Soldier's new mission is to build a life back home
Staff Sgt. Timothy Church won the Bronze Star and the respect of the men he served with In Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I'm still in the military, and he's the best sergeant I ever had," Mike Mueller of Sumner said. "His policy was 'my door's always open,' and he was a good man to have around when things got bad."
Back in Urbana, however, that Bronze Star is not doing him a whole lot of good right now.
Church, 40, is dealing with his war injuries and his psychological scars, pushing cigarettes and coffee to get through his days. Nights are often sleepless.
After receiving 80 percent disability, the Tolono native still needs work to make ends meet. If you're looking for a precision or light duty carpenter, he's your man.
Church makes intricate wooden toys that he has sold at Gordyville shows. He can handle a hammer, but not for a long shift.
That's because of a neck injury that started with a Humvee accident and was exacerbated by a fall.
Right now, he's facing foreclosure on the house where his wife Kristina and their three children live.
Though they are estranged, Kristina Church remains convinced that her husband has what it takes — given a little help.
"He loves carpentry work, but he hasn't been able to make a living at it since he got out," she says.
Church grew up "all over the place" as military brat, but regards Tolono as "the closest thing to home."
At Unity High School, he was determined to serve, and so he volunteered for the Marines.
"All I wanted to do was be a soldier," he says.
Church saw action as a Marine in Somalia, where he was once detailed to rescue reporters at the height of the strife.
The U.S. military was in the African nation from 1992 to '94.
After that, Church left the Marines and started to work as a carpenter.
But Sept. 11, 2001, hit him hard, causing him to have flashbacks to his time in Somalia.
He decided to re-up — this time in the Army National Guard's 33rd Brigade headquartered in Urbana.
In Iraq in 2005, his unit came under fire constantly as soldiers trained Iraqi troops.
"We called it herding cats," he said of the troops he trained. "The culture is so different.
"Somebody would wander off to take a leak. Somebody would haul off and shoot at a goat. Some of them were loyal to whoever gave them the most money. It was hard to hold on to the good ones."
Still, he had strong sympathy for his trainees.
"The bad guys didn't like us," Church said. "They really didn't like the Iraqis (in training) a lot."
It was common for passing cars to spew gunfire at the soldiers, he said.
But modern technology sometimes made the ancient land surreal.
Soldiers had cell phones, and during one gunfight, Church recalls, a U.S. captain took a nonmilitary call.
"Sorry, Mom, I'm in the middle of a gunfight right now. I'll have to call you back," the officer told his mother.
Church's Bronze Star documents noted that he served in more than 100 combat-related missions in the "Triangle of Death" between Baghdad and al Hillah.
(Al Hillah saw the most deadly suicide bombing in the Iraq War when 125 Iraqi soldiers were killed in one incident.)
Church saw more than his share of carnage but wanted to continue to serve, even with nerve damage from a Humvee accident.
It was in Iraq that Church jumped on top of a Humvee after an improvised explosive device was spotted. When the vehicle lurched, he badly injured his neck.
It wasn't his only neck injury in the service.
"It's hard to tell what was the worst," he said.
Despite his injury, he volunteered for Afghanistan.
"To the big disappointment of my family, the doctors said I could go," he says.
In 2008 and "09, "We'd go out, do our thing, and got shot at every time we went out, every day," says Mike Mueller, who served in Church's squad.
Josh Jennings, a paramedic who lives near Jacksonville, also saw Church in action in Afghanistan.
"He was my squad leader," Jennings said. "We had quite a few contacts and a lot of TICs."
"TIC" is soldier jargon for "troops in contact," engaging the enemy.
Jennings credits Church with keeping the squad together.
"He had a lot of experience that helped us out; he was a seasoned veteran, and a lot of us learned from him," Jennings said.
But Church's physical injuries followed him in his deployments.
A military doctor told him he had to limit physical work or risk making the injury worse, Church said.
He had nerve damage so that sometimes his "hand felt like it wasn't there." At other times, the pain was intense. He couldn't stand for long; he couldn't sit for long. He didn't know which symptom he would have next.
After an honorable discharge in 2009, Church found that the injury cost him employment.
He also went through a period of heavy drinking, and he still chain-smokes his Pall Malls.
"I came back from Afghanistan with a lot of things going on mentally," he says.
Church said his physical and mental traumas are entirely different issues.
"I've had lots of people tell me to go for the 100 percent (disability) because of post-traumatic stress disorder. But I can function some in society, so I don't think I deserve 100 percent for PTSD," he said.
"But I do deserve a larger percentage because of my neck. That's where the fight has been since 2010."
Church has asked for 95 percent disability. The Department of Veteran's Affairs doesn't discuss personnel issues.
But retired Sgt. Garrett Anderson, a former soldier who sustained his own disabling injuries, works as a veteran's advocate in U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis' office.
The News-Gazette connected the two.
Church has already learned a few things from Anderson. For instance, he didn't know about the VA's "unemployability" benefits, and he has started the application process for that supplemental income.
"Being proactive is key," Anderson said, and that includes recognizing that changes in the way claims are handled and how services are provided.
The congressional liaison said he could relate to some of Church's problems "because life in combat was sometimes easier.
"You have your mission: Keeping your buddies to your right and left alive; and making it home," he said. "When you have to return home, you have to return to a world that has changed without you in it.
"You are asked to return to work, school and your life as if nothing had ever happened."
Resources for wounded veterans
The National Resource Directory (http://www.nrd.gov) includes information on benefits and education, as well as a job bank.
The Wounded Warrior Project (http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs/wwp-resource-center.aspx), is a nongovernmental resource that specializes in helping wounded veterans.
The Veterans Crisis Line connects veterans in crisis and their families and friends with qualified Department of Veterans Affairs responders through a confidential hot line, online chat or text. Veterans and family can call 800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day. Support for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals is also available.
Under a recent federal initiative, jobs for veterans — including wounded ones — are listed at such sites as fema.gov/veterans-and-wounded-warriors and fedshirevets.gov.
For general news, check out militarytimes.com.