“A man fires a rifle for many years, and he goes to war. And afterward he turns the rifle in at the armory, and he believes he’s finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands, love a woman, build a house, change his son’s diaper; his hands remember the rifle.” – Jarhead
I have struggled mightily to figure out what to write here. Writing about my own experience is extremely difficult. I have at the same time too much to say, and too little. However, I will try my best to focus my thoughts on the effects the war had on me. The war has of course had innumerable effects on me, but I will limit this post to a very broad overview of the topic. I will undoubtedly write more about this subject in the future.
When I think of myself immediately before and after the war, the major change I noticed in myself was the profound isolation I often felt. I felt isolated from my own society. I felt I no longer understood it, felt a part of it, or frankly even liked it. The feeling began the night I got home from my second tour. I had been stop-lossed to complete my second tour, so when I got back I knew I would be out of the Army in roughly 90 days. I was anxious to get back to the U.S. and continue the life I’d left behind when I arrived at basic in January 2003. My flight got into Colorado Springs in the early morning hours of December 24, 2007. No one was there to meet me. Some idiot in the Brigade’s Rear-D unit had told my parents that no one would be allowed to greet us when we arrived home. So, understandably my family didn’t come because they thought they wouldn’t be allowed to see me. I hope I never find out who told them that, I’d prefer to live out the rest of my life without beating anyone to death. So, while everyone else hugged their parents, wives, and children. Myself and a few other single soldiers just grabbed our duffel bags and headed to the transition housing the Army provided.
I should note that the transition housing I stayed in for three months was the nicest the Army ever provided me. I lived in a room designed for two men, and it only had two men assigned to it. My previous experience had been that the Army doubled whatever the intended occupancy of the room was supposed to be. Four men in a two-man room seemed to be the standard. But not in the transition housing. So at least the room wasn’t crowded. It was too little too late from the Army, but I appreciated the room.
After we got to our rooms most of us went to sleep. It had been a long flight from Kuwait to Ireland to Colorado, and most of us needed some sleep. After a nap we tried to figure out what to do for dinner. We didn’t have meal cards and we weren’t sure where to eat on-post, or if there was even any options to eat on-post that were open. So we opted to go off-post for dinner. It was Christmas Eve, so the only thing that was open was Denny’s. I have nothing against Denny’s but most soldiers envision their first meal back in the U.S. being a little fancier than a ‘Moon’s over My-Hammy’. After Denny’s we tried to figure out what to do for Christmas Eve. Everything was closed because of the Holiday, and we had nowhere to go. So we went to the only place we could find that was open. A strip club. It was easily the most depressing experience of my life. I spent Christmas Eve 2007 in a strip club. The funny thing was, none of the girls were dancing. In fact they weren’t even disrobing. They were just sitting around in street clothes talking with a few truckers, bikers, and those of us who had just gotten back from Iraq. We were a strange group. But we had two things in common: none of us had anywhere else to go, and we just didn’t want to be alone on Christmas Eve. So we passed the evening smoking cigarettes, drinking cheap beer, and swapping stories.
I’ve only told that story to a few people, and they’ve all asked me why I didn’t go to church. If you know anything about Colorado Springs you know it’s the home of Focus on the Family. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting five or six churches. The simple truth is that none of them were open. Everyone had already hustled their way through a Christmas Eve service and was off to open presents, watch ‘A Christmas Story,’ or whatever their holiday traditions were. I was at the strip club because it’s the only place I knew of that would have me.
I don’t know if my feelings of isolation began that night, but I know it made me ask questions. I wondered why no one had thought to provide a place for soldiers to go on Christmas Eve. I wondered if anyone knew or cared that the best place we could find to spend Christmas Eve was a strip club. I wondered if it was like this for anyone else who came home. Not everyone’s homecoming is like the movies. We don’t all have a beautiful girl waiting for us. We don’t all have a glowing family, or a thankful community. There aren’t any parades, there’s no closure. There’s just an empty room and a silent city. This story is satire, but frankly its right on the money.
