Memories of war linger for young soldier
UW-Waukesha student follows grandpa's footsteps
It's been almost two years and some things are still not the same for Kenneth Stuettgen. Driving down the street is not the same. Fourth of July is also not the same.
"I don't hear explosions going off in my head, but fireworks aren't fun for me anymore," said Stuettgen, a 2001 graduate of Oconomowoc High School and a current UW-Waukesha student.
Stuettgen's tour of duty in Iraq ended in January 2010 and while he has settled into a daily routine, the war has changed him. While in Iraq, Stuettgen traveled the dangerous roads of Baghdad, where roadside bombs could hit vehicles in any direction. As a result, he was trained to check the side of the roads for explosive devices, almost to the point of paranoia.
"It's embedded into your memory," Stuettgen, 28, said. "We're supposed to memorize it."
Named after grandfather
The training paid off and he was unharmed during his eight-month stay. Unfortunately, the behavior that helped Stuettgen in Iraq has stayed with him here.
"Now I'm at home and I still look at the side of the road checking for bombs," Stuettgen said.
Yet, Stuettgen doesn't regret his career path. After all, the military is something that is near and dear to him.
"The main reason was because my grandpa was in the Army," Stuettgen said. "I grew up listening to stories from him in World War II and I'm named after him, so I figured to go.
"I wanted to make him proud and follow in his footsteps."
After graduating from Oconomowoc High School, Stuettgen spent two years in Hanau, Germany, as a military police officer as part of the Army. He spent the next four years in Fort Knox, Ky., and worked at the National Crime Information Center. He then joined the National Guard - the 32nd Military Police Company in Milwaukee - in 2008 and found out shortly thereafter that he would be deployed to Iraq in May 2009.
Stuettgen knew it was tough on his parents seeing him get shipped off to a war zone.
"They did pretty well," Stuettgen said. "But I think my mom was a bigger mess. She was just being a mom."
His family would show their support by sending care packages and would be able to communicate with him quite frequently through Skype and email.
Stuettgen wasn't involved in any face-to-face gunfights - his unit was involved with prisoner transportation. Still, that meant he was close to criminals as well as terrorists.
"Those were some of the most stressful times," Stuettgen said. "Every vehicle you go by, you think, 'Is this going to blow up on us?' None of them did, luckily. But they have bombs all over the place."
Another stressful time Stuettgen said was on New Year's Eve 2009 when his unit had to exit its compound because of mortar fire in the area. Stuettgen and his group scurried into mortar bunkers.
"It was nothing near us, but you'd hear it in the background," Stuettgen said. "You could hear explosions going off, but you wouldn't know how close they'd be. You would hear guns go off and realize that you're not in training anymore."
Heat like a 'blow dryer'
And one day when he was back home on his short military leave, his area was rocketed but no one was harmed. While those were scary moments, he couldn't dwell on them or be consumed by those thoughts.
"It was possible that we could have got hit," Stuettgen said. "But if you worry everyday it could be nerve-racking. You just have to go day-by-day."
To help clear his mind, Stuettgen would join his comrades in games of volleyball and Xbox. They even sang some karaoke.
Stuettgen said there was extensive training so his troops would be prepared for life in Iraq, but he said some aspects of the experience you just can't prepare for - including the weather.
"It was almost unbelievable how some of them live over there," Stuettgen said. "When we got to Baghdad I never expected to see how it looked. And I could never have imagined how hot it was. It was like a blow dryer blowing at you all the time.
"Even if you would take a shower, you'd be sweaty in an instant. And their winter season, it rained all the time and I was always muddy. I don't think I ever saw that much mud before."
He returned home in January 2010, but he didn't return to his normal life immediately. Stuettgen said his group was taken to Fort McCoy, Wis., for two weeks.
"We got debriefed and sat down with a council to see if things changed and to make sure you are OK mentally," Stuettgen said.
Stuettgen enrolled at UW-Waukesha in fall and has already made a name for himself. He helped form the UW-Waukesha Student Veterans Association and is serving as the organization's vice president. He is also the president of UW-Waukesha Student Government. Stuettgen said he noticed there wasn't any group for veterans on campus and wanted to change that.
Stuettgen is studying to be a surgeon's nurse and is planning to transfer to UW-Madison next year to finish his degree.
While he would prefer to be in the working world right now instead of sitting in a classroom at 28 years old, he doesn’t have any second thoughts about his time in the military.
“I’ve met some great friends I never would have met if I hadn’t joined,” Stuettgen said. “I have no regrets, and I’ve also had experiences others haven’t had.”
With Veterans Day on Friday, Stuettgen will take a few moments and return to those experiences that have changed and shaped who he is today.
"I don't know if it's any more special than before," said Stuettgen of Veterans Day. "I've always had veterans that I could honor in previous Veterans Days. Now when it comes around I use it as time to reflect on my time in the Army and (be) proud that I was able to serve."
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