IN CONVERSATION WITH US ARMY VETERAN KEVIN REIMANN
Date of service 1999-2007, Iraq

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Born in 1971, Kevin was raised in Modesto, California, located in the central valley of northern California. He is the eldest of four siblings. While growing up, Kevin enjoyed sports, particularly baseball, as well as bird hunting with his father and friends. His father and grandfather were in the U.S. Army, serving in Vietnam and World War II, respectively. Through the legacy of his grandfather, who died before Kevin was born, and his father, Kevin was committed from childhood to following in their footsteps by joining the military and serving his country.

In 1999, at the age of 27 Kevin enlisted in U.S. Army, leaving a career with the U.S. Postal Service, to follow family tradition. Time was marching on. After enlisting, the relationship with his father grew closer and deeper as there was more common ground. Although they served in different conflicts, “war is war,” Kevin says. He was first stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia and then relocated back to California in Dublin (Parks, RFG).

With the events of September 11, 2001, Kevin was immediately called up and given a Title 32 Deployment—stateside for Operation Aerosafe. In 2004, he was deployed with Bravo Company, First of the 184th Infantry, Baghdad RF (2004-2006). Despite injuries he sustained in combat, he volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan but was turned down due to these medical issues. Kevin served eight years in the military and now resides in California in a small town near Yosemite National Park, with his third wife Michelle and his service dog Tanna. Kevin and Michelle have seven children between them.

In the following interview, Kevin gives us an idea of what a day in wartime “looks like.” He also discusses the experience of coming home, the aftermath with post-traumatic stress and recovering from his physical injuries, and now, with his service dog Tanna, the hope he feels for the future.

EXCERPTS FROM OUR CONVERSATION

Vicki Topaz: When you joined the military in 1999, did you think that you would end up being in a war? Did it even occur to you that that was a possibility?

Kevin Reimann: It occurred to me even when I volunteered to sign up for infantry. I had a high General Technical score so I could have picked a lot of jobs. I chose infantry because it was a family tradition. But from something deep down, I always knew that I would end up going to war. My grandfather, my father, I guess it just seemed inevitable.

In 1999 you couldn’t see it coming though.

Yeah, there wasn’t anything going on but I felt that I needed to serve my country, to give something back because of all of the things that were given to me. I decided to take a hiatus from my federal job and serve my country and help my fellow Americans preserve their way of life.

So then we had 9/11. What did you think then?

I was actually fishing on the day that it happened, on 9/11. I happened to be in cell phone range and my phone started blowing up, “We need you to get in here right now.” So I went home, got my stuff and went to the Armory. They were asking for people for deployments. I ended up on a ”Title 32 Deployment,” which is stateside for Operation Aerosafe [airport securities]. We started training for that, but a small group of us ended up as the “quicker action force for the state.” So if any terrorist event was happening in the state, we flew into that area. We were the ones to secure it and take over the situation.

So it was immediate?

Yes, as soon as it happened. Within that week I was already on orders.

Then you were deployed to Iraq? To Baghdad?

Yes. I was actually in the International Zone. We operated out of there. Our unit was split up and they tasked us with pretty much everything there was to do. We did security and check points for the International Zone. We did combat patrols out in the red zones. We did “snatch-n-grabs” in the red zones.

What is a snatch-n-grab?

You go and snatch up a target person and bring ‘em back for interrogation. We did prisoner transports. We did personal security details for dignitaries and generals. We did policing. When the Air Force came in, they took over our policing and we trained them. We would hand stuff off and then pick up different missions. We worked with the Australians, the South Africans, the Georgians, and Special Forces, and whoever. We just got piecemealed out. For a while we did some work with the 5th Special Forces Group, and then with Black Water. Towards the end they were recruiting. People would go out and do “little bird rides.”

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Kevin and his best friend Trevor, Baghdad

Little bird rides?

They’re the little helicopters. You just sit on the skid with your rifle and they fly around and you provide security for the transport that’s going through.

