MARQUETTE — When Dan Atkins departed Ishpeming for special training in Indiana prior to his deployment to Iraq in 2004, it was impossible to truly fathom or prepare for what awaited him on the other side of the world.
“It was just different all together because of … the barriers that we were facing when we got there,” Atkins said of his experience arriving in Iraq.
Atkins, who had enlisted in the Michigan Army National Guard in 1993 at age 19, is a third-generation service member. He began his service as a combat engineer with the 107th Engineer Battalion stationed out of the Michigan Army National Guard Ishpeming Armory in western Marquette County.
However, Atkins never envisioned that he or his fellow guardsmen would see a war.
“We were prepared for a domestic situation — like a blizzard,” he said.
He had enlisted with the goal of improving his skill set while paying for a college education and found himself learning an array of skills.
Atkins even branched out to a new role at the armory. An influential role model at the Ishpeming Armory, Jim Sullivan, would encourage and inspire Atkins to train as a food service specialist.
“I liked his demeanor, I liked his attitude, I liked his humor,” Atkins said. “But I also liked his commitment to providing the best meal that his kitchen could. And I wanted to be a part of that.”
By the time the call up for the Iraq War began, Atkins decided to volunteer for deployment to Iraq as a food service specialist. Atkins knew the importance of his job and how good meals could boost morale, as well as health. So he volunteered.
But when he arrived in Kuwait for staging before his unit entered Iraq, he found out a surprising piece of news.
“We learned that they didn’t need another cook,” Atkins said. “… I found myself not sure what I was going to do. My company commander thought it was a good idea that I worked in the operations center.”
Having not been trained for the role before shipping overseas, Atkins had much to learn.
However, the core values instilled in Atkins by Sullivan, Col. Tom Perry and others at the Ishpeming Armory would serve him well, even though he was now facing a brand-new role.
The job encompassed many functions, such as coordinating personnel and supplies, vehicle maintenance, and even the logistics of getting lumber, nails and plywood throughout the region.
Atkins was stationed in Baghdad and was assigned to a battalion that specialized in rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure.
“We were given missions to take abandoned buildings and rebuild them, essentially, with electricity and the necessary plumbing and carpentry in order for them to operational,” he said.
While in Iraq, Atkins had to adapt to 135-degree days, significant cultural differences and a longing for home and family.
“I was once told that, ‘You know, war sometimes is a geographic lesson.’ And this was definitely a geographic lesson, as most of had no idea what we were about to go into,” he said. “And we made the best of the situation while we were there.”
However, there were many bright spots amid the challenging 15 months that Atkins spent deployed in Iraq from 2004 to 2006.
For one, Atkins was selected while stationed in Iraq to meet with Gov. Jennifer Granholm to tell her about the soldiers’ experiences.
And perhaps most importantly, Atkins felt he could take pride in the work that was being done.
“If we were able to come in and make a difference with the local nationals in Iraq and give them hope and give them the belief that they can have the basic essentials in life and to live comfortably, then I was proud of what I did,” he said.
A big part of this, Atkins said, was the work ethic that his fellow guardsmen from the Ishpeming Armory brought to Iraq.
“We are a smaller unit compared to the majority of the units that were there, but I was proud of the fact that we went with the Upper Peninsula attitude of how we do things,” he said. “And we work hard. We’re committed to missions that were given to us and we wanted to establish with everybody that they could depend on us to do whatever was needed. Our slogan is ‘good as done.’ And I was really proud of the fact that when we were done, it was good as done. And we did make a huge difference there.”
After 15 long months, it was time for Atkins and his fellow soldiers to return home to the Michigan Army National Guard’s Ishpeming Armory in Marquette County.
They were escorted throughout the U.P. and saw people waving, cheering and holding signs as they drove toward Ishpeming, where they were greeted by family members at the armory and given awards.
Returning to Iraq
After spending 15 months in Iraq, Atkins volunteered to return in 2007.
