Steven Stryska came home from war at age 19 in 2008 with a strong sense of accomplishment. The troop he served with as a cavalry scout captured wanted terrorists during more than six dozen raids in Iraq, most of them at night and most of them extremely dangerous.
But the deteriorating situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 4,000 American troops have given their lives in wars meant to substitute stability for brutal regimes, has left Stryska and other American war veterans questioning what a key phase in their lives -- military service -- has meant.
"For a lot of guys I keep in contact with, their service was their badge of honor," said Stryska, 26, who lives in Islip. "But with this ISIS thing, that has been taken away from them."
The unraveling chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan was brought into focus Tuesday with the killing of Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, a New York State native and the highest ranking American officer killed since the Vietnam War. An Afghan soldier shot Greene while he and other NATO leaders were visiting Afghanistan's top military academy in Kabul. They were there to help prepare Afghan forces for the departure of coalition forces at the end of the year.
In Iraq, insurgents formerly known as the Islamic State In Iraq, or ISIS, have routed elements of the Iraqi army and taken control of several cities. ISIS now controls Mosul, where Stryska spent part of his 2008 deployment.
Last month, Stryska spoke at a Dowling College meeting of area veterans troubled by the turmoil in places many of them had dedicated a year or more of their lives to stabilizing.
"When I saw Tikrit and Mosul fall, that's when it really hit home," said Stryska, who graduated from Dowling in Oakdale in the spring.
Denise Ingenito, a licensed clinical social worker who is Dowling's director of counseling, said that among the meeting's roughly 40 attendees, many expressed frustration that their military service had forced them to confront one of humanity's great taboos -- taking the life of a fellow human.
"They felt they were put in the position of killing," Ingenito said, "but that now what they went there for has been all undone."
Stephen Long, a psychologist and combat stress specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport, said veterans with meaningful postwar experiences, such as attending college, finding a job or starting a family, may be better insulated from the frustration of seeing Iraq and Afghanistan spiral toward chaos.
"I do expect this can be quite challenging for some people," Long said. "Because of the sacrifice that went into doing what our military did in Iraq and Afghanistan does make for them some discomfort and disappointment."
Ingenito said several of 130 veterans who attended Dowling -- including a few who fought in the Vietnam War -- showed increased symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, as turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan reminded them of their war experiences.
She said veterans who feel upset by recent events should remind themselves that they served honorably, not isolate themselves, and avoid self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
Rather, she said, they should seek one of several mental health programs designed to help people cope with post-combat stress, including the Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project, which offers peer counseling in both Nassau and Suffolk, or VA-run psychological counseling.
"At the meeting, many of them said they were speaking of their feelings for the first time," Ingenito said.