During your tour, were you mostly in that area or were you moving around?

I was pretty much in the Baghdad area, but we had four different districts that we were responsible for. For a battalion size asset, that’s a lot of ground to cover and patrol. After the Fallujah offensive [2004] all the insurgency was pushed into Southern Baghdad.

So it was not too long after you got there.

Yeah, it was being pushed in and they were in the Dora, Karada, Al Kadhimiya districts. We saw a lot of BBIED’s in there.

BBIED’s? [Body-borne Improvised Explosive Device]

Car bombs. And then a lot of IEDs. My battalion lost about 15% due to killed in action or wounded in action.

That was a terrible loss your battalion suffered.

Right. They had moved the insurgency out. The unit that was there before hadn’t secured the districts as well as they probably should have, in my opinion. That’s my personal opinion. It’s what happens.

Some of your different military specialties included: battalion recon team, battalion sniper team, line company, and heavy weapons squad. What is a battalion recon team?

The battalion recon team is a battalion asset, which is 1,200 people. In a line battalion, you have line companies that are broken down into approximately 100 guys. Those are the main line fighters. Then you have the battalion assets that are the intel, all these different things. And, reconnaissance—you go out in front of the main effort and you gather intel on enemy assets. You work in small five man teams. You’re not really engaging the enemy even though you’re in enemy territory. You’re just there to gather information and report it back to the battalion so they can make decisions on the best ways to either circumvent or attack, or whatever they need to do to neutralize the enemy.

The battalion sniper teams were integrated with the battalion recon, to get targets, or people of interest. You’d go out and you obviously acquired the target and you’d neutralize the target and then get out of there without gettin’ killed.

Then I went to the line company for promotion reasons. The battalion line company—they’re the main effort. They’re the ones that do the door-to-door, face-to-face fighting. I went there and it was a whole different concept because now you’re working in 13 man squads where I was working in two to five man teams. So, you had squads that you worked in, and company and battalion-size squads like different assets depending on the mission requirements. As for the heavy weapons squad, every infantry line company has one squad that handles the crew-served weapons which means that it takes a crew to use them like the “50 cal 240 bravo machine guns,” and things of that nature, to break it down simple. And then you’re the one that’s responsible for knowing all those weapons, like “Mark 19’s” [automatic grenade launchers], things of that nature. That’s that squad’s whole purpose. You are the support effort for the line. You provide all the firepower for that platoon.

So it’s through the training and what they teach that you have what it takes to do what you do. 

Yeah, training is a lot of it. “You fight as you train, you train as you fight.” That’s the mantra. And then you rely on your training, you know you’re good to go. I mean, you also need to be able to think outside the box because training doesn’t always do it. But for the most part if you rely on your training, it’ll keep you alive.

Where does fear figure into that?

Fear is always there. Your frickin’ butt-hole’s puckered tighter than a frickin’…you know. It’s there, you just have to overcome it. The best of heroes or anyone who says they’re not afraid is a liar. But after a while you just get used to it. You suppress it. You find ways to. You make jokes about things. It’s not something that you think about. It’s in the back of your mind. Nobody wants to frickin’ die on somebody else’s soil because somebody else did something, but you just deal with it. It’s all you can do.

In Iraq, what was a “good day?” I’m getting an idea of what a really bad day would be. 

A good day there is when it’s like 120 something degrees and it’s so hot that nobody wants to do anything so the whole city’s quiet. And everybody’s just laying around. That’s a good day.

Praying for hot weather.

You’re so hot and miserable, but so are the local nationals so that slows everything down a lot. You have your good days.

Did you learn the language?

Yes, I did. I actually learned quite a bit. I was getting pretty fluent. Obviously, in the seven years since I’ve been home, I don’t use it that much so I’ve lost a lot of it. I don’t have anybody to talk to.

Were you working with Iraqis over there?

