I will do my best to put the reader in the shoes of a veteran who has recently returned from a combat zone by articulating some of my own personal thoughts and experiences. My objective is to give a curious and caring general public a real sense of what day-to-day life is like for a deployed Marine along with a first hand-account of the challenges we face upon returning home. My hope is that the general public will find this enlightening and that it may assist family members and friends in understanding the highs and often intense, drawn-out lows that they witness in veterans who have returned from war.
The initial interaction with friends and family upon returning is a key part of this transition phase. If you are a family member or friend who truly wants to know how things were, please refrain from the dreaded “So how was it?” question. For the last 7 months, the sole goal of returning home is so he or she doesn’t have to think about Iraq or Afghanistan. But so many times, upon setting that first boot on American soil, he gets blasted by 20 different people wanting to know “How was it!?”
Take a step back for a second and think how you would react if someone you hadn’t seen in months asked you to sum up the last year of your life by asking “So how was it?” Not only is that impossible to answer in the confines of the question but it comes across as insincere and is hard to decipher what the person is really asking, or wanting to know. Even if the veteran would like to answer your question, it may take weeks or even months to comprehend the deployment mentally much less be able to explain it vocally. Along with the frustration of not wanting to answer the question or being unable to, it instantly sends the veteran back to place he just left and may not want to return. If you happen to be a parent, wife, or close friend of a vet, it is always better to approach it by saying “Hey I’d be really interested in hearing about your deployment.” Now the ball is in their court. This frees them from the emotional restraints of answering “How was it?” and gives them free reign to pick and choose the stories they see fit to share with their immediate audience.
Just as the wives and parents of the veteran have changed during the course of a deployment, so too have the veterans themselves changed. But while those at home have had the luxury to reflect on their gradual changes, the returning veteran is getting his first chance in months to reflect inward and in doing so, are often confronted with vast and sometimes violent changes to their personality which they may have been unaware of while deployed or still on active duty. This post-deployment look into the mirror can be startling when for the first time in his or her life they do not recognize the person staring back at them.
Many times veteran’s family members and friends are focused solely on the physical return of their loved one while failing to realize that for the veteran, returning is a far more complex and drawn out process than simply a date circled on a calender. Even with the vet home and knowing full well they are no longer in Iraq or Afghanistan, it may take weeks, months, or even years for the veteran to return home mentally, emotionally, or psychologically.
For the veteran, home over the past year or years was not; Georgia, Texas, California, Ohio, or New York. Their home, their lives, and their realities were consumed by extreme heat, extreme cold, cigarettes, dip, dirt, sweat, body armor, kevlars (helmets), night vision goggles, fire retardant cammies, the ever present threat of violence, and most importantly the vet’s support system — his platoon, countless loaded weapons, and heavily armored vehicles. Outside of his rifle, his buddies, and a half lit cigarette, a deployed Marine’s constant companions are uncertainty and discomfort. Over time this constant uncertainty and discomfort becomes an identity as they not only adapt but excel in these unforgiving conditions. The bonds Marines form through the shared misery of a 7 month deployment is however virtually extinguished upon entering the friendly confines of the civilian world.
After boarding a plane in the Middle East and several days later arriving in your hometown you suddenly realize that many of the skills and lessons you learned overseas are utterly useless in this new environment. This does not mean however these skills are not put to use. To all his buddies the pile of rocks on the side of the road looks like a pile of rocks, to him it looks like an IED indicator. The sagging beat up old car that is driving slowly up to a stop light that all your friends are making fun of reminds you of a VBIED. And you can’t help but find the corner seat in a restaurant so you can keep an eye on your surroundings. Even though you try to convince yourself you’re home and to just chill it just does not diminish the minds desire to stay on guard. What’s worse is you’ve been totally stripped of your safety net, no friends to watch your back, and no weapon for personal safety. That is where the feeling of discomfort can turn into panic when everyone around you seems to be totally oblivious of everything you notice. The ability to identify danger is no longer a skill; it has become a character trait.
With that being said, civilians often comprehend Marines’ deployment burdens (like the ones listed above) while failing to realize many of the luxuries we live without on a deployment are often the ones we struggle with adapting to the most once we return home.
We never went anywhere alone or without a weapon. Now we are making solo trips to the grocery store, Wal Mart, and the mall where for the first time we will encounter unfamiliar places and people without that trusted support system.
We never had to do homework. Now we have to prepare for a math test and remember how to write a paper, while trying to fit in with a student population that is 4-5 years younger and have had less than a quarter of the life experiences we’ve had.
We never had to worry about paying bills. Now we have to balance a check book.
We never had to worry about traffic. Now we have to make it to work on time.
We never had to worry about putting a baby to sleep. Now we have to remember how to be gentle.
We never had to interact with women. Now we may have to reestablish and rebuild relationships with our wives or girlfriends.
Another staunch challenge in adapting to state-side life is dealing with feelings of guilt. These feelings are often the most difficult to confront because just weeks or months ago the veteran’s heart may have been set on distancing him or herself from military life for good. Upon departing the service what most vets can not anticipate is that the experiences, friendships, and memories they formed while serving will follow them for better or worse the rest of their lives.
Where the Marine Corps separates itself from civilian lines of work and other branches of the military is that upon graduating boot camp, you become a Marine and strive mightily from there on out to refine and strengthen that identity. Once separated from the armed forces, veterans are often hard pressed to find and often fail in acquiring new identities that carry as much value to them as the one they just recently left behind. Even though the initial taste of freedom upon leaving the Marine Corps is exhilarating, that feeling quickly dissipates once the post deployment checklist has been accomplished and the experiences fall short of the veterans expectations. This feeling of emptiness paired with a lack of identity can turn quickly into guilt when a veteran realizes he still has friends on active duty or in the midst of deployments.
Many of the circumstances I have communicated with you here today are not only some of my own personally but also reflect struggles I have witnessed in close friends and fellow Marines during the transition to civilian life. My prayer is that a vet who is currently struggling with civilian life will realize by reading this that he or she is not alone and that there are people waiting and willing to assist them in their transition.
In regards to the general public, families, and close friends of returning veterans, I hope I have been able to pull back the mental and emotional curtain that is put up by so many of us, who upon returning have become frustrated with our circumstances. I only ask that in the long return home you keep pouring out love and patience upon them. A strong support system for a hurting veteran can be the difference between continued suffering and the road to recovery.
Yours Truly – DH
“And when he gets to heaven, To St. Peter he will tell, Another Marine reporting, Sir, I’ve served my time in Hell.”