had passed, they would know they were okay. The time during the 48 hour wait periods was very slow. Pat would want to communicate with Ryan, to know how he was doing, how he was feeling, what he was eating, and other parental concerns.
Something that Pat and her husband never needed to say to Ryan was their views on the war. Ryan still doesn’t know what his parents’ view is. What he does know is their faithful support of the soldiers in Iraq and how proud his parents are of him and what he has accomplished during the years of his young life.