Yes, not as much as some of the other units, but we did have some integration after the transition of authority as the Iraqi government started taking back their country a little bit at a time. On certain missions, we had Iraqi soldiers that would integrate with us. We’d train them. They’d already gone through their boot camp, but we’d be out there training them in actual real world situations. Plus, they were supposed to be fighting with us against the insurgency.

Were you physically injured during your deployment?

My back collapsed from air assault missions. You fly into certain areas, you repel out of the helicopter, you jump out onto the ground, stuff like that. They’re usually when you’re flying in airborne missions or when you’re jumping out of airplanes. And we had raids and stuff like that, kicking down doors and with all the gear [anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds]. We were working with tanks too. It’s like I said, we were piecemeal to everybody, so we’re jumping off of tanks with all that gear on and chasing people and all kinds of stuff like that. It will work on your back real quick.

A collapsed back sounds significant. Tell me a bit more.

My discs started to degenerate. I wasn’t injured as far as earning a purple heart. But we did end up losing about 15% of our battalion that was one of the highest WIA/KIA rates of the entire war. I did see a lot of action. I did see a lot of death, and lost a lot of friends while we were there.

I had surgery. I put it off as long as I could. I had a pedicle screw fusion with an allograft bridge put in there, which means I have rods and screws and a cage in my back. L-5, L-4 is collapsing. L-3, L-4 is starting to show signs. I also have arthritis in there and sciatica.

Will you have another surgery?

Yes, the L-5, L-4 need to have rods put in it and fused.

Do the rods help open up some space?

Yes, the disc between a lot of the soft tissue is gone. So they take the rods, put in a gel, shave your vertebrae and put some bone in there. Then they wrap it in a cage, put four screws in your back, they spread the vertebrae and then lock it in place.

Is there relief once it’s healed? 

About 50/50, it depends. To some extent, yes, but, has it been what I hoped? No. It could be because the next two above it are collapsed. It will depend on if I actually go through other surgeries or just deal with the pain.

You arrived home in 2007, how was that? How was it with your family? Friends?

It was rough coming home. In about a week’s time I went from Iraq to my home. Trying to deal with that was really rough. I couldn’t sleep at night because the quietness compared to what was going on over there was really eerie. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time with friends or family. Everybody wanted to see me but you kind of isolate yourself because it’s overwhelming to try to deal with all that and you fake the funk like nothing’s going on but you’re having problems: trying to deal with the fact that now you’re home you don’t know what to do with yourself. You’ve just seen a bunch of crap. Nobody understands what the hell’s going on, at least that’s what you think at the time. There are Vets out there. But a lot of people aren’t connected with them and of course you’re not gonna open up and say, “Oh, this is what’s going on with me right now.” It’s a hard transition for Vets to come out of the service especially after a deployment.

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Kevin in front of his Forward Operating Base (FOB), Baghdad

Did the military help with the transition in terms of what you might expect?

They had some classes and told you, “Go see these people, or go see that person,” but there was no follow-up. They’d send you to a class but honestly, nobody cares because all they want to do is get home. For me, I just didn’t want to hear this crap. I just wanted to be at home. I don’t want to listen to this nonsense, there’s nothing wrong with me, just, let’s do it. But when you get home, it’s like, “Oh shit, what’d they say?”

And there’s no follow-up. You have to go find out for yourself or you hear from other Vets. It’s not like the VA is advertising on TV or on the radio. At least not around here. You have to depend on the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, and other organizations. The VA should be advertising and doing things instead of just expecting Vets to show up there and ask for help. And, there are no guidelines. Well, there are but you have to find out where.

You have to dig for it.

You have to dig to find out: where do I go to get help? Where do I do this? Where is my medical? Where is my compensation? Where’s my life insurance? What do I qualify for? You can go to Vet centers. Some are better than others about trying to get the word out to the community, but in the rural areas, like up here, it’s few and far between. The Vet center tries but it’s different than it is in the city. And, I still don’t think Vets in the city know or even care or want to deal with it when they get home.

