Monday, May 17, 2010

The First Week Home

If you are just coming out of a combat zone (specifically from combat arms), you are about to encounter a wave of emotions, thoughts and dreams for which we are all unprepared.  Some of them will make perfect sense considering the environment you just left, but most will bother you. A few may even scare you.  While virtually none of the generalizations listed below help overcome these sensations, perhaps knowing about them in advance will help eliminate confusion or the feeling that you’ve lost control.  At the very least, take some comfort knowing that you’re not the only one who has encountered this.  Millions before you have, and future generations will as well. The first few days are definitely the most chaotic.

When you reach the states and finally reacquaint with your loved ones, your overwhelming emotion will be one of relief.  You’ll be thrilled that you survived the combat experience, and equally thrilled that you’ve been reunited with your family.  They’ll be excited to update you on events back home and you’ll be eager to listen.  No doubt, there will be things you want to tell them, too.  More than anything, you’re just glad to be home.  Unfortunately, this elation won’t last.  When the initial enthusiasm has begun to wane (within a few hours), other thoughts are going to invade.

The first thought will be fleeting.  At some point – most likely less than 24 hours after you return home – you’ll briefly consider just grabbing your bags (which are probably still packed), and heading back again.  Your new surroundings are too unfamiliar.  And besides, you probably have friends still in the line of fire, and you’ll want to help them; or at least maintain some sort of solidarity by at least being in the same theater of operations.  You’ll feel like you’re no longer contributing to the effort, and you’ll feel guilty.  No veteran comes home believing that he or she did enough.  You’ll think that maybe you can do more if you go back.

Despite all the better food, the safety, the family, and routine, you will still feel like a stranger or visitor in your own country.  Just how normal everything appears will bother you, even frustrate you, since on the other side of the world, US citizens are still fighting for their lives.  Your heart, your mind, and even your dreams are probably still back there, too.  You’ll probably watch the news very closely – just to keep up with how your area of operations has changed since you left it.  Even though it’s a relief to be out of harm’s way, you’ll be convinced that you’re missing out in the next firefight.  You’ll feel adrift.

You may also feel trapped.  After months or years of fast-paced living and lots of dangerous situations, the calm and predictability of home is frightening.  Our natural impulse when we feel trapped is to run – in this case back to something with which you’re now quite familiar: a combat zone.  With embarrassment, you’ll discover that you miss the violence, you feel naked and vulnerable without a gun, and you’ll be afraid that home may never again actually feel like home. You’ll be convinced that part of you, perhaps forever, is trapped in a combat zone, ducking fire, firing back, and waiting for the next attack.  You will be restless.

In between bouts of feeling trapped, you will be overcome with boredom.  The momentary excitement of seeing your loved ones fades quickly, and before you know it you’re desperately looking for something to occupy your time – and all of your senses.  Combat, after all, demands all of you.  “Coming down” from combat is like coming down from a hard drug.  You’ll be irritable, uneasy, and you’ll start substituting various things to make up for the void that leaving combat created.  Just how this looks is very unique to the individual.

Some of you will have an impulse to drink entirely too much.  The easy excuse is that you need to make up for lost drinking time.  If you really think about it, though, you won’t be able to rationally explain it.  You just need to drink.  A lot.  And you won’t know when to stop.  Chances are you’ll pass out first.  Others among you will drink to deliberately calm your nerves – which will definitely be on edge.  A few of you will experience a general feeling of numbness, about your surroundings, relationships, and maybe life in general.

A number of you will want to feel pain for some reason – something that engages their senses. You might want to run out and get tattoos or piercings. You might go out looking for a fight.  More likely than not, you’ll find one.  For a few of you, there is an inexplicable urge to engage in a number of risky behaviors: get drunk, get in fights, and get laid.  Sex will strike you as a very appealing drug.  You may be startled with how powerful the desires are to do this, and choose to carefully limit how often you go out, who you go with, and what you do.  Many of you will restrict yourselves to simply drinking – entirely too much.

Many of you may give in to the impulses for reckless behavior.  After a night or two of this, you’ll probably have it all out of your system, so to speak.  You’ll be embarrassed with what you did or how you acted, and you’ll have little interest in repeating those mistakes.  Be aware that they will probably resurface after a time and you’ll have to decide to give in or resist.  Some of you may carefully control yourselves and stay out of trouble.  The urges to be self-destructive will still be there for quite some time, and you’ll have to battle them daily.  You might find yourself wondering if you should just give in to it, go all out for a little while and get it over with.  Regardless of if you give in or not, you’ll be bothered that you have such a strong desire to be so irresponsible.  Your self-esteem, which is already shaky, may take a severe blow.  You’ll be angry with yourself.

You’ll have a hard time controlling your temper, and it will frighten you.  Loud noises will startle you and you’ll get irrationally angry.  You won’t put it to words, but you’ll be embarrassed that people saw you in a moment of weakness.  They saw you afraid.  You’ll get angry that they observed a crack in your composure.  You’ll also be angry with how much of their lives and daily routines seem devoted to unimportant, useless activities.  Some of you will drink to appear more patient.  You may also feel other impulses, like a need to spend money, or eat entirely too much.  Even work out too hard just to “feel the burn.”  Each of us “substitutes” differently, but it always comes from the same place: an overpowering impulse to do something rash.  Consider these withdrawal symptoms.

