By Abra Bennett
Writer in Residence, Walla Walla Community College
We say there’s no place like home, that home is where the heart is. But sometimes what feels like home isn’t where you expect it to be. This is the story of three members of the Walla Walla Community College family who have returned from the military to the place they call home, leaving a piece of their hearts in the service.
Shane Butler, 31, grew up in Othello and served six years in the Army National Guard.
He remembers being “that kid that grew up watching a lot of old John Wayne movies. From them I got the idea that it was an honor to serve, an act of respect, an act of responsibility.” A few months after high school he shipped out to Basic Training.
He’s currently the VetCorps Navigator at WWCC, helping students with reintegration from military to civilian life, and is finishing his Bachelor’s degree at Walla Walla University.
Ethan Small, 24, grew up on a wheat farm in Lowden and recently returned after five years in the Marine Corps. He enlisted as soon as he finished high school, and was already on his way to boot camp when his classmates walked across the stage in cap and gown. He is currently a student at WWCC.
Joe Dixson, 32, grew up on a wheat farm in Milton-Freewater and spent eight years in the Marine Corps.
He had dropped out of high school, but quickly realized that his jobs stocking grocery store shelves and changing oil weren’t leading him where he wanted to go. He enlisted at 18, with test scores high enough to overcome the obstacles he faced as a high school dropout.
He is now the Community Employment Coordinator at the VA Medical Center in Walla Walla, is a WWCC graduate, and is finishing his Bachelor’s degree at WSU.
Although they’re all safely home, all in one piece, to them the return doesn’t always feel like a welcome relief.
Small got out of the Marines in April, 2017, and reflects that: “I haven’t completely made the transition. I still keep a pretty rigorous schedule. I’m up at 3:50 a.m., at the gym by 5:00 a.m. and I work out for an hour and a half. I get to school about 6:45 a.m. and study until my first class at 8:30. When I’m done with classes I go to work at the Walla Walla Vet Center.”
After work he heads home, where he lives alone and his nearest neighbor is seven miles away. “I make myself dinner, stock up on firewood for the night, and that’s about it,” he says. “My social life is extremely dull. I don’t party, I like my solitude, and I don’t want to let the discipline I acquired in the military deteriorate.”
Small admits that he would trade his solitude for the friendships he found in the infantry. “We learned that the guy on the left of you, the guy on the right, their life has the same value as yours,” he says. “If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you. That’s the part I miss the most, the feeling that there’s always someone there for you.”
Butler brought a lot of his service in Iraq home with him. As he describes it: “In a combat zone you experience a lot of things that normally you wouldn’t and shouldn’t experience in life, and it changes the way you see things. It can create a lack of trust in society as a whole, and animosity, fear, and isolation.”
Struggling with post-traumatic stress, he recalls that: “When I came back I was making decisions that I knew weren’t good ones. I realized that I was heading in a really bad direction, and I wasn’t getting hired in my specialty, avionics, because I didn’t have a degree.” He got himself on track with the help of a good counselor, and by taking classes at WWCC and WWU.
Now he works helping WWCC veteran students make their own transitions to civilian life. “My passion and drive has always been helping others and being of service to others,” he says. He will graduate from WWU next year.
For Dixson, who also served in Iraq, coming home was a challenge. Having been in the Marine Corps between the ages of 18 and 27 he hadn’t experienced adulthood outside of the military. He didn’t have the opportunity to go to school during his service, and returned to civilian life still missing a high school diploma and without marketable skills.
He stayed out of the military for three years. He remembers that, “I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it in the civilian world. But I found that I prefer the military life, and I’d prefer to be deployed.”
Now, married with two children and a baby on the way, he’s an Oregon National Guard reservist, training for deployment as a sniper sometime next year.
“In the training I’m doing now we’re all equal. We share everything. And we’re learning every day,” Dixson says. “In a world where people sit in a cubicle doing the same thing day after day, taking anti-depressant meds because they feel put down by life, it’s super-addicting to live in that other world. There’s a kind of camaraderie that I don’t think civilians will ever really know.”