And that’s too bad because if you don’t utilize the benefits that are out there then you’re screwing yourself, number one; and secondly, you’re screwing the next generation of Vets because if the funds aren’t used they’re just going to cut the budget.

From the time you came out in 2007 until now, do you perceive any change? Do you think the VA has gotten any better?

I don’t think it’s really any better because I talk to Vets and as much as the Department of Defense, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the President say, “Oh yeah, let’s do this and you need to make sure these clients are getting taken care of,” I know a lot of Vets who’ve been sitting on their claims for two or more years. And Oakland, California is the worst in the nation for processing claims, and something needs to be done about it.

Were you diagnosed with post-traumatic stress?

Yes.

When you first realized that things seemed “off,” could you even put a name to it?

Yes, but I didn’t want to deal with it. During my second marriage, one of the most obvious things was that I would act out physically in my sleep during night terrors, and I would speak Arabic in my sleep. My ex-wife had gotten injured a couple of times because of my acting out. So at that point I realized it was a time for me to start dealing with it.

Did you go to the VA for help with post-traumatic stress?

I first saw a private care physician. He was a marriage counselor. He was also an infantry veteran out of Vietnam and a real great guy. He was really good but it didn’t work out with my ex-wife. We ended up getting a divorce so I stopped seeing him. Then I went in and out of the VA for awhile because I didn’t want to admit that I needed help, plus I also had a boss who made it difficult for me to get to my appointments which was against the law. But, I didn’t push it. I just let it be.

When I got together with my new wife Michelle, she really started pushing me to go to the VA for some counseling. I bounced in and out of a couple of licensed certified social workers because the VA wouldn’t call me back. I was frustrated, said a few things and finally I got with someone who was kind of an advocate for me. She was a social worker and she took care of me. I also got a new doctor that actually knows what he’s talking about and he’s ex-Navy. So right now I’m with the right people. It’s good.

Is your post-traumatic stress tied to a specific event or do you think it is an accumulation?

With as much action that we saw, it was accumulation. It wasn’t just one incident. There are some people that go on deployment and they don’t have an infantry MOS (military occupational specialty). They sit on the FOB (Forward Operating Base) all day, they get mortared and see somebody get killed. Then that was their one trigger.

We’re out there dealing with it every day. It’s a little different. You see lot of stuff. You see burnt bodies, and body parts, kids shot, and horrible things going on. Women being raped, and people being murdered over tribal stupid crap and it’s just, you see all that stuff all the time. It wears on you after a while especially when you’re losing friends. I was lucky. I didn’t lose anybody on my team.

How old do you think she is?

She’s probably a year and a half. She’s still a young dog, but she’s a very smart dog, learns really quick. Sometimes though she can get a little stubborn, because she’s too smart for her own good. She’s a great asset for the family and she’s good with the kids. She alerts me to the things that are goin’ on, she watches my back.

She looks like an Australian Shepherd.

Yes she is.

How does Tanna help you?

I can give you a few examples. Right now we’re teaching her to retrieve my meds. She has a bag and if I’m havin’ anxiety or a problem with my back she’s learning to go get it and bring it back in the same place. We just tell her, “Go get daddy’s meds.” She grabs them and brings them out to me.

She knows how to “brace.” If I have trouble getting off the couch, if my rods are hurtin’ in my back, I can tell her to “brace” and I just put my hand on her shoulder and stand up.

She’ll “block” to keep people at a distance from me if I want. She alerts me to people that are getting too close especially in the stores. She’ll let me know if people are trying to reach out and grab her or trying to get in my comfort zone.

Also, one of the biggest things is that she’ll sleep in bed with me and if I’m starting to get restless or something, she’ll lick my face and wake me up. That way I don’t have the night terrors.

And then, just the companionship alone helps calm me down especially when you get into situations where you start having anxiety over groups or other situations. The dog helps to relax you.