People will ask you questions about “what’s it like” that you can’t easily answer.  You might try, but become immediately angry when you think about the number of harrowing situations you experienced and how people repeatedly failed to perform at their best (including yourself).  You may be angry at the injustices of war itself.  Or, you may simply get angry at the people (you will consider them very ignorant) who ask stupid questions.  Do not be surprised if you find yourself avoiding situations where you might be asked questions you have difficulty answering.

Because of your recent experiences, there will probably be times where you DO want to talk to people.  You will try to put your emotions to words, but they will come out as one of two things: anger or grief.  In some cases you may be able to fully articulate what you mean, but people receive it poorly – either with horror, or just awkward silence.  They will be largely unable to relate.  After a few attempts, you’ll give up in frustration.  You’ll be furious that you can’t explain yourself to your own satisfaction, exasperated that you have things to say that people aren’t going to understand, and that after repeated tries, it’s all still stuck on the tip of your tongue.  You’ll start feeling sorry for yourself – misunderstood, a victim, a survivor, etc.  You will begin to think about all the grief you’ve experienced over the past deployment but never dealt with properly.  You may retreat at some point to simply cry.

There will be a nagging sensation with a number of you that you haven’t done enough; that you’ve abandoned the war or your brothers and sisters still fighting it.  You’ll think about the friends you have who came home maimed – or the friends who never came home at all.  If you’ve escaped injury yourself, you’ll be simultaneously thankful and guilty about it.  It is commonly called survivor’s guilt.

You may find many of your dreams startlingly violent.  In some, you will be killing people.  In others, you may die.  You may also have dreams where you are in a horrible situation and it’s entirely your fault.  Some of the dreams will be familiar – the people, the situations, but they will probably play out differently than they did in reality.  Your mind may create a more appealing outcome, or imagine an even a more terrible one.  You will sleep lightly and likely be easily awakened. You will frequently be tired and cranky.

Part of you will be so afraid of “normal” life that it’ll seem too daunting to face head-on.  To your total surprise, you will briefly think about suicide – or at least about death.  The thought will startle you so much that you go to great lengths and efforts to deliberately never think of it again.  Most of you will be successful, but for a few it will creep back again and terrify you.  Tragically, a few of you may act on it.

In general, you will be inundated with emotions you’ve probably never before encountered.  You will be unsure what to do with them.  Give in?  Resist them?  Give up talking?  Try to talk? Pretend there’s nothing wrong?  The answers to these questions are entirely up to the individual. Nor is there anything that can make it all simply go away.  You’ve just been through hell.  You KNEW it was hell, but you grew accustomed to it, and you’re going to miss certain aspects of it for awhile.  The familiarity of home is now totally unfamiliar, your loved ones are strangers, and you have just experienced a series of situations that the human mind always has difficulty processing.  Everybody processes differently, at any rate.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any solutions, but at least take some comfort in knowing that every combatant goes through this upon return to “normal” life.  What I do know, however, is this: time has a curious way of mending things.  Almost imperceptibly, a great deal of the impulses, irrational ideas, and self-destructive tendencies fade.  One day you’ll discover that you just don’t think about it anymore.  You may ALWAYS think about some things, but it becomes controllable and even predictable.  What you do with it is entirely up to you.  Know this, though: you are not alone, and there are millions of veterans in the United States who would gladly go through this with you.  Somebody did for me, and that has made all the difference.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. WOW. Ben, I just saw this on FB as I was hopping around.

    It brought me to tears, as I read your words describe almost exactly what I have seen play out in my friends and family that have come home from war.

    Beautifully written... and so very true! I hope this helps not only those returning, but also maybe their families too, as we don't always understand why they act/think certain ways when they get back.

    May I have your permission to share this link with others?

  2. Thank you for your remarks. While I don't really offer much in the way of solutions (they're the million-dollar questions right now), hopefully just understanding things a little more clearly will be helpful.

    This is a blog that I hope many read and find valuable, so by all means share the link with anybody you believe may relate to it, enjoy it, or gain insight from it. Thanks for being willing to do this.


  3. 21 years since I did my last "spec-op" and those feelings still bubble to the surface from time to time.

    Nice to read the same crap hits many others. I guess I knew it, but now as I sit here and reflect upon it it explains some of my anger and the need to stretch a 2 mile walk to 10 "just to not wimp out"..

    With Memorial Day this weekend, I suspect many of us still feel that "we left early" and didn't do our share. My rational mind knows that I did my hitch, I served well and I should be proud. The "in-the-zone" part of my mind makes me feel like at age 50 I should still be there with my brothers and sisters.

    Hopefully all of you will find some peace this weekend. I'll be praying for all of you and ask you do the same for me.

  4. What a wonderful explanation of combat emotions!! I pray that many will read this and benefit from it. This article covers it all from head to toe. Thank you for sharing.

  5. I've been out for nearly three years, but I still miss some of it. Not the stupidity or the rules or even the uniform, but the brotherhood. I'm at home this weekend, but part of me is stuck on a base 8,000 miles away in the Charkh district of Logar province, Afghanistan. In truth, I'm not sure if that EVER goes away...

  6. Ben, I just found your blog and am reading through it. You articulate the feelings and desires of those who cannot. You describe to the "T" my Marine's restless nature upon leaving the Marines this past July 2010. He was injured in Nawa, Afghanistan on 26 Aug 09. He speaks often of the need to get back in the fight - frustrated because he dared to let himself get injured by an IED that injured his entire team and took the life of LCpl Donald Hogan that day.

    I am very happy to report he has traded his cammies for a suit, but I am certain he will always have the urge to pick up a weapon and join the fight if called and I will be there to support him.