In the Tualatin suburbs southwest of Portland, Oregon, new lustrous houses sprawl in every direction carving out what looks like Shangri-la for soccer moms.
Among these newly forged rows of homes sits a two-story abode that fits uniformly with every house on the block. Green lawn, granite counters, large windows and a sculpted back yard (complete with chickens) make it the epitome of the new American dream.
Noah Mrowczynski and his partner of ten years, George Marlton, moved to their house in Tualatin from Eugene, Oregon in 2010 and are trying to adjust to life in the suburbs.
“I got home from the National Guard unit and just went right back into my life and just tried to forget about everything,” said Mrowczynski, who served in Hawija, Iraq as a mounted infantry soldier from 2004 to 2005.
After returning from oversees, Mrowczynski realized that things had changed.
Mrowczynski experiences what he calls “scatter brain.” He describes the phenomenon as the inability to speak clearly and trouble keeping his mind organized. He stutters and has trouble clearly conveying thoughts and ideas.
He originally thought that he was suffering from ADHD and was put on adderall by an independent doctor to combat his lack of focus and help him through college at the University of Oregon.
“I always thought I wanted to be a cop,” Mrowczynski said. “I thought I’d be in the military for two years and come back and be in law enforcement.”
After getting medical attention from the VA, Mrowczynski realized that the three IED attacks that he survived in Iraq may have had more of an impact than he wanted to admit.
“I never ever wanted to be diagnosed with a mental health condition. PTSD, to me, showed some kind of weakness,” he said.
Coming to terms with his condition has made Mrowczynski realize that he will never be a cop. “If you have PTSD from your experience at war, would that make a fit law enforcement officer?” he said. “You should not give people with PTSD a gun.
For gay soldiers like Mrowczynski keeping their lifestyle a secret can bring about a whole host of other problems.
During Mrowczynski’s time in the army, he could never talk about his love life and family. “I’d made up a code name. My partner — was Michelle. I had a separate picture that everybody else had in their wallet. That’s basically how it had to be,” he said. “Under the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, my family wasn’t recognized.”
For Mrowczynski, keeping his sexual orientation secret was easy in comparison to everyday combat operations. “The first month I was (in Iraq), I was completely just scared, terrified,” he said. “After surviving my first IED, after our first loss of a soldier in our unit, you just become numb. You’re just kind of like a walking zombie,” Mrowczynski recalled about his time as a convoy escort around the town of Kirkuk north of Baghdad.
After years of avoiding fellow combat veterans and keeping to himself, he decided to seek out other veterans and joined Iraq Veterans Against the War. “I think it’s very important for all veterans to find a community to be in, to find other veterans to be around,” he said.
Mrowczynski speaks alongside fellow IVAW members at high schools and conferences around Oregon. They are involved in counter-recruiting, where they provide statistics about military service and share their experiences with young men and women at campuses around the state.
Mrowczynski recently got a job working for a cable company in Portland, and at 32, he finally feels like he has his career and is catching up on life.
His experience in Iraq still plays an important role in his everyday life. “Unfortunately, you can’t put it behind you,” he said. “You think about it, you dream about it, you live with it every day.”