Do you have any particular challenges when you are with Tanna in public?

The biggest problems that I’ve had are with the medical industry, especially with clinics. My youngest daughter had a doctor’s appointment with a pediatrician. The receptionist wouldn’t allow the service dog into my daughter’s appointment because one of the doctors was allergic to dogs. That is against the ADA, the American_Disabilities_Act. On the Justice Department’s website they have guidelines for how to deal with service dogs if you’re a service provider or food industry or something like that. For people with allergies, you can separate the dog from the individual with the allergies—it’s not a sterile environment. At that time I just let it go and didn’t argue. But then I took my wife to an appointment and the same thing started to happen again. Then I got a little upset. It was annoying that these people didn’t know what to do. So I went to the Justice Department’s website, to the civil rights division, pulled up the guidelines form and showed them and explained to them that it wasn’t a sterile environment, that people with allergies go into another room which is that the way it is when you go to a doctor’s office. They actually called their site manager who was in another town, because they are a satellite office. Out here where we live there’s only one hospital in the county and then there’s all these little clinics. But the hospital revised the way that they treat service dogs now and educate their employees about what’s allowed and what’s not.

It’s great you had that impact.

I am glad that now, hopefully, somebody else doesn’t have to go through that.

I also had one issue at a court. I had to file some paperwork and they asked me for the papers for my dog. And, I told them, “You don’t have to have papers for a service dog.” I guess some counties are trying to do this because there are people who go on line and buy a service dog vest and all of a sudden it’s a service dog [a fake service dog].

And, people that have therapy dogs are now trying to get the same access that service dogs have. Therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs. The ADA doesn’t protect them and give them the same rights as service dogs. We just need to educate the public.

At Operation Freedom Paws, you do your training there, obviously, but what are some of the other things you like about being there? Are there other benefits?

Yeah, I’ve met quite a few Vets. There’s a lot of emotional support that comes from Operation Freedom Paws. And there are other organizations that I’ve been turned on to while I’ve been there so there’s been a lot of information that’s given out. For example, there’s a place for horse riding for veterans. I just started going. It’s called Dream Power Horsemanship.

Mary turned us on to that. She’s always been so great to us. You can’t say enough good about Mary. She’s always so giving. She accepted us into Operation Freedom Paws like part of the family right off the bat. That trust issue is big for veterans because you have that trust when you’re in the military especially in a combat situation.

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Kevin checking on “his girls” and helping tend to an infected arm with medical supplies

Did the post-traumatic stress effect how you and your children were able to relate?

Yes.

How did you guys all get along?

I isolated from them for a long time, and self-medicated and yelled a lot. But, going to therapy, getting a service dog and actually not being in a work environment anymore because I’m 100% disabled, has given me time to work on myself . All these tools have helped improve my relationship with my kids and with my new wife and just dealing with the public. Does it meant that it’s ever gonna go away? No. Does it mean that I have tools to try to cope with those things? Yes. It’s not like you’re going to be magically cured by drugs and talking to somebody about everything you ever did because no matter what, at the end of the day, you’re going to be the one there at nighttime that relives it in your own head.

But you have to be committed to it. Vets have to stay off the self-medicating drugs and alcohol otherwise the medication doesn’t work. You’re just self-defeating at that point.

Is there something you’d want a civilian to know about post-traumatic or interacting with Vets? 

Well the main thing is, don’t ask Vets if they have ever killed anybody. Please, it’s insulting. They don’t want to talk about it. The other thing is, understand that sometimes these guys may act in a negative manner, but they’ve been through a lot. Many civilians aren’t sympathetic to that. Believe me, there are a lot of people out there that try to understand and they try to be supportive and Vets are very thankful for that. But for people that don’t seem to give a crap: try to understand that you’re driving down that freeway to your job every morning because a veteran stepped up and did something for you. So, if they come off a little harsh or they’re, I don’t know, just not “right,” try to understand. They’ve been through a lot. That doesn’t give them a free ride to be a jerk by any means, but if they’re having a rough time, just try to understand. It’s rough, that’s all.

