Monday, November 9, 2009

For All It's Thrill

After months of fabricating an image of what home would be like, long hours forgetting every one of its unappealing aspects, and sufficient time to develop its anticipation to an unrealistic fever pitch, it is no surprise that, at least on some level, I found arriving home a disappointment. My expectations were absurdly unrealistic.

With each passing day in Iraq, home had slowly transformed into the antithesis of a combat zone. In my mind’s eye, whatever being deployed was (even as a writer), home was distinctly NOT. If a combat zone was dangerous, I remembered home as peaceful. If the desert was unbearably loud with the roar of generators and trucks, home was beautifully quiet. If Iraq was miserably lonely, home was immeasurably good company. If my deployed life was complicated, home was simple. But fantasies, just like the best-laid battle plans, never survive first contact. Home is just as complex, just as chaotic, and just as tragic and incomprehensible as a combat zone. I just don’t understand it as well as I understand tactical operations; there aren’t any manuals. But still, it has been good to see my family, catch up with old friends, and make a few new ones.

Nationwide, a hundred thousand husbands return from a deployment to discover that their wives have frequently done quite well in their absence. What was once a mutual partnership to raise a family and maintain a home was successfully handled by only one of them. And marriages, those that survive deployments, are forever different. For many troops, single or otherwise, there’s the initial excitement at your return, but then life continues – without your inclusion. Nobody’s a hero at home, but the guy who cleans the gutters, or the one who’s asked to discipline the children. They’ll go back to taking out the garbage and doing household chores. After leading troops in a combat situation, preparing intelligence briefs, or repairing multi-million dollar pieces of tactical equipment, the return home often seems a permanent descent into obscurity. There are plenty of calamities, but they seem simultaneously trivial and inexplicably unmanageable. We were once making history, yet now we’re only viewing it pass us by.

A few weeks prior to his return, a servicemember was briefing subtle changes in the Rules of Engagement to his Soldiers or preparing weapon systems and vehicles for combat operations. Now, however, he’s arguing with his wife over bills. Loving people proves far more involved than dearly missing them from afar. To their alarm, many find themselves missing the simplicity of a combat zone: conduct the mission, lead troops, stay alive, eat, and sleep when able. Back home, relationships are hard, traffic is awful, and people are generally rude, and seemingly always in the way. Friends are still dying, too – overseas and at home – all under horrible circumstances.

A number will depart the military and smoothly move forward with life – relegating their service to stories for the grandchildren. A number more will stay in and begin preparing for their next tour in six to eighteen months time. None will ever be the same, but a few will become inherently self-destructive, reclusive, or simply go adrift. In staggering numbers, they’ll take their own lives.

Now that they’re home, people will ask questions that they still don’t know how to answer. Most are good questions, but it’s difficult to see beyond the anger, personal loss, total frustration, and culture shock of returning. It’s easier to not talk to anybody, or wile away the evenings in bars talking (and thinking) about as little as possible. Nothing makes sense, and despite the distance from a combat zone, clarity is rare. Truthfully, the combat zone is never that far away at all.

For myself, I still can’t tell you what I think about Iraq. Four tours have simply afforded an increasingly complex jumble of information, disconnected facts, and observations that are nearly impossible to explain to others. I’m embarrassed that I’m avoiding people who ask me challenging questions and ignoring incoming phone calls. I’m still frustrated. Before God I swear that if I knew a way to change how the war has settled with me, I would. But thus far the solution evades me. Perhaps I am in the minority.

Of the dozens of things I planned to do when I returned, I’ve still done none of them. Home is nice, but I don't particularly want to be here. My thoughts are far, far way.

They’re immersed in a very interesting, complicated story; more than one, actually. One is the past decade of my life, which has seen me on four separate continents and scrambling to pull the right currency from my wallet and not confuse languages. Sometimes I held a rifle; other times a pencil. There's a strange draw to deserts of all sorts, and dislike of rain on every continent.

There's the story of a two-front war which continues to occupy billions of taxpayers' dollars and nearly a quarter million US troops. There's the simultaneous absurdity and critical nature of the war. There’s the tragedy of war itself, the adventure of combat, the fear of being the one who never sees his family again, and the general belief that the leaders of this country have committed the US armed forces to a mission the policymakers didn’t clearly understand. There are the individual stories of the hundreds of friends I still have out there.

There is the chaos of being home, the complication of human interaction. There is a total lack of the peace and refreshment which I so desperately sought. I’ve told people I’m ready to leave again, which no doubt horrifies them. Yet how much of this is a calling, and how much of it is running? I wish I knew the answer. Prayers have thus far produced little response. I will keep praying. It changes me - which can't be a bad thing.

If I had to distill everything, I would say that choosing the path I have has alienated me from a great deal of what most people consider "normal." I don't regret taking it, but I confess that I don't particularly like walking it alone. I am not in the military anymore, yet I am not exactly a civilian either. I am both, and none, and something in between. A bridge perhaps? A link? A misfit? An adventurer? A wayward? My answer depends on my demeanor, and the weather, and how much sunlight I've seen. And the rain. I miss combat boots. A lot of vets never stop wearing them.

When I pulled into a gas station three day ago, the first thing I noticed about the car in front of me was the Marine Corps sticker on the back window. The second thing was a young guy stepping from the passenger’s seat. The third thing was the USMC tattoo on his arm. In talking with him, I learned he’s home on pre-deployment leave – a month away from his first combat deployment. In short order, his unit will be patrolling lonely territory in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.

For all my eagerness to return to the United States, as much as I missed my family and detest the heartbreaking worry I’ve caused them and others, as lonely as I have been, as little as I like living out of a bag and wearing the added weight of body armor, for all the danger, misery and tragedy of a combat zone, and despite the fact that I will make friends only to lose some of them, I still miss it. As we stood in the gas station parking lot talking, there was only one thing I wanted to tell that young Marine: “Take me with you, brother; I’m ready to go. I’ll absolutely hate it, but I love you guys.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved