My Personal History: The War At Home – Requiem

When I originally wrote, “The War at Home,” I was in a strange place. It began as a way of putting my thoughts on paper. I had many conversations where these three themes kept coming up. As anyone who sits in a therapist’s office will tell you, writing down your thoughts always comes up as a way of identifying and then working through those feelings. I didn’t have a therapist then but it turns out I really probably needed one. 

Once I wrote the original entry, I was given a lot of positive feedback. The final version I posted to this site was a third or fourth crack at it. What started as me writing down my thoughts then became an article ready to be printed in a publication if necessary. Rereading it today, I find I hate the preamble. It is trite, overly dramatic, and sounds like someone else’s voice. I wish I never wrote it. The rest of the piece is truly mine and truly eye opening looking back. 

The Time Machine Effect 

Time was the cure to most of the time machine effect it turns out. I love irony. The more I integrated back into life at home the more I started filling in the gaps of time and began to understand what 2005 was like for the people around me. There are not many songs or movies worth catching up on that I haven’t. Most importantly, seeing my Godson grow up to be an amazing young man made me forget I wasn’t there to see him when he first came home. We’ve had enough time to build our own traditions (drive-in movie night every summer vacation) that the other things seem inconsequential.  

But time can’t fix everything. I find missing Kay’s last days are still an open wound in me. I remember her so fondly and even talking about her now is still hard. This may be one thing which there is no cure. Losing a friend always leaves a hole. I have a lighthouse in my home which she made for me years ago. It always helps to have a reminder of her and I love talking about it. I feel like it keeps her memory going. 

The Pariah Conversation 

Well, this didn’t get any better! Ultimately, many of the aspects of the pariah conversation have not changed but how I view them has. My family still doesn’t ask and over the years I became more and more comfortable with it. In fact, I started to look at it fondly. My family doesn’t need to know what I did over there. I was a soldier who did his job. They don’t need to know more than that because it won’t ever change how they see me. I didn’t realize it then, but their silence is a solace. I never have to explain a thing. 

My friends have mostly kept to the same tact. Recently, during a whole different major life change, my friend Mike actually started asking questions. I asked him why he never brought any of this up before. His response fell along the same line of a lot of people when it finally comes up. Some people feel like they don’t have a right to ask. My experiences seem like something only I can let out. Some people are worried they may ask something to set me off. Which leads me to… 

The Letdown of the Middle 

This was a cry for help and I didn’t know it. This entire part of the piece is basically me screaming at the top of my lungs, “I have PTSD!” Luckily, I figured it out. This year. 2019. I never said I was punctual. (Want to know more? Go here where I wrote an article for a friend’s healthcare website about PTSD. Stay and read more because Claire’s stuff is amazing.) Rereading my words all those years ago make me feel like a complete fool for not realizing a lot of things. In fairness to myself, PTSD is still something mental health professionals are figuring out. However, when giving my personal history to a psychiatrist he did tell me I had very bad PTSD at this time in my life. Now, it’s better and I am dealing with it. But back then, hoo boy. 

A lot of big red markers are here. Self-medication? Check. Avoiding social situations? Check. Ruining relationships? Check. Depression? Do I need to continue? These years later it’s easy to spot someone like me who just cannot deal with all of the trauma themselves. And there are a lot of us. I wasn’t letdown in the middle. I was just plain lost.  

And thank God I am getting better. Having a mental health professional confirm a diagnosis of PTSD was a relief in a way. Those times where I don’t react the way a normal person would makes sense. Now when I get that tense feeling or end up way more agitated than appropriate, I know how to handle it. I don’t beat myself up. I face what is happening, own up to it, and plan for the next time. It makes the “Moving Forward,” section all the more poignant. I was in pain but not ready to admit it. 

I still have a very long road ahead. I described myself as “broken” for a while after my diagnosis. Someone has the temerity to correct me. I’m seeing she was right. I may be a bit beat up, earned a few scars, and have some healing to do but I’m not broken.  

Gigantic history nerd? Oh, you bet your ass that’s still true. 

Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: You’ll cancel your hibachi reservation after reading this.

Quick synopsis: The story of the jailbreak for the survivors of the Bataan Death March.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: What did the U.S. Army do when their soldiers got tired in World War II? Amphetamines! (Club music begins)

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Many American prisoners of war were shipped off to Japan right before the expected invasion by the U.S. was to begin.

My Take: Is there anything better than a prison break by the good guys? Yes, a prison break by the good guys where they whoop some serious ass.

Ghost Soldiers tells two stories which converge at the end. The first is the story of the Bataan Death March and some of the survivors as they fight to survive in a Japanese prison camp. Sides is the type of author who really dives deep into the backstories before a big event. I also read his In the Kingdom of Ice and he does the same here where he gives you some very important figures and follows them throughout the narrative. He spreads out the spotlight enough to give you a full understanding of all the events taking place.

