Staying involved eases transition back to civilian life

Steve Biorn, student and war vet, keeps busy helping other soldiers embrace life at home.

Four and a half years ago, Steve Biorn began a journey that included living in a war zone, patrolling “the world’s most dangerous road,” coping with back injury and being unceremoniously dropped back into the Midwest.

Since his return in 2005, Biorn has seen ups and downs as he transitioned back to civilian life and has worked to ease the process for fellow veterans.

From student to soldier

Coming out of high school in 2003, Biorn said he didn’t know what he wanted to do.

After he considered his family’s history of enlistment in the armed forces and looked at the educational benefits that came with it, Biorn said he decided to join the National Guard.

“It was like, let’s start; we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “And if I hated it, it’s only one weekend a month, two weeks a year.”

He received his deployment orders November 2003, and left for five months of training.

Along with 150 members of his fellow National Guard unit, Biorn landed in Kuwait in March 2004 as a Stinger missile operator. He spent his first four months patrolling in a Humvee near an Iraqi airport.

One day, Biorn’s Humvee rolled into a drainage ditch while driving in what he said were “white-out conditions” because of all the dirt in the air. Biorn said he had his back checked out at base afterward, continuing his duties shortly thereafter.

Biorn said after a three-month stint of guarding his base, Camp Victory, he hit the road again. Biorn patrolled Route Irish, nicknamed the world’s most dangerous road, for the last six months of his deployment. During that time he said he would see car bombs exploding nearby on an almost-daily basis.

As gunner for the Humvee, it was his job to fire warning shots to make sure traffic never approached their vehicle and fire on cars if they did.

Biorn said he also walked the streets of Baghdad, where he became close with some Iraqi citizens.

“It’s nice to interact,” he said. “Especially the kids, I think that is what kind of makes it worth it.”

After a 13-month tour, Biorn arrived back in the United States in April 2005.

Öand back

Biorn said the return process was slow, filled with debriefings and layovers. After stops and stays in Kuwait, Maine, Wisconsin and Minnesota, he was finally released to return home.

After receiving orders all day, every day for more than a year, Biorn said he had $40,000 in the bank and nothing to do until his next National Guard training in 90 days.

“It was hard to know what to do with all that time,” he said.

Biorn said he can see how many veterans get into trouble or have difficulty transitioning right after they return. He said he saw many men in his unit spending their money on expensive cars or $100 hands at the casino.

It was the beginning of a sometimes difficult, but successful, transition.

When Biorn came back, he was positive he’d have the same relationship he’d always had with his family. But that wasn’t the case.

Things were awkward at first and no one really knew what they should talk about, he said. It was the same with his friends.

However, Biorn said those tensions eased with time.

Driving the highways of the Twin Cities also gave Biorn trouble. Adjusting to driving in his Corolla during rush-hour traffic wasn’t as easy after routine patrols in Iraq, he said.

“It’s like that feeling right before (I fired warning shots),” he said. “That’s what I feel the entire time.”

Biorn said he also had to get the compression fractions in his back taken care of and had an unfulfilling experience with the veteran’s hospital. He later underwent physical therapy after getting private insurance.

Starting classes at the University during the following May session was a key to his transition, Biorn said. School helped him stay busy, limit his spending and keep focused.

The following fall semester, he met his current fiancée, Ashley Armbruster, while commuting to school.

Lending a hand

Biorn said he further transitioned when he found a way to help other veterans. Friend and member of the same Iraq unit Jeremiah Peterson urged him to join the Veterans Transition Center and the Warrior to Citizen Campaign. Peterson said being with fellow veterans is pivotal to a successful transition, adding that quickly finding a future spouse probably helped.

“If there’s anything I’ve taken from Iraq, it’s definitely a bond with all the guys; just a crazy, unspeakable bond,” he said, adding they are some of the only people he’s open with.

Now, Biorn has taken a leadership position in both organizations. He participates in the VTC five days a week, which he said is like a student group for veterans, and offers a relaxed social setting of peers.

Biorn attends monthly meetings for Warrior to Citizen, a grassroots initiative to create space for acceptance of veterans and encourages every level of communities to embrace veterans during reintegration, said Dennis Donovan, a research fellow at the Humphrey Institute and lead organizer of Warrior to Citizen.

Armbruster said Biorn was excited as soon as he got involved in Warrior to Citizen and told fellow veterans about it.

As part of his involvement in Warrior to Citizen, Donovan said Biorn has helped organize a study circle for veterans where they can discuss issues among themselves. He also developed a program for veterans to mentor troubled youth, wrote an essay on his experience and helped organize a Veteran’s Day event at a St. Paul school.

Biorn has been a big factor in strengthening the relationship between the campaign and the VTC, Donovan said, and is his “go-to guy.”

“He’s passionate about citizen engagement and other veterans transitioning smoothly,” he said.

On April 24, Biorn finished his final training for the National Guard and became a civilian once again. He said he is glad his journey in the National Guard is over, but doesn’t regret it.

Biorn said he might have re-enlisted, but was worried he would get deployed overseas again.

Now, he looks forward to his June 21 wedding.