I’m a combat veteran and one of the things I did when I got home was try to put the feelings of coming home to paper. It was strange rereading it and seeing how much has changed and how much hasn’t since 2008 when I wrote it. I reprinted the article below and will give updates in a subsequent post. Enjoy!
The War at Home
American appreciation of our wartime military is at an all-time high. Seldom
can a military member go any length of time without a grateful citizen
extending a heartfelt, “Thank you for what you do.” Often times, I find myself
wondering whether that person thanks me for my wartime service or for my
service as a whole. The question plagues me because I find that most people do
not realize that sometimes the most difficult part of military service is not
war, but the time after the violence ends.
provides enormous challenges. Any combat patrol can be your last and each
citizen can be your best friend or worst enemy in a warzone. The mitigating
factor is that all service members train for these situations. Drill after
drill, intelligence report after intelligence report, the information is
pounded into your consciousness. When the time comes for action your training
surfaces and often times thinking through the situation is not an option until
after the bullets stop flying. You learn your lessons and prepare yourself for
the next fight.
thought on the flight home that the hard part was over. No bombs exploding
under me on the way to the mall and no need to check rooftops for snipers. What
I found when I came home was that the life I prayed for each night in the Iraqi
desert was not the life to which I came home. I lost a whole year, could not
find happiness in the simple things, and found that I never dealt with the
losses of the past year. Operation Iraqi Freedom was over for me, but the war
at home just began.
The Time Machine Effect
left the United States in late March of 2005, there was still a winter chill in
the air. I look back and realize I never did take it all in before I started my
odyssey to the Middle East. My focus was clear. It was time to put my mind on
survival, not which bar I would be frequenting that weekend. Tunnel vision took
over and I got on the plane without thinking about what life would be like when
I returned home. A few months later, I came home on my two-week furlough that
is mandatory for all military members serving extended tours. I did not learn
my lesson yet to take in all that changed since I left. Instead, I told
everyone to meet me at the bar, and drinks were on them.
tour was over and I flew back home, I anticipated much of the same as the two
weeks I spent at home six months earlier. Let the drinking begin, all
consequences be damned. After all, I just survived war and came back that much
stronger. That is what I thought anyway. I stepped off the plane into a cold
Georgia morning. I left in the cold air and returned in the cold air.
the “Time Machine Effect” became apparent. Life did not stop when I left, but
to me it did. I came home to friends and family that were a year older and, in
many circumstances, found themselves weathered by their own trials and
tribulations. More often than I care to remember, I would find a loved one say
to me, “Brendan, you had bigger worries than us. There is no way we were going
to let you be distracted by our problems.”
selfless action of keeping a loved one in the dark to let them do their job is
a noble one. I could not fault anyone for caring about my mind’s well-being.
Unfortunately, love can soothe and hurt at the same time. My mind was clear in
Iraq, but now I was an alien in my own home. I had no knowledge of the pain
those close to me felt for over 10 months. I began to look at my plane to Iraq
as a time machine that robbed the year 2005 from me.
together the year I missed is a challenge that still exists three years later.
It is as simple as hearing a song on the radio and assuming it is new and
finding out it was very popular….three years ago. Very often my friends will do
their best to hide their confusion when I make such pronouncements. How do you
explain to someone that an entire year does not exist in my head?
hardest part of losing a whole year was missing the things that did matter.
Among a moment I can never have back is the birth of my Godson just two weeks before
returning home. GIs often miss the birth of their own children, so my lament
seems a bit silly in comparison. I still
wish I could at least say I was close enough to understand the event. Instead,
I spent his birthday lying in a dirty tent and waiting for my plane to arrive.
Missing the good occasions did not hurt nearly as much as missing the bad ones. My friend Kay, decades my senior, died of lung cancer about 9 months into my deployment. Kay and her family owned a beach house my family and I frequented every summer for the formative years of my life. She was a gentle soul I lovingly referred to as my, “summer mom” when I sent an email home after her passing. While I can only hope the email provided some sort of menial comfort to her family, I know it did me no damn good. It was just another place I needed to be and was not.
The Pariah Conversation
compliment to the time machine effect is the way in which wartime memories
remain largely untold. It is 2009 and I have yet to have a member of my family
ask anything about my deployment other than to describe how hot it is one more
time. Their reluctance to ask is understandable. Everyone’s reluctance is understandable. The
issue is that I often find people who tell me they did not want to burden me by
reliving what I went through. The irony is that there is nothing I am ashamed
of or afraid to engage in a discussion about. The uncomfortable feeling is
always attributed to the questioner who is often left wondering if they can
handle what may come out of my mouth.
Mom cannot even hear me discuss it with others without tearing up and asking me to stop. She does not want to have to imagine her youngest in danger, or ever worse, accepting that I am have killed another human being. Like any parent, she knows the answer to that question, but she can keep lying to herself if she never hears it come from my mouth. I heard all the reports about her actions while I was deployed. She stopped watching the news and tried to keep herself in the tightest possible bubble. It leaves me to wonder if I could send my child to war one day if the situation calls for it. My hope is that I will never know.
older brothers perform the same dance with me. They keep it light if they ask
anything at all. They will ask about the food, the heat, what the people were
like but they are sure to never dive anywhere too deep. They cling to the age-old
adage, “If he needs to talk about it, he will.” The added issue is that my two
big brothers clearly did not know how to approach me anymore with their advice.