The other narrative is the U.S. Army Rangers chosen to break out the survivors left in the Japanese prison camp. While the ending is not in doubt, Sides makes sure the reader knows the prison break could have gone sideways (pun intended!) at numerous points.

I would say the one weakness comes at the actual prison break. Sides does a great job building the tension that the climax seems to get short shrift. It doesn’t ruin the book, but it does feel a little lopsided.

Verdict: Good book that even non-history nerds can enjoy.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mark Obmascik, The Storm on Our Shores
  • James Scott, Rampage

My Personal History: The War at Home

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

                The 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.

                Combat 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.

                I 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

                When I 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.

                When my 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.

                Then 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.”

                The 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.

                Piecing 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?

                The 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

                The 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.

                My two 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 white.

                My 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.

                The 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

                Life 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 I thought?

                The 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.

                Relationships 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.

                It was 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.

Moving Forward

                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.

Code Name: Lise by Larry Loftis

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Want to be a spy? Not after reading this!

Quick synopsis: Story of the Odette Sansom, the most decorated spy of WWII.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Sansom was caught and tortured by the Gestapo repeatedly. She didn’t give them a thing. Thank God she was a good guy and didn’t join the mob instead.

She also taunted an SS soldier by showing him she broke out of her handcuffs after only 30 minutes because the soldier was incompetent.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The whole book is a fun fact. I had never heard of Odette Sansom before and now I’m pissed I hadn’t. She was a legit badass.

My Take: The story is great. The book is great. It’s a must read.

Odette Sansom does her part by being the epitome of heroic spy. She’s stubborn, tenacious, and completely immune to compromise. It should have gotten her killed except she was as smart as she was stubborn.

Loftis makes this book so good by sticking to the facts. There is no extraneous characters or events. He tells you what you need to know to understand who everyone is and keeps the book moving at a breakneck pace. There are not many books that make me mad for needing to go to sleep. This one does.

This needs to be a movie yesterday. There was one in 1950, but Spielberg needs to get on this.

Verdict: Read it. It’s great.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists
  • Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire
  • Ben MacIntyre, The Spy and the Traitor

Random Musing: Serial Killers

What’s this musing about: The cult of the serial killer.

When I interviewed one of my favorite authors, Mike Dash, he said something really profound. He mentioned he does not like true crime books and shows because they often obsess about the killer at the expense of the victims. The victims usually end up being a simple picture and name along with their date of death. Often, you get almost no biography at all.

It was an uncomfortable moment for me because I am definitely one of those people who loves Investigation Discovery (i.e. the Murder Channel) and can watch any one of its shows of varying quality. I also like true crime books which walk you through an entire crime spree. Guilty.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I remembered how conflicted I was already getting with the genre. As a former Army officer, my relationship with death is a bit strange. It’s unfortunately part of the job to deal with the specter and reality of death entirely too often. Once baby history nerd came along, though, it was much harder to watch a family deal with death.

Now I gravitate towards media which puts the focus on the victims or the people hunting them down. For a book, Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five is pretty amazing. It chronicles the lives of the victims of Jack the Ripper. Whenever their story gets to their murder, Rubenhold ends the chapter. It’s very effective, but I am also sure a lot of people would find it strange to cut (pun intended!) out Jack the Ripper.

I also enjoy the show Mindhunter and the book it is based on. Each of them focuses on the people trying to catch the killers and the families who want justice. When a killer gets air time and becomes too personable and charismatic, the show intentionally injects something to remind you this is a horrible person.

I guess it’s time to drop Investigation Discovery from the TV rotation.

American Predator by Maureen Callahan

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Want to get away with murder? Don’t use the ATM card.

Quick synopsis: The capture of (and botched interviews of) Israel Keyes. He was a very successful serial killer. And creepy as all hell.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Well not a fun fact but informative. Keyes got away with so much because he jumped states and his attacks were random. Then he moved on.

Fun Interesting Fact for History Nerds: Keyes was a weird dude but also had a family including a child he “cared” about. If you watch enough true crime shows, then you see a lot of times this is not the case.

My Take: Maureen Callahan does not mess around, and it makes for an awesome book.

Callahan does not waste time and jumps right into the case which would lead the police to Israel Keyes. No, I didn’t give away anything. Callahan is not writing a murder mystery. She is writing a chronicle of the case which unravels to show a heck of a lot more cases.

Then the book ends. Why? I won’t ruin that part for you. Needless to say, let the professionals do their work because novices always make a mess of things.

This book is fast-paced, factual, and a great read. It does get a bit gory which you would expect. Don’t like blood and dismemberment? Don’t read this one.

Verdict: Great book. Read it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter
  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing

Random Musing: On Drinking

What’s this musing about: Humans have been getting drunk for a really long time.

