(Host) As Vermont and the nation celebrate Thanksgiving, there’s one group of people who are especially grateful for home, health and family. Veterans who have returned from war say they see life with a different, more appreciative, perspective. Last spring, Sergeant Matthew Bedia was wounded in a mortar attack in Iraq. Bedia is back in Vermont now. But he says he won’t rest easy until his comrades are safely home as well.
VPR’s John Dillon reports.
(Dillon) A year ago, one day after Thanksgiving, Matthew Bedia was called up for war. In civilian life, the 44-year-old is a dairy farm inspector for the state of Vermont. He worked on the family’s farm for 21 years and for two decades he’s also served in the National Guard.
Last year’s mission was his first deployment overseas. He remembers the oppressive heat and the featureless, dusty, desert landscape of Iraq and Kuwait.
(Bedia) “Flat! I think that’s probably what bothered us the most is there was no mountains, you know? I mean, everybody’s from Vermont – we’re used to mountains. And you get over there and, hey it’s flat! And that was an adjustment.”
(Dillon) Bedia and his comrades also had to adjust to the tension of the war zone. A barrel-chested man who still wears his Army-issue desert camouflage hat, Bedia has a constant smile and is quick with a joke. As a team leader, he says he tried to use humor to calm the nerves of his soldiers.
(Bedia) “You got to make light of it. It’s a tense area, it’s a tense situation, but humor always seems to liven things up a little bit. And I can’t help it. I’m a comedian. I like pulling pranks.”
(Dillon) This Thanksgiving, he’s back home in Washington, Vermont, ready to celebrate the holidays with the newest addition to his family.
(Bedia) “You appreciate things a lot, lot more. It’s like today, our fourth grandchild was born. Little baby girl this time, so she’s going to be spoiled rotten.”
(Dillon) Bedia is home early from the war. His face and body bear the scars of a mortar attack last May 25. The blast damaged his hearing and injured his back. The pieces of shrapnel he still carries set off airport metal detectors. Soon after the mortars fell, he says, his close-cropped hair began to turn white.
(Sound of Purple Heart ceremony) “Good afternoon, everyone. I’d like to thank you all for coming out to this very special occasion this afternoon.”
(Dillon) At a ceremony this fall at Camp Johnson in Colchester, Bedia and other soldiers were awarded Purple Hearts. The soldiers at the ceremony also remembered their fallen comrades.
(Ceremony) “I would also ask that you keep in your thoughts and have a moment of silence for three who were awarded the Purple Heart posthumously: Staff Sergeant Kevin Sheehan of Milton, Sergeant Alan Bean of Bridport, and Staff Sergeant Jamie Gray of Montpelier.”
(Dillon) Sheehan and Bean died in the mortar attack that wounded Bedia. Gray was killed a few days later by a roadside bomb.
(Bedia) “I guess I’m trying to come to grips with it. I mean that’s something you really don’t want to see in your life. And you know they were both friends, and so it’s one of those things I’m still working on coming to terms with.”
(Dillon) Bedia is back working full time, although he still makes weekly visits to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in White River Junction. He has plans to build a new house this summer. But he knows that it will take time before his life returns to normal.
(Bedia) “I mean, I’ve been home for awhile, but I’m still going through an adjustment period. So there’s nights at home – and I know I’m doing it, but I don’t know why – it’s just, I just get quiet. And I think it kind of makes the wife uneasy once in a while but it’s just my way of kind of retracting back in myself.”
(Dillon) Bedia is leaving the Guard soon, but he still thinks constantly about the men and women left behind in the Middle East. He says he won’t sleep well at night until he knows they’re all home safe. He says that people who want to help the soldiers overseas can send care packages through local armories. Paperback books and magazines are especially appreciated, he says.
(Bedia) “And even if you can’t afford something – this is the big thing – even if you can’t afford something, just write a letter. You’d be surprised how much a letter will make a difference to somebody. It kind of lifts your day up. I guess it wouldn’t even matter if you didn’t know who it was from, just something to read from somebody that actually cares.”
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.