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When heroes return: Some vets face challenges

Matt Wolding, 28,  is the chaplain for the Batavia VFW Post 1197.
Matt Wolding, 28, is the chaplain for the Batavia VFW Post 1197.

Matthew Wolding understands the challenges faced by military veterans returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wolding, 28, was medically discharged from the Navy as a machinist mate third class in 2005. He underwent two knee operations after he served a stint in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Difficult times followed. For Wolding and other veterans, it can be hard to adjust to life outside of the military. The job market can be a challenge. When they go back to school, veterans find they are older students in classes and are coming in from a different perspective. And the environment can be much different.

But Wolding found that help exists. He joined the Batavia Veterans of Foreign Wars, where he is the chaplain. He is the president of the Veterans Club at Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove. And he is studying therapeutic massage at Waubonsee.

“Veterans can be great workers,” Wolding said. “A lot of veterans have dealt with stressful jobs. You put him or her in a job, and you know the job will get done.”

Geneva resident Chris Derby, 26, is a fellow member of the Batavia VFW. He is studying at Aurora University after graduating from Waubonsee in May with an associate degree in science. He said he had a tough time adjusting to life outside of the military after being stationed on a base near the front line in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009. He said his younger classmates at Waubonsee lacked maturity, and his search for a job was long and frustrating.

“Intelligence analysis, surveillance techniques, all that stuff doesn’t transfer over to the civilian world,” Derby said. “And without going back to school, a lot of these guys are stuck in jobs they don’t want because they just don’t have the education that is necessary.”

Wolding struggled after he completed his duty and moved back to the area.

“When I got out, I was drinking excessively,” he said. “I tried to commit suicide in February 2006. I felt alone. My friends were all nonmilitary people, and they didn’t understand what I was going through.”

Wolding knew he needed help. A friend helped him check into Hines Veterans Affairs hospital, where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Accepting that I have [PTSD] is a big issue in itself,” he said. “It’s kind of a pride thing. You don’t want to seek help and talk to people about your own private issues.”

He said being a member of the Batavia VFW helped him in the transition of being back home.

“No matter what age group it is, what generation, what war, you still get that camaraderie from everybody that’s here,” Wolding said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad experience from anyone here.”

It provides an opportunity to get advice from those who have traveled a similar path. Past Batavia VFW Post Commander Dale Richard said young veterans such as Wolding are valuable to the post. Many such organizations include veterans from earlier wars but not as many from more recent conflicts.

“If we don’t get in new veterans, we will be a last-man-standing club,” Richard said. “That’s how you get new leadership.”

Derby needed help working through issues. He wasn’t sure whether his experience in the military would help land a job.

“Being in light infantry, trying to transfer my skill sets into a workable resume was pretty difficult,” Derby said. “We always said about ourselves, ‘We’re the jack-of-all-trades, master of none.’ Our focus was engaging the enemy.”

Derby had back surgery after getting out of the Army in January 2011, which was another challenge. Those who never had been through such a situation might not understand.

“Going up and down the mountains with your body weight on your back pretty well will destroy all of your discs,” Derby said. “I applied for mostly office jobs because to do something physical it wasn’t even something I was willing to consider.”

He started working part time at the Aurora-based Association for Individual Development in March after volunteering with the agency, which provides services to individuals who have developmental, physical and mental disabilities.

Because he knows the obstacles that returning veterans face, Derby is happy to provide any advice he can.

“A lot of people are confused about such things as how to file for disability,” he said. “I want to help them as much as I can.”

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