When Travis Eckardt returned to Rhinelander from serving in Iraq, his outlook had forever changed. His two deployments have left an indelible impression on this young man but the transition back to being a civilian have been almost as hard as the actual fighting.
“Fighting in a war definitely changes how you think about life,” he said. “But when you come back home it sometimes seems like you are fighting a different kind of war.”
It was when the twin towers collapsed in the 9/11 attacks that Travis decided to join the military. Still a freshman at Rhinelander High School he felt he had made the right decision for his future goals.
“Watching those towers fall made me want to join the military,” he said. “I wanted to do something about it, and I figured getting military training would allow me to do that.”
Right after he graduated he enlisted in the Marines and little did he know what an eye opening experience he was in for. Raised on a small hobby farm, he had never been far from Rhinelander.
“I hadn’t even been on a plane before so even flying out to San Diego to the Marine Corp Recruitment Depot was quite an experience,” he said. “But I was excited about it. I was ready to spread my wings and see more of the world.”
After his basic training Travis was sent to Camp Pendleton where he was assigned to go into the infantry. He would train to become a machine gunner.
“My assignment was to set up machine gun posts mostly on Hummers and seven ton trucks,” he said. “You’re basically sniper bait doing this.”
Travis’s first deployment was from January to August in 2006. His second deployment was from July 2007 to February 2008. Both times he was sent to Camp Fallujah in Iraq. Conditions were rough, and amenities few. MRE meals were the norm and weather, whether it was wet or hot, put extra strain on the soldiers.
“Once my training was complete I was sort of looking forward to it,” he said. “You train for many weeks and you get to the point where you want to put that training to use. But you can never really imagine what it is going to be like until you get there. You never really can imagine the stress until you experience it.”
Travis did a lot of patrolling, standing guard and traveling around the countryside ferreting out improvised explosive devices and then setting them off.
“The entire time I was over there I had a constant adrenalin rush,” he said. “You are always on alert, always watching for bombs or attacks.”
Travis fulfilled his duties overseas and then came back to the area when his military stint was up in 2012. Rhinelander never looked better.
“I was raring to get out of Rhinelander when I enlisted,” he said. “But I couldn’t wait to get back here once I was done. I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
Many soldiers coming back from war feel just like Travis, anxious to return to family, friends and familiar surroundings. But assimilating back into society is a different story and for Travis that was eerily unsettling.
“I just thought I would come back and things would be like before,” he said. “But it doesn’t work that way.”
One of the hardest aspects of coming back was relating to friends his own age.
“Your outlook is a lot different when you fight in a war compared to someone who has never had to,” he said. “The experiences you go through really make you think about your priorities and what really matters to you in life. Sometimes I listen to people complain about something and it seems so miniscule, so unimportant.”
Travis did seek out help through local veterans’ organizations, including being tested for post traumatic stress syndrome, a common phenomena among returning soldiers. He’s worked hard in the last year to overcome the effects of war and feels a lot better now than he did when he first came back. But there are still some frustrating times.
“It frustrates me to see how the war is portrayed in the media,” he said. “I think a lot of people think we come back as wife beaters or can’t function in society but that’s really not true for the majority of soldiers.”
Travis is finding this fact out the hard way. Although he enjoys his job as a part-time line cook, he longs to get a full-time job, where he can make enough money to fulfill his dream of owning some land. He went to school for a criminal justice degree but finding work in the career field has been difficult.
“If you are diagnosed with an acute stress syndrome you can’t really get a job in this field,” he said. “I guess that’s understandable but it’s also frustrating when you’ve worked so hard to overcome it.”
Since his return last year, Travis has been on countless job interviews and it has been a frustrating journey, especially since he is willing to learn just about any skill. Factory jobs, janitorial positions and landscaping jobs have all eluded him.
“I think human resource personnel are leery about hiring soldiers that have been in the artillery or infantry because of how the media has portrayed returning soldiers,” he said. “I know I’m not the only one going through this. Other vets who are friends are experiencing this too.”
But Travis isn’t giving up and he has optimism that in 2014 he will be able to fulfill his dream of getting a full-time position, purchasing some land, building a home and perhaps, one day having a family of his own.
“It’s hard looking forward when you hit hurdles like these but I have faith that things will work out for me,” he said. “All I can do is keep trying and that’s my plan.”