I’m writing this on a Sunday after a lot of football and maybe more than one Sam Adams Octoberfests (buzzed writing is pretty sweet). As is my wont, I began thinking about a history nugget I had read recently. It mentioned how during colonial times in America most people drank alcohol exclusively. You see, water was considered unsafe because straight water often contained a lot of bad things which they didn’t understand. Think about how many people died of diphtheria in Oregon Trail!

Think about it. Good old George Washington giving a world changing speech before an epic battle. He probably had rum on his breath. And yes, it was probably rum. The irony of course was that drinking constantly was condoned but don’t you dare get drunk! Then they would judge you. See, Americans have been sanctimonious for years.

But of course, drinking didn’t start with America (but we rock at it, HIGH FIVE). The first wine was probably made about 9,000 years ago in China. Alexander the Great was a huge drunk. Jesus was obviously a fan and knew weddings needed wine to be fun. The list goes on and on.

In conclusion, drink responsibly and know that you are carrying on a long standing human tradition. And for goodness sake get a damn Uber if you end up drunk.

Don’t believe what I am telling you? First off, that’s rude. Why would I lie? Second, why come to the site if you think I’m a liar. Finally, here’s where I get my facts from since you lack trust.

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Sometimes you should just leave the bullet alone.

Quick synopsis: The story of how President James Garfield came to power and then was assassinated. Also, how a bunch of doctors screwed up a lot.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Thomas Edison makes an appearance. Yeah, the phone guy! He created a handheld metal detector to find the bullet lodged in Garfield’s body.  

Oh, and they created an air conditioner in the White House to make Garfield comfortable. Yeah, you read that right.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Charles Guiteau may have shot the bullet, but Garfield’s friends and doctors are major contributors. Repeated attempts to locate the bullet caused a disgusting amount of infection which ultimately killed the president.

My Take: I didn’t particularly care about James Garfield from a historical perspective. He was president and then got killed pretty early on. What is there to get all excited about?

Then Candice Millard (my nerd crush) came along and wrote a book that is equal parts biography and indictment of medicine in the 1880s. But wait, there’s more!

How about Garfield’s prodigious intelligence? Or his constant push against the political “machine” of his time? Or Charles Guiteau’s decent into madness? Or Thomas freaking Edison inventing things to help the president? Or Garfield’s spineless vice president turning on his own political masters?

I guess I was wrong about Garfield being boring. Candice wins again.

Verdict: Great book for everyone. Even non-history nerds will find this interesting as hell.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire
  • Candice Millard, The River of Doubt
  • Scott Greenberger, The Unexpected President

Rant: People Who Need to Read a Damn Book

What’s this about: Here are the following groups of people who drive me nuts and need to go read a damn book about the subject they claim to understand:

  1. People who compare things to how Nazi Germany started. This is never an apt comparison.
  2. Conversely, racists. You suck.
  3. People who say the electoral college is an outdated model and we live in a democracy. No, it is not and no, we do not.
  4. People who proclaim something, “is the worst we have ever seen.” This is very rarely correct. This is why most newscasters have to add a litany of qualifications before using this phrase. Example: This is the worst thunderstorm we have seen on a Thursday with a high of 75 degrees in Akron, Ohio since the year 2015.
  5. Anti-vaxxers. To be clear, read a book that is scientifically accurate and not made up. Polio was not cool. Ask FDR.
  6. People who say this is the worst our American politics have ever been. We fought a Civil War!

End rant. Although, I reserve the right to add to this list.

Elizabeth Seton by Catherine O’Donnell

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I have no idea why this woman is a saint.

Quick synopsis: A biography of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American born saint. For some reason.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Seton was a terrible babysitter! She was constantly trying to convert kids against their parents wishes! Even after Catholic priests told her it was a jerk move!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Nothing. She was super boring, honestly. And everyone around her kept dying of consumption.

My Take: Ultimately, this book is truly a fantastic work by the author because Elizabeth Seton’s life was very boring, and she comes off as a rather difficult person to deal with. How O’Donnell kept this book readable is beyond me because it should have felt like a much bigger chore.

Saints are supposed to be the ultimate do-gooders. They somehow transcend human pettiness to become beacons of kindness and selflessness. Think Mother Theresa or Francis of Assisi. Elizabeth Seton was not one of these people it seems.

She grew up somewhat well off (O’Donnell tells an interesting story of how economics varied wildly back in those days) and when she becomes Catholic, she becomes uber-Catholic. Priests have a hard time dealing with her. She routinely ignores their guidance or fights with them. Her husband dies and she creates her own cloister and keeps fighting with people. The aforementioned consumption deaths are spread throughout. My reading of her life is that she was someone who fixated on things. First, she fixated on her husband. When he died, she fixated on Catholicism.

Then again, no one will every confuse me for a saint so what the hell (pun intended!) do I know?

Verdict: Catherine O’Donnell is very talented. She needs better subject matter.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ron Chernow, Hamilton
  • Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great
  • Giles Tremlett, Catherine of Aragon
  • Robert Massie, Catherine the Great