Kadner: Vallas talks about his time in combat in Afghanistan
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org January 30, 2013 9:02PM
After being a world away from civilian life Paul Vallas Jr. returned from military service in Afghanistan and talks about his experiences there, in Tinley Park, Illinois, Monday, January 28, 2013. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 2, 2013 7:41AM
Paul Vallas returned from the war in Afghanistan months ago, but he continues to fight a battle that began in a foreign land.
“You can leave a war zone, but it never leaves you,” Vallas said. “Whether you like it or not, it’s like a tattoo that’s going to be with you the rest of your life.”
Vallas, 24, the son of former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas and grandson of former Palos Heights Mayor Dean Koldenhoven, was a Navy corpsman assigned to a combat platoon with the 5th Marine Corps Regiment in Afghanistan from March to September of last year.
“You really didn’t worry about getting killed, as strange as that sounds,” he said. “You just accepted that as part of what you signed up for. You’ll live or you’ll die, and that’s not in your hands.
“But you are always on alert. Always living on the edge, keeping your eyes and ears open for signs of danger.
“What you’re most worried about is making some mistake, missing something that could cost the lives of your buddies or result in somebody’s death. And you can’t just turn that off when you come home.”
As a corpsman, Vallas provided medical care not only to the men in his unit but to civilians.
“There are terrible, indescribable injuries to civilians there from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that are like land mines,” he said.
He cared for many of those who were injured before they were shipped off to hospitals for treatment.
Part of his mission included going on patrol with the Marines, hunting for the Taliban, but another part was assuring the civilian population that Americans were there to serve and protect them.
“The Taliban are always threatening people in villages if they don’t cooperate and sometimes take punitive measures against them if they don’t,” Vallas said.
Language often was a barrier in getting to know the locals, although interpreters were often available.
“They teach you a few words before shipping you out, but it really isn’t conversational,” he said. “Some of the guys picked up a little of the language over there, but for the most part we relied on interpreters.”
During the summer months, Vallas said, temperatures often hit 130 degrees, “and you could say you get used to it, but you don’t really. It’s really, really hot.”
On patrols, Vallas said his platoon leaders tried to make sure that he was in the rear, a location as safe as possible “because if I get wounded, the rest of the guys are in a lot of trouble. There’s no one else to take care of them. So they really tried to make sure I was always as safe as possible.”
But there is no safety on a battlefield, or away from it, if you’re in a war.
“A friend I grew up with in Beverly was killed in action,” Vallas said. “We played baseball together.”
Connor Lowry, 24, was a Humvee gunner.
“I’ve made a vow to go over to his mother’s house and be there for her on every Veterans Day and Memorial Day,” Vallas said. “Those days are special now. They mean a lot to anyone who has been in the service and lost a buddy.”
But not all the casualties of war happen in combat. After returning to the U.S., Vallas befriended a Navy SEAL who had left the service.
“I was having a hard time adjusting, and he and I and another veteran would get together and talk and it helped a lot,” Vallas said. “No one can know what you’ve gone through unless they’ve been through it themselves.”
On Veterans Day last year, Vallas was in the San Diego apartment of that Navy Seal, Robert Guzzo, 33, when he shot himself.
“He ended his life in front of me,” Vallas said. “I tried to help him, but I couldn’t save his life. And this was the guy who was helping me adjust.”
There are those who believe that everyone who serves in the military is a hero. Vallas quickly dismisses the label.
“The heroes are the guys who died on the field of battle or those who left pieces of themselves there,” he said. “I’m no hero.”
Yet, it’s obvious Vallas left a piece of himself in Afghanistan.
“I would do it again,” he said. “I wanted to serve my country.”
But he quickly adds that if this country were to launch another war somewhere in the world, he would urge caution.
“I would be against the idea because it’s a terrible thing to put people through,” he said. “You can’t understand it unless you’ve been there. I guess you could say, I’m anti-war now.”
Vallas has tried going back to college but has trouble focusing. He lives in Palos Heights with his mother.
“I have trouble sleeping,” he said. “I have nightmares. And I’m still in this state of high alert, just always on the lookout for some possible danger, even though I know I’m safe at home.
“I talk to other veterans a lot about it, and that seems to help. And there are short periods of time when these feelings go away.
“I know I’m going to adjust at some point, but I guess it just doesn’t seem to be happening quick enough.”
Vallas wears a black memorial bracelet on his wrist, “hero bracelets” they’re called, that lists the names of several Marines killed in combat along with that of his buddy Lowry.
I don’t think he needs that bracelet to remember the dead. He carries them, and wounds that can’t be seen, with him all the time.
I should point out that was not the purpose of his visit to my office. His proud grandfather had sent a photograph of Vallas taken in Afghanistan that had touched me, and I wanted to know more about it.
But I came away with a different kind of story.
Americans need to do more than build memorials to the war dead. We need to do a better job of helping the living, the walking wounded who return.
“I know how lucky I am,” Vallas told me. “I survived and came back home in one piece. But you want to be happy again. Cheerful. Yet you’re always battling mental enemies.
“You can come back home. But it’s not like throwing off a light switch and it’s done. You can’t shut it off.”