The longer I have been home the easier it became, but my first year I found
that their two cents came much less frequently. It was as if I suddenly was
infused with life experiences they would never know and felt that they no longer
had the right to dispense their brotherly advice. Luckily, old habits die hard
and in 2009 I find they are comfortable again with telling me that black is
friends use a powerful social lubricant to talk to me about Iraq: booze. Most
conversations take place after a few drinks and a shot or two. The people who
still venture far enough to ask about Iraq are still a minority, but once the
ice breaks the conversations become more frequent but with a sense of
sensitivity every time it gets too real. It always goes the same way, start
telling the story, add in a few jokes to keep it just light enough, and then
when the gore, death, and near misses appear the inquisitor always goes silent.
Not many questions follow after that and I always sense that someone thought
they could listen to anything but found out they passed their comfort zone.
hard part about the situation is not how everyone acts when the pariah
conversation comes to the forefront. All veterans know that most things we deal
with should stay away from the public view. We signed our names on the dotted
line and accepted that fact that we needed to be the ones to shoulder these
issues. The hard part is that the one person I want to have the longest
conversation with is my father. A Vietnam veteran, and a victim of a fatal
cancer in 1996, I will never know if he would divulge anything to me now that I
can count myself among his short list of peers on the subject. Vietnam and Iraq
are very different wars, but the one person I would like to test that theory
with is the one I cannot. That fact stings more than anything else.
The Letdown of the Middle
after war is something you cannot prepare yourself for mentally. I remember how
vividly I imagined how home would look, feel, smell, and sound. I knew I would
get a major rush every time I saw an old friend for the first time and had a
drink at my favorite watering holes. The rush never happened. I did everything
I wanted and saw everyone I wanted and the rush never came. I really wondered
whether there was something wrong with me. Why was life at home not as great as
binge did not help either. I took part in a tradition that most people take
part in after returning from Iraq. I drank for almost 30 days straight. My 30
days of leave consisted of waking up and deciding just where I would end up
that night and what drink would take me where I want to go. I do not have a
drinking problem and do not feel that I ever did. However, the argument could
be made that for 30 days I was an alcoholic. The mindset is simple enough. I
could not drink for months. It was now time to make up for it. People are also
extremely generous with free drinks for recent combat soldiers. Why stop? I did
earn the time to let loose. My friends say the same thing and before you know
it you are drunk again and it is time to stumble home.
as a whole became quite a challenge for me around this time. Dealing with
strangers was easy enough. They thank me for my service, and I would do my best
to come up with witty responses. “No problem, you are paying me for it,” was my
personal favorite. The admiration of strangers is easy to accept because their
connection with you ends when they walk away. The complications came with
people closer to me. The part of the hero is tough to play. I never felt of
myself as a hero and still do not. I was paid to do a job and did it. It is not
that the compliments and gratitude were not heartfelt and appropriate. The
problem is that I did not feel different, but everyone in my life saw a new me.
A friend told me once they heard my brother say that he felt there is not much
he can say to me anymore about life because I saw war. There is not much else
to tell me now.
Complicating my mental state was the major surgery I had within 60 days of my return. Nothing helps improve personal psychology than a couple of heavy-duty painkillers. I found that I did not need the rush when I could take away my pain with two little white pills. The fact that I was in real physical pain helped ease my mind about taking a good dosage whenever I needed.
Months later, I looked in the mirror and realized that I gained significant weight, ruined a few very important relationships in my life, and did not like myself. My stubborn nature took over and soon I was working out again, taking Tylenol only when I needed it, and trying to save the relationships that I did not completely shatter. Unfortunately, some connections were too damaged to fix. I look back now and cannot help but regret losing one of my best friends because I could not accept that I was disappointed in myself, not her.
not until months after I pulled myself out of my funk that I looked back and
saw what happened. I realized I came back from Iraq with unrealistic
expectations. My deployment consisted of daily rushes of adrenaline over months
and months of combat operations. When I came home I expected my body to react
to home like I reacted to a roadside bomb going off or a bullet shooting by my
tank. I did get the rush, but my body could not register such a comparatively
smaller feeling of comfort. I felt stuck in the middle but I was really just
back to normal life.
This article is not about sympathy or blame or even
lamenting at the changes a soldier goes through in readjusting to normal life. I
never use the word pain when talking about these subjects because it is not
pain. These are a series of challenges that someone returning from war needs to
face. The point is that my story may bridge the gap for someone else in the
same situation, whether it is a soldier returning home or the people waiting
for their safe return. I do not speak for all veterans, but it is my belief
that my story is not unique. A postwar life is not a shattered life. It just
takes some getting used to.