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Gratitude and comfort for a soldier with PTSD

RitPenningtIllinois Coordinator for Quilts Valor Foundatiwraps Staff Sgt. Steven Schroeder's gift appreciatiaround him. | Denise Crosby~Sun-Times Media

Rita Pennington, Illinois Coordinator for Quilts of Valor Foundation, wraps Staff Sgt. Steven Schroeder's gift of appreciation around him. | Denise Crosby~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 5, 2014 6:25AM

As many as four times a week, Staff Sgt. Steven Schroeder dons his Army dress uniform to be part of the honor guard at the funerals of local veterans. There are only a few World War II vets alive now, he notices, so most of these burials are for those who served in Korea or Vietnam.

Schroeder, who went through two tours in Afghanistan, is proud to be part of these final farewells because he knows he’s part of something important. Part of a team.

It’s how he felt as an ammunition and explosives specialist with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. Schroeder left active duty in ’09 but returned as part of the Army Reserves, where, working convoy security, he rode in armored trucks outfitted with weapons used on the enemy when they opened fire on his comrades walking before him.

Part of a team. Part of something important.

The 2004 Batavia High School grad now living in Aurora came home again in September to an infant daughter he’d never seen and a family both grateful and proud. But it’s tough being back after living and working in such a unique, intense world. The adrenalin highs were addictive. The anxiety and fear, not so much for yourself but for the men under you, never really went away.

Those high-octane emotions are big reasons Schroeder arrived home a different person. He knows that. He’s angrier. Quicker to judge. Unable to understand the mediocrity of this civilian world and the apathy from those who simply don’t understand.

Yes, Sgt. Schroeder, with a quick wit and easy smile, is fully aware he has PTSD. Family noticed it even before it was officially diagnosed in the fall of 2012, just before he was sent back into the war zone that second time. He had nightmares, flashbacks. He avoided crowds and refused to answer texts. Unexpected noises, like a furnace popping, would startle him.

The PTSD has cost him “a couple of close relationships,” including the one with his now 7-month-old daughter’s mother, who was also in the Army but was never deployed.

No one gets what you have been through, what you are going through unless you have been through it personally, he says. You walk into a Jewel and find out they don’t accept your military ID as identification? You get angry.

Schroeder has received some counseling … but not nearly enough. He also considers himself lucky: There are Army buddies with PTSD so much worse. Still, the wounds are there. They affect him. And he wants “people to understand why I came back different.”

His mom Joanne Furnas, who is director of crisis and outreach services for Association for Individual Development, gets it more than most.

“But I’m not in his head,” she said, adding that she even had her son sit in on one of the classes she taught on vicarious traumatization at Waubonsee Community College.

“I am so proud of him,” she said. “But we don’t realize what we have done to our servicemen, how their service has affected them. It goes beyond the physical.”

That’s why Furnas felt compelled to contact the Quilts of Valor Foundation, after hearing about the local Land of Lincoln chapter at a recent Presence Mercy Medical Center dinner. Its mission: “To cover all combat service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor.”

On Tuesday she accompanied her son to Prairie Shop Quilts in Batavia, where Illinois coordinator Rita Pennington presented Schroeder with a beautiful red, white and blue checked quilt in recognition of his sacrifice.

“Thank you so much for your service to this country,” she told the sergeant as she wrapped the spread around his shoulders.

Schroeder plans to hang the quilt on a wall in his dining room, a constant reminder that, despite all he has gone through and the struggles he still has, there are those in this community who really do understand.

And hopefully, this new gift will help heal old wounds.

“When you see that people do care,” said Schroeder, “it’s a big thing.”

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