USMC veterans

Joseph Bathgate, left, of Dundalk, shares a laugh with fellow former USMC member Josh Bortell while hanging out at Towson University's Veterans Center. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / November 7, 2012)

Joseph Bathgate calls them "the Hollywood questions."

When college classmates learn he was a machine gunner for the Marine Corps for two tours in Iraq, they want to know: Did anyone ever shoot at you? Ever get hit?

And there's the big one.

You ever kill anyone?

"It's unusual, I understand that, what I've done," says Bathgate, 24, of Dundalk, now out of the military and studying kinesiology at Towson University. "Still, it's annoying. … Naturally, I feel different" from the other, mostly younger students on campus.

It's a feeling shared by many. More than a decade of war has minted a new generation of veterans: Two and a half million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001.

The challenges now confronting some of them are well-documented: limbs lost, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury; an unemployment rate greater than the national average; an alarming incidence of suicide.

But others describe a more subtle challenge: the difficulty of returning to civilian life in a society that generally appreciates their service — but doesn't always understand it.

While most of the nation's young men served during World War II, and the United States maintained a draft that drew broadly from the country for the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, military service now is increasingly the province of a shrinking minority of Americans. The number who have been to war in the last decade amounts to less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.

"It's isolating," says Patrick Young, the coordinator of veterans services at Towson. "There's a disconnect between people serving in the military and the civilian populace that benefits from their service.

"It's not necessarily a bad thing," says Young, 29, a former Marine who deployed twice to Iraq. "It's just the reality. … Where in World War II you had a majority of people who had gone through some of the same experiences, or at least was forced to put their lives on hold for an effort that everybody thought was righteous, now you come back, and [some people] who haven't served assume you're crazy or think you have some sort of mental disorder."

Richard Tarlton, the student coordinator for the Vets2Vets program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says most civilians are "very, very kind."

"They thank you for your service," says Tarlton, 24, a former Marine artillery scout observer who served two tours in Afghanistan. "They're very polite. But then every once in a while you get the nut case who calls you a baby-killer.

"I would say it's rare, honestly. Now, I have met some veterans who say they get that more than the compliments. And I have no idea where they could possibly live at where that happens. But I would like to pay them a visit."

More common, veterans say, are the moments when cultures clash — when the blunt talk or the black humor that are common in the military horrify a listener who never served.

"You're used to talking one language in the military," says Howard Denney, 36, who remains a Marine reservist after two deployments to Iraq. "Then you try to go back into the civilian world, where a simple joke that you think everybody would get, the civilians don't get."

"People know you've been in the military because of the way you handle yourself," Young says. "They say, 'I could tell, because of how direct you are.'"

The reactions of civilians aren't the only challenges that await returning veterans. Several speak of the difficulty adjusting to the freedom of civilian life, after the discipline and structure of the military.

For the first three months after Young left the Marines, he says, "I was just drinking my face off and watching TV."