So in the military you learn about being a team and about having that trust. 

Oh yeah. Especially when you have to trust somebody to watch your back so you don’t get killed. I mean, there ain’t no other trust greater than that that I can think of—trusting somebody with your life. There’s not a whole lot more that you can trust somebody with.

What advice would you offer to veterans who, for whatever reason, need help but haven’t been able to ask for it. What would you tell them?

If they’re not going to do it for themselves, then do it for their families. Suck up your pride and seek the help because you can live a better life than what you’re having right there, right now. There are a lot people, they isolate, they drink, they get arrested and it just goes downhill.

There are benefits out there, they earned it, use it because if you don’t you’re just screwin’ the guy behind you because if you don’t use it, they’re going to take it away. Seek the help, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. There are actually people out there who do care. If people don’t have families and there’s nobody there to help them, there’s people like Mary and the folks at DreamPower.

They’re out there to help us to get our lives straight and get integrated back into society the best as we can. It may take some time to find the right people to get with, but eventually you will and you’ll see an improvement and you’ll start living your life the way you should, the way you did before you went to your deployment.

I don’t know if your children are thinking of going into the military, but if they were, how would you feel about it? How would you advise them?

I would support them 100% if they decided to. What they choose to do will be up to them. My nephew is in the Army right now and he’s heading to Afghanistan at the end of next month. So all I can do is just give him tips on what I learned in Iraq and what he needs to do: listen to his instructors and keep down and don’t get shot. I support him whatever he does. If he calls me, I listen to him.

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Sandstorm, Baghdad while searching vehicles at a traffic control point with Iraqi police

Thank you for those words. I feel it’s important for us to try to comprehend what a day is like when you’re over there fighting for our country. And then what it’s like trying to get back home.

War is—I guess the best way to describe it is that it’s one of the most scary things you’ll ever do, but also the most liberating because you don’t have anything to worry about except staying alive. You don’t have to worry about the bills, you don’t have to worry about the kids…I mean, yeah you worry about those things, but…

But you’ve got one mission.

The only thing you have to do is wake up each day and stay alive. And then you come back here and it’s a hard transition. You’ve got the stress of a job where a boss doesn’t understand that every night you’re up all night because you’re having night terrors, you’re stressed out, you have anxiety, you have depression, and you’ve got people at work that are complaining about, “Oh, I broke a fingernail, or I got a scratch, or I didn’t get this promotion or I didn’t get this or that.” It’s like, “You know what? Nobody’s shooting at you today. Calm down.”

Who told you about service dogs?

Actually my social worker did. She had a card for Operation Freedom Paws. We got a hold of Mary [Cortani, founder]. She got us squared away and told us what we needed to do. We met with Mary and we got accepted to the program. That was in March of 2013.

Did Mary partner you with your service dog Tanna or did you find Tanna somewhere else?

Mary partnered me with her.

Tanna seems like such a great dog.

They brought up a few dogs [from a shelter] and Tanna was the first one off the truck and when I saw her and looked at her for a second, I said, “I don’t want to see any other dogs. This is the dog I want, that’s it.”

You knew right away.

Yeah, it was just like that. That was it. We’ve been together ever since.

How old is he?

He’s 19 now.

That’s good he has your support.

Yes, and my dad supports him too so he’s got two generations, two different wars. It’s good for him.

What was your best experience in the military, and your worst?

I think the camaraderie is probably the best part of the military. You build some relationships there. Even if it’s after you’re out. It’s because people chose the same dirt. They know the same lingo. They know the lifestyle. You build camaraderie that most civilians don’t have. You’re lifelong friends. The problem with it is that on your worst day is when you lose them. That’s a bad day.

It is an honor to speak with you Kevin. Thank you for your candor and for your service to our country.

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