He would spend eight months stationed in Baghdad from 2007 to 2008, working again at the tactical operations center, but this time, as an operations chief.
“Our jobs were to provide a clear route, a safe route for our equipment to go though and not be exposed to improvised explosive devices,” Atkins said.
The Iraqi insurgency was well known for using IEDs to target coalition vehicles, with IEDs being hidden in the ground, attached to buildings, placed in soft drink cans, boxes, animal carcasses and other hiding places.
“It was a variety of challenges that we faced with the different types of IEDs that were being made and produced by the insurgency,” Atkins said.
No matter the job or equipment used during the Iraq War, it was dangerous work.
“We’re put in harm’s way in conflict — regardless of if we’re doing construction, looking for IEDs — we were all exposed to combat, some of us more than others,” he said.
But Atkins remains grateful for his experience.
“The great leadership that we had prevented many fatalities, prevented a lot of accidents, a lot of negligence,” he said. “The leadership was strong, they were smart, committed. Again, you could depend on them. They were there.”
Overall, Atkins takes great pride in the work that was accomplished in Iraq.
“There were some hard times, there were some good times,” he said. “I felt like our missions were a success, I felt like we represented the military, the Army, the Army National Guard and the 107th Engineer Battalion to the highest degree.”
Life after war
When Atkins returned home after the Iraq War, everything seemed to getting back on track with his life as he adapted to the civilian world. He had a family, home and a job. There were cars in the driveway and the bills were being paid.
“Everything seemed fine,” he said.
But then, his anxiety began to increase. He started to sleep poorly and have strange dreams. His level of agitation increased. Atkins found himself becoming more and more frustrated with people who drove poorly in the U.P.’s winter weather conditions.
Things were piling up, although he didn’t recognize it at the time, Atkins said.
“Even though I felt fine, I wish I would have made appointments to see a therapist for my mental health, a physical therapist to help with some of the aches and pains that I was starting to experience,” he said. “I wish I would have seen my provider. Not even more often, just, I didn’t see a provider for a long time…. I really wish I would have because it probably would have made things a little bit easier for me today.”
For Atkins, connecting with services from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs made a difference once he realized he needed help.
“I do struggle with addiction,” he said. “The VA has been very instrumental with my recovery in all aspects. They take it serious. They do see that folks come home from war, combat and struggle with addiction, struggle with stress, struggle with anxiety, struggle with divorces, adversities, loss of jobs.”
Atkins wants other veterans to know that if they’re struggling with mental health, physical health or even a substance use disorder, there is help — and hope — out there.
“I’m very happy with where I’m at today,” he said. “I am in recovery with the help of the VA and other supporting groups.”
But he knows it’s not always easy to take that step.
“It took me a long time to admit that I had a problem. And I was afraid to admit that I had a problem. I didn’t have the courage to do so. I didn’t want to show a sign of weakness,” Atkins said. “But I’ll tell you what — addiction is real, the struggle is real. It’s no joke and I highly recommend that you pursue the avenue of the resources that are available by the VA when you discharge from the Army.”
Atkins encourages fellow veterans to reach out the VA and start seeing a provider. He also recommends attending a Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting for those who suspect they may have a substance use disorder — or even those who know someone who does — as he said that these groups don’t require membership and are open to all.
“I speak out to my fellow veterans when I say this … help is available,” Atkins said.
If you are a veteran in crisis or know someone who is, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Crisis Line can be reached by calling 1-800-273-8255 and pressing one or texting 838255.
“Don’t wait too long,” Atkins said.
Atkins received an honorable discharge from the Michigan Army National Guard after 23 years of service. He worked for the VA in Seattle before returning to the U.P. He has two daughters.
Atkins, who continues his recovery, now works at a job in Marquette where he uses many of the skills he learned in the service — and even drives a Zamboni from time to time.
Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 270. Her email address is email@example.com.