I’m not writing this for sympathy, and I don’t want to make anyone feel bad. Except for the guy who told my family not to come, fuck that guy. However, I do think that the experience planted some of the seeds of my feeling alienated from society. I also think that other soldiers had similarly depressing homecomings, and can identify with what I experienced. In some sense that night planted the idea in my head that the United States had nothing for me. That as cliché as it is, there was no going home for me. I felt like the U.S was no longer my country.
After I ETS’d I went back to college to finish my degree. Re-entering college was nothing less than culture shock. I left an institutional culture that was composed of people who were committed to accomplishing a goal. A culture that understood that sacrifices are necessary in life, where people looked out for one another. Undergraduate life in the United States appeared to me to be the polar opposite of what I left. I do not mean to criticize anyone I went to college with. However, as a general rule I found college students to be selfish and entitled. Always questioning why their needs were not being catered to. Imbued with an attitude of innate intellectual superiority. I can’t count the number of personal lectures I received on what was really going on in the middle east. These lectures were usually delivered by someone south of the age of 21, who had never been to the middle east. But its amazing the level of confidence a passing familiarity with CNN, a few credits of sociology, and an over sized view of one’s self can give someone.
As I was re-adjusting to civilian life my old battalion deployed to Afghanistan. So while I listened to teenagers indignantly complain about the food they were served for dinner, I also periodically received news that some old friend of mine had been grievously wounded or killed. Half-way around the world people were dying, and no one seemed to care. At some point I realized that it wasn’t just the college students. It was the whole country. People paid lots of lip service to the war, but while young men were chewed up and spit out half a world away, the country went right about its business. A war that was having serious effects on the lives of thousands of people was barely being covered on the news. But Michael Jackson’s death received wall to wall coverage. It was then that I began to wonder if I had anything left in common with the country I fought for.
I began to wonder what I had in common with a people who were more obsessed with whoever was winning ‘Survivor’ than with the equipment their soldiers were issued. When we returned from our first tour in Iraq we were informed that the body-armor that most of us had worn was defective, and might not have withstood the impact of a bullet. No one really seemed to care a whole lot about that. When we first arrived in Kuwait there was no armor to place on many of the Humvees. So we had to go find scrap metal and have it welded on. People complain that we waste public money on Sesame Street, but they don’t make a peep about the fact that we didn’t even have properly armored Humvees. The country was in the midst of an economic boom, and no one could be bothered to make sure we had the right equipment.
I began to wonder where the priorities of our society truly lay. The government routinely farms out work to the lowest bidder. This meant that several soldiers in Iraq died of electrocution due to faulty installation of wiring by KBR. Check it out. War is not a good place to test free-market principles. The fact that people died because neither the Army nor their contractors could be bothered to implement or follow proper standards is disgusting. Once again, everyone just seemed to go about their lives.
I am not suggesting that the entire U.S. population needed to drop whatever it was doing and address these problems. My point is that as a veteran, these problems had a profound effect on me. They made me feel like the country didn’t really care about what was going on in the war. This further fed my feelings of alienation. I began to feel that no one could understand what I’d been through. That the only people I could really talk to were other veterans. I even began to miss the war. I began to miss the sense of purpose it gave me, and I felt directionless as a civilian. I don’t have a wife or kids, I don’t even have a girlfriend. So there was no person I needed to support. No one who needed to be provided for, cared where I went, or cared what I did on a daily basis. I didn’t have anything or anyone in my life that compelled me to take any single course of action. I began to wish for the sense of direction the war gave me. At least there I had a goal. At least there I was working with people who were dealing with life and death situations. At least there I had a purpose.
