Dickinson vet says fireworks remind him of gun fights in Afghanistan; works to reintegrate himself into a civilian life
While many in the city of Dickinson will attend or watch the Fourth of July Roughrider Days fireworks tonight, Styles Inmon probably won't.
It isn't that Inmon, 26, isn't patriotic or against pyrotechnics -- it's just that fireworks bring him back to a place a long way from summertime celebration.
"Usually when I heard a blast, it meant someone wasn't coming home," said Inmon, a U.S. Army veteran of the Afghanistan War. "Those sounds bring back a lot of thoughts about guys not coming back. That's what it reminds me of. Nights when they go off in town leading up to the Fourth, I don't sleep because I used to wake up to gun fights."
Just one of many returning veterans in similar situations in North Dakota and all over the country, Inmon works though the day-to-day struggles of reintegrating back into civilian life after being deployed for a year in 2009.
A single father living in Dickinson and working in the oil field, Inmon said his young daughters -- both under the age of 5 -- will likely be curious about the fireworks show, so he might step outside the house with them. He just isn't sure yet.
A common problem
With many active duty service men and women returning home after stints in Afghanistan or Iraq in recent years -- and many more to come -- veterans often have a rocky road returning to family, jobs (or a lack thereof) and a society in general that is vastly different from what life is like in a combat zone.
Leslie Ross, the veterans service officer for Stark, Dunn and Billings counties, interacts with young men and women in a similar position to Inmon every day. With so many people from outside the state flocking to work Oil Patch jobs in the booming Bakken, Ross said the individual circumstances and unique situations pertaining to disabled veterans she sees can run the gamut.
"There are many, many instances and I have them, too," Ross said, "where we have young returning veterans who are in their mid-20s to mid-30s who come back after serving and have no job and can't really seek a job because they're, in a way, damaged goods. They have disabilities and, often, they're not the type you can see. Unless you have a crushed-in skull, you're probably not going to think someone has a (Traumatic Brain Injury)."
With an athletic build and a firm handshake, Inmon looks and acts like your average 26-year-old man. Beneath the surface, however, Inmon deals from the effects of a TBI he suffered while overseas.
Like many others who have served and deal with the unseen issues of such injuries and lingering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms, Ross said it can be difficult for veterans to receive the care they need while also juggling a job (or job search), kids, the process of reintegration and all the other responsibilities life requires a person to handle.
"When you're in the military, there's a stigma if you go and say that you have mental health issues," Ross said. "It's a career-killer in the military because you're not going to get promoted. On the civilian side, if you're applying for any federal job or a job that gives additional points for being a disabled veteran, you have to provide proof that you're a disabled veteran. All things being equal, if you're looking at two individuals for a job, both veterans, with one having PTSD and one without those issues, who are you going to hire?"
Especially in the ultra-competitive Oil Patch atmosphere for employment, Ross said needing time off work for things like doctor's appointments can be a fatal blow to a veteran's job or job prospects.
"With all things remaining equal, employers want the person with stable mental health," Ross said. "They want the people who they know are not going to be doctoring. It's a dog eat dog world and, in the oil field there are 10 more people waiting for your job. The stigma still prevails. In a way, that's just human nature, but that's how it is."
Currently going through child custody proceedings with his ex-wife -- who lives in Washington, where Inmon is from -- and going through a battle with the Department of Defense about the conditions of his discharge, Inmon works long days in the Oil Patch.
Because of the time change where he travels for his job near Watford City, Inmon wakes up before 4 a.m. to make his trek six days per week. He said his kids are usually in bed by the time he returns home, meaning most of the time he spends with them falls on Sundays, his only day off.
Inmon said he makes a good wage and is appreciative for his opportunity to earn a living in North Dakota, but he wishes there were more services available for veterans in the western part of the state or a gathering point, such as a VFW hall, for former service members.
"If you weren't over there like we were, there's really no way a person could understand what we go through," Inmon said. "I think Dickinson does pretty well with its veterans services department. People here value when a person serves their country. I do wish there was a way that people could come to you for medical appointments and services. I've had to miss appointments because I need to work. I don't have a choice."
An example Ross pointed out that seems to work well, she said, is Jamestown, which features a meeting place for veterans of all military branches and statuses.
"Jamestown does it right," Ross said. "They have an all-veterans club. It's a place run by all their service organizations. They meet on different days, but it's run by all the service organizations through a board. They have their own building and something like that needs to happen in Dickinson. They have great food and a nice little bar, but it's a place where veterans meet and it offers some of the camaraderie that veterans are often missing when they come back.
"It's important for veterans to know they're not alone, but it can be difficult when you're working long hours."
Though Ross cautions that statistics involving veterans and mental health are often based on underreported data sets because of many veterans never apply for benefits at all and mental issues continue to hold a stigma in the U.S., she said.
Suicide kills more than 36,000 Americans annually, according to numbers provided by the North Dakota Suicide Prevention Program. In North Dakota, suicide is the ninth-leading cause of death overall, but the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24. In the U.S., a service veteran commits suicide once every 65 minutes, according to Department of Veterans Affairs numbers.
Another DVA report released last year showed that of the more than 800,000 veterans who returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, close to 30 percent have been diagnosed with PTSD, though Ross added that the real number is likely much higher.
A friend in a high place
During a veterans roundtable discussion Monday in Dickinson, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., was particularly interested in hearing what Inmon, who was in attendance, had to say about the many issues pertaining to veterans living and working in North Dakota.
"You're one of us now," Heitkamp told Inmon at the forum. "If we can help you, let us know. People shouldn't have to commit suicide for us to get the level of accountability that we need. If we can't solve this problem for our veterans, we're in a world of hurt. These folks stood on the wall for us, so what are we going to do to help them put their lives back together? It's not only a moral, but also a legal obligation."
In June, Heitkamp sponsored a resolution that passed the U.S. Senate and made June National PTSD Awareness Month and pledged again Monday to help veterans find and receive the help they need when they come home.
For Inmon -- who maintains he wouldn't change his military experience even if he could -- come dusk tonight, he'll be thinking about America, what it stands for and why he signed up to served serve in his country's volunteer army.
But if you're looking for him among the crowd at the fireworks show, he's not likely to be found.
"I love the celebration of the Fourth of July and what it represents," Inmon said. "But fireworks mean something different to me and I don't like crowds. Those two things bring back bad memories."