ORONO, Maine — When former Army Reserve Spc. David T. Aston II, a 2009 Bangor High School graduate, left on his second overseas tour, he thought coming home would be a breeze.
“I thought it would be easy,” he said Wednesday in the hallway of Wells Commons during the fifth annual conference of the Maine Military & Community Network. “It was much more difficult.”
He left Maine for the first time in 2010 with the 94th Military Police Company, an Army Reserve unit based in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and was deployed to Iraq to protect Outpost Muthana, a small post at the old Baghdad municipal airport.
Then he deployed again in 2013 with the 344th Military Police Company for a year in Afghanistan’s Parwan province, where he spent time training the Afghan army.
Both were dangerous jobs.
Serving overseas two times was difficult, but “the transition back is the hardest part,” recalled Aston, who received his discharge papers Thursday, completing his time in the service.
Living in constant danger takes its toll, he said.
After living with other soldiers and counting on each other for protection from the enemy on a daily basis for a year’s time, it is hard to return home because the sense of military “community” is lost, he said.
It was back to one weekend per month in uniform for Aston, who took some solace from veterans who posted on Facebook about having similar experiences.
“I was kind of lost,” said the 24-year-old, who witnessed firsthand the horrors of war. “When you’re overseas, you have people going through the same stuff as you every day, and they have the same understanding you do.
“When you’re back, you feel so isolated. You’re suddenly tossed out of your element,” he said. “You have to come home and adjust. If you don’t have somebody there who understands all the time, it’s difficult to get by.”
Aston said he fell into a deep depression and didn’t ask for help to “deal with my experiences over there.” He said getting involved with other veterans helped him turn things around. He chose the Maine Chapter of Team Red, White & Blue, a veterans advocacy organization that brings veterans, active duty service members and civilians together for exercise, socialization and volunteer work.
“Team Red, White & Blue provides that community,” Aston said. “It gets you out of your comfort zone, and that is one of the big things that veterans need.”
The Maine Chapter was founded by Laura Allen in January 2013 as a way to “improve and enrich veterans’ lives by engaging vets with their communities,” she said.
“It provides connectivity,” said Allen, who is the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran.
Both Allen and Aston spoke during a panel at the Maine Military & Community Network’s daylong conference that was themed “Building Resilience in Community.”
Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist Dr. Jonathan Shay, who specializes in combat trauma, talked to veterans and other attendees about community reintegration after combat. Dr. Richard Lumb gave a presentation about ways to remain resilient after facing trauma. Pentagon Cmdr. Brent Embry talked about forging alliances between the military and community, and Joan Hunter, assistant surgeon general, talked about programs that support behavioral health.
There also were others on hand to talk about equine therapy for veterans, science-based natural therapies and other veteran resources.
Brig. Gen. Gerard Bolduc, interim adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said he was impressed with the number of veterans and providers on hand at the event.
“There are 120,000 veterans in Maine, 60,000 who are young, between 18 to 35,” Bolduc said. “The challenge with them is social media.”
Younger veterans don’t pick up pamphlets, so Maine military leaders are exploring new ways to connect with them, including using Facebook and Twitter, Bolduc said.
Since joining Team Red, White & Blue and gaining a new community support system, Aston has branched out and also joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 3381 in Old Town and started his own group: Project Warrior Athlete, which brings veterans together through fitness.
“By fostering a strong community, we can help fight veteran suicide, help aid those suffering from [post-traumatic stress disorder] or post-deployment stress, aid in the rehabilitation of service-connected disabilities, and much more,” the Project Warrior Athlete website states.
“You need more. You need that brotherhood,” Aston said.
He said veterans who may feel lost, like he once did, can find their way.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Aston said. “Seek out that community.”