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Realtors can play key roles in welcoming soldiers home because they often are among the first people veterans meet — other than friends and family — upon their return stateside. A decorated veteran told Baraboo-area real estate agents Thursday they can do a patriotic deed simply by initiating a conversation.

“You’re on the front lines of this fight,” said former U.S. Army Ranger Sean Parnell. “You’re in the trenches.”

Eliciting tears from many of the 85 in attendance at Baraboo Country Club, Parnell detailed his 485 days of service in Afghanistan and the inner battle he faced upon his return. What started with a real estate agent’s invitation to talk became a movement to help veterans rejoin civilian society: Parnell helped found the American Warrior Initiative.

“You don’t have to know everything there is to know about the military,” Parnell, of Pittsburgh, said. “It just starts with a very simple conversation.”

Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp. supports the American Warrior Initiative, and teamed with Wisconsin River Title in bringing Parnell to Baraboo. He spoke to local real estate professionals as they concluded a continuing education course. The emotional event concluded with Fairway awarding local Vietnam War veteran Doug Lewis a scholarship to have his dog Cody trained as a post-traumatic stress disorder service animal.

Lewis said support from friend Peggy Kling, comfort from Cody and assistance from the American Warrior Initiative helped him finally release emotions he’d kept bottled up for decades. Speaking haltingly into a microphone, just above a whisper, he said, “My best friend became my savior.”

As the audience wiped away tears and applauded Lewis, Parnell said support is what veterans need as they renew civilian lives. “That’s what needs to happen with every veteran we have in this country,” he said.

Bridging the gap

Parnell didn’t know how to begin after returning from his “year and a half in hell” overseas. Friends, family and familiar places were just as he left them, but Parnell knew he no longer was the guy they remembered. “I felt like there was a barrier between my family and I, and I didn’t even know what it was,” he said. “Nothing has changed here, but I am a fundamentally different person.”

On Parnell’s first day in Afghanistan, his unit dodged enemy fire that struck a nearby village school. Families flocked to the gates of his base, begging for medical care for their children. Parnell cradled a girl in his arms and raced to the base. It wasn’t until he noticed his pantleg was soaked in blood that he realized the girl had lost half her leg. “Nothing can prepare a young, 24-year-old kid for a moment like that,” he said. “It changes you.”

That night he burned the bloody uniform and tried to turn off his feelings.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks had spurred Parnell to join the Army while he was in college. He volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, leading a platoon as a lieutenant. Their stated job was to help the Afghans rebuild their government, as the Taliban was thought defeated. “That couldn’t have been farther from the truth,” Parnell said.

His elite “Outlaw” platoon engaged in fierce fighting along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where al-Qaida sought to capture and behead American soldiers. Most in the platoon, including Parnell, earned Purple Hearts. Parnell was wounded in a 2006 firefight.

‘I can take it’

He retired as an infantry captain, but he wasn’t done fighting. Upon his return, Parnell found he couldn’t share his war experience with those closest to him. Some found his stories depressing. He figured “civilians just don’t get it,” and shut down.

Then he started house hunting, and a real estate agent who had veterans in her family encouraged Parnell to share his story with her. And then she said something that changed his life: “I can take it.”

Parnell came to learn that the reason Americans volunteer for military service — their love for, and desire to protect, their loved ones and their country — is the same reason they’re reluctant to share their stories. They don’t want to hurt or sadden or worry the listener.

“Veterans aren’t going to come up to you and offload their traumatic experiences,” Parnell said.

He helped create American Warrior Initiative, working with Fairway agent Louise Thaxton to raise money for veterans and awareness of the challenges they face after coming home. Parnell’s 2012 book “Outlaw Platoon” became a New York Times bestseller.

Parnell and Thaxton have delivered this message to more than 20,000 real estate professionals: You can serve your country by taking an interest and lending an ear when working with veterans. “You’ll bring our veterans closer to the American citizens they fought to protect,” Parnell said.

Follow Ben Bromley on Twitter @ben_bromley