Monday, March 1, 2010

What to Expect

If you are veteran of OIF or OEF (preferably with combat experience) and are now transitioning back to the civilian world, you should read this.  It doesn't provide much in the way of solutions, but it does offer explanations, which will hopefully enable YOU to find solutions.  It isn't exhaustive, either.  It only addresses some of the most common challenges a transitioning veteran will face.  What you do with it is your decision, but it is my hope that this somehow helps you move beyond an active participation in war and towards the myriad of opportunities and adventures that life has to offer.  This time in your life will be among the most trying.  That is almost irrefutable.

Foremost, you will be angry.  Things which didn't used to bother you now will.  In fact, nearly everything will anger you.

However much you enjoyed your time in the military and whatever you got out of it, it doesn't change the fact that you're now exiting – for a reason.  It's difficult to make generalizations as to the “why,” but it probably centers around you being weary of an extremely demanding deployment schedule, tired of the relational sacrifice the military requires (in this day and age), lack of belief in the missions you've been called to undertake, and very likely a great deal of bitterness with your leaders.  Looking back on it, nearly every aspect of it will either invoke anger or grief.

You'll be angry that you answered a call to patriotic service, but learned somewhere along the way that your peers, subordinates and leaders are all human and prone to mistakes.  Subordinates make mistakes that create more work for you.  Peers make more mistakes that create more work for you.  Leaders make mistakes that get your friends killed, seemingly endangered you needlessly, and at the very least made life miserable.  You'll feel like you've just burned some number of years of your life and have very little to show for it but a number of deceased friends and a body that's falling apart long before its time.

You will be angry at the leadership that sent you out on missions you swore were unnecessary.  You'll be equally angry at the rules of engagement under which you were forced to operate.  They sent you away to war, but handcuffed you when you tried to complete your missions.  Individual mistakes of your leaders may have resulted in some of your friends never returning home – or at least returning broken and mutilated.  You'll be angry at the conduct of the war.

You'll be angry with your service, but when people attempt to tell you how stupid the wars are, you'll