December 1, 2021

‘I have to cope with it’

Army veteran looks back on serving in the Iraq war

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Retired Army Sgt. Kevin VanDonsel sits on a bench Tuesday at Courthouse Park in Cortland and looks over the renovated memorials. VanDonsel was in the infantry from 2004 to 2011, spending a year in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Kevin VanDonsel joined the military in 2004, freshly graduated from Homer Central High School and looking to make a career as a member of the infantry.

That was before he spent a year in Iraq. “It was a long year, too,” VanDonsel said. “I was deployed there in 2005, and we were pretty much outside the wire every day — sometimes for three days straight we’d just watch and guard civilians working on the oil pipeline.”

He retired from the Army nearly 11 years ago, but the time he spent in the Middle East is something he’ll never forget.

He remembers the day his unit was the target of a mortar attack — seeing his friends injured in the blast.

“It was a pretty bad time. When we came back from leave, they pretty much said, ‘I hope you said your goodbyes,’ it was really that bad,” VanDonsel said. He was 19 years old. “But it was war. It messes with you, but really it takes more of a toll on you when you get out.”

Veterans breakfast is Thursday

The Cortland Police Benevolent Association will host a Veteran’s Day breakfast from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Thursday at the Elks Club, 9 Groton Ave.

Veterans and their immediate family eat free, funded by the Office of Community Policing. The cost for everyone else is $7.50. The meal includes scrambled eggs, French toast, sausage, bacon, pastries and fruit.

The police department’s union and charity, the Police Benevolent Association, is hosting the event because a community policing officer position is vacant.

— Sarah Bullock

In 2019, the RAND Corp., an international research organization, found that the number of veterans and service members lost to suicide in just one year had surpassed the number of American soldiers’ lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq to date. Many veterans have been exposed to trauma in war zones, and have experienced both visible and invisible wounds, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

“I’ve had multiple friends commit suicide or die in service, but it’s just something you live with and you’ve got to carry on,” Van- Donsel said. His own depression and PTSD led to his medical discharge after six years of service. “I have to cope with it.”

A 2014 documentary titled “The Hornet’s Nest” is centered around VanDonsel’s unit — the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division — when they were sent on a mission into an Afghanistan valley. When he saw the movie, VanDonsel said the camera captured the death of one of his friends.

“Then they roll the credits,” he said, taking a moment to compose himself.

When President Biden ended America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan this fall, VanDonsel said the announcement came as a slap in the face.

“We went in there, we saw our friends die and for what?” he said. “I lost a lot of friends in Afghanistan and to just pull them out and let ISIS take over — everything that you fought for, that your friends fought for was for nothing. Just for them to say, ‘Oh, sorry, enjoy your life now,’ and it really sucks, and a lot of guys are hurting.”

VanDonsel said if it were up to him, he would have kept soldiers fighting.

“They had us in there, taking over a whole section of a country, not sleeping, hardly eating, in the heat, but we were fighting on and on and on,” he said. “And then, it just gets taken away from you, and now all we’re left with is knowing my buddies died, and for what?”

“It’s hard to explain to people the job that you do in the military,” he said. “You come home and try to talk to people about it, but they kind of look at you like you’re nuts.”

VanDonsel said he may have retired more than a decade ago, but some days are still worse than others.

“I can’t really go into the store without sweating,” he said. The crowds and the distant exits trigger his PTSD, so he rushes to get his shopping done in less than 10 minutes.

Through the Homer Elks Lodge No.2506 and the Homer American Legion Post 465, he’s kept in touch with veterans who understand what he’s going through.

Each year, VanDonsel looks forward to the support and gratitude that comes with Veterans Day.

“It’s really hard, but it’s nice when people say Happy Veterans Day and all that stuff — it makes us feel good,” VanDonsel said. He plans to attend the Cortland Memorial Park rededication ceremony Thursday afternoon, and see the new battlefield cross statue in honor of the lives lost in the Middle Eastern wars.

“I’m probably going to cry — it means a lot,” he said. “Not having anything for us before, really kind of tears you apart, but actually seeing something like that just means the world.”