Josh: what r u doing?
Paul: kids kids kids
Josh: how’s that working out?
Paul: I’m ready to go back to Iraq. That was easier.
Paul Bunn is laughing as he tells me about the text with his buddy Josh Chambliss. Five of Paul’s eight kids are underfoot in the house, their screams so loud you can’t hear him talk — and that’s saying something. Paul is used to being heard and obeyed. Last time I saw him, in 2005, he was mayor of tiny Bradford, Ark., just back from a 13-month stint in Baghdad. He was barking orders down his cellphone like a staff sergeant rallying the troops. Josh was his police chief.
How things have changed. The 44-year-old ex-mayor medically retired from the U.S. Army and pensioned out — after two wars, a torn ACL, jaundice and a case of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Now he lives near Bradford in Possum Grape with his new wife and a troop of kids. “I went from being in charge of a town, being in charge of people in the military and having my own business to being in charge of a 2-year-old,” he jokes. “But that thing there [he gestures toward screams in the other room], forget it! Just give him what he wants.” He grins, clearly loving his postmilitary life.
The mayor and the police chief set off to Iraq in 2003 with six other weekend warriors from Bradford, a town in central Arkansas with just 800 residents. Everybody came together to support the soldiers, asked the town’s 78-year-old treasurer, Greba June Edens, to fill in as mayor, and said their prayers. But the mayor’s pet project — a new water system — stalled while he was away, and when he got home, he wasn’t allowed to run for mayor again because he was on active duty. “The town wasn’t able to move forward with me gone,” he says.
The war cost Paul his first marriage as well as his insulation business, which used to bring in more than $200,000 a year. After 18 years in the military, his soldiering days were over, too, thanks partly to a leg injury he sustained when a bomb rocked his Humvee in 2004. He was in denial about the PTSD, doped up on prescription drugs, trying to forget what he’d seen in Iraq. On one bloody day in Sadr City, insurgents hit his unit with explosives countless times. “Everything was crashing down,” he says. “I was lost.”
Josh seemed to fare better at first. He tried to re-up in the National Guard but failed the medical because of tinnitus from an attack on his Humvee just before coming home. It took three years of PTSD counseling to get him back on track. He’s still a cop, working drug enforcement. Sitting in the living room of the new house he built in Bald Knob — just down the road from Bradford — you’d never guess the emotional lows he’s overcome.
Wife Farrah is holding their new baby boy, Jax, while Cloyee, 7, is doing cheerleading routines and showing off her megasize closet to visitors. “When I came home from Iraq, it was hard to disconnect myself from what I’d been doing,” Josh says. “I really wanted to go back. If I could have done it Monday through Friday and come home weekends, I’d still be doing it. It was that much fun, being with the guys, the camaraderie and seeing different places.” He misses the food, too: the deep-fried chicken nuggets and scrambled eggs with goat cheese, stuffed in a bread loaf. (Any wonder he still has stomach problems?)
Both Paul and Josh learned a lesson from older vets of the World War II and Vietnam eras: Hook up with the Veterans Administration and get help early — for both PTSD and lingering injuries. Paul ferries other guys down to the Little Rock VA daily, navigating the paperwork to get medical help and disability payments. He got his own military retirement in the fall of 2010 — more than six years after returning home — after 3,000 vets filed a lawsuit. Disturbed at how his Iraqi interpreters were treated, he’s brought five of them to the United States. He calls one of them, Achmed, every day. “He’s my brother. I could be running for office, but helping these guys is what it’s all about,” he says.
The National Guard called up Josh for duty after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When he got home, Cloyee was so mad at him for leaving again that she kicked him in the shin, Josh says, laughing. The best thing, both guys admit, is being home, seeing their kids grow up. “The war kicked me, too,” says Paul, “but you know what? I’m alive. Thank God I have these kids. I have an awesome support group.”