While all of that maybe true on some level, I was wrong. I needed to take advantage of what I perceived as negatives in my life, and find my own direction. The war was no longer defining what I needed to be doing, but that only meant I was free to find my own direction. While I would love to have a wife and kids, not having them has given me time for self-reflection, growth, and the ability to come to greater self-awareness. The fact that irresponsible contractors can cost soldiers their lives disgusts me. So I decided to become a lawyer, and sue the pants off of those types of companies. It’s true that often our society is more concerned with bread and circuses than what’s going on around the world. However, I have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support and love from so many of my fellow countrymen. It’s easy to feel isolated, and sometimes I still feel that way. There is no question that being a participant in a war changes you. What keeps me from being isolated is choice. I choose not to wall myself off from society. I choose to share my experiences. Just like I chose to go to war. If as veterans we really want to shed light on our suffering, or the suffering of others, we can’t sit around and complain over a few beers. We can’t retreat from society and refuse to discuss our experiences. We have to inform people. If we want to break the absolutely criminal VA backlog we have to get out and talk about it. The same goes for electrocuted soldiers and faulty body-armor. We must engage with our country, not cut ourselves off from it.
I know that its easy to feel like no one cares about what we went through. It’s easy to see our society as petty and stupid. But harboring bitterness won’t fix that. Getting elected to office will. Writing your congressman will. Telling everyone you know that wounded veterans can’t get benefits because the VA is completely incompetent will. I said in my last post that I joined the Army because I wanted to fight. Well I’ve never lost the taste for it. So I’ve put down my rifle and picked up a pen. I’m still ready to do battle, it’s just a different war now.
A lot people think the ‘Jarhead’ quote I began this post with is a badass quote that illustrates how you’re taste for killing never really leaves you. No matter what you do, you’ll always be a trained killer ready to pick your rifle back up. I look at it differently. I think our hands remember the rifle because a rifle is a tool for use in battle. We were trained to fight, not just with rifles, but with bayonets, claymore mines, grenades, and machine-guns. We were trained to seek out battle. So while I may never pick up a rifle again in anger, my hands will always be made for a weapon, be it a gun, a pen, or a keyboard. I will always seek out battle. That’s what my hands will never forget.
There’s another war movie quote I love, it’s from Platoon. “All you got to do is make it out of here, and it’s all gravy. Every day, the rest of your life, gravy.” I made it out. I had a choice to make. I could internalize my dissatisfaction and alienation, or I could do something about it. I could chart my own course. You can do the same.
Don’t continue living in Baghdad, or Ramadi, or the Hindu Kush. Live in the here and the now. Live for the guys who didn’t come home, live for the guys who won’t get a chance to speak out. To veterans I say: honor you fallen brothers, live lives worthy of what they gave. To everyone else, I’ll tell you how to thank me for my service. Make sure your soldiers are properly equipped. Make sure the VA can deal with wounded veterans in a timely fashion. Hold our politicians accountable for the decisions they make. And for crying out loud, enjoy your freedom! This is a great country. Take advantage of it. Live like you know someone died to make your life possible.
How did the war change me? It didn’t change me so much as it refined me. Yes, I had a lot of traumatic experiences. Yes, I saw bad things. Yes, I’m different. But, ultimately I’m not that different. The war amplified who I already was. It made me sharper, more direct, more of a leader and less of a follower. Yes, I have nightmares. Yes, I have difficulty watching war movies now. But that’s not my takeaway from it all. My takeaway is that I made it. I lived. I take the positive things I got out of the war, and I learn from the negatives. To honor my fallen brothers I choose to live in a way that I think would make them proud. I choose to imagine that they’re all looking down on me everyday. They’re expecting me to do the things they won’t be able to. To say the things they can no longer say. To earn what they gave. That might sound like a lot to carry, but it’s not. They carry me. They lift me up, and make me want to be better than I am. I take them with me wherever I go, in whatever I do, and I do so with the utmost joy.
The war happened. It’s a huge part of me life, but I won’t let it define me. I will continue to write about the war. I will no doubt express frustrations, anger, and sadness. But I will not them rule my life. It’s all gravy now, and I intend to take advantage of that.
As always I invite your thoughts, critiques, and communications in the comments. My next post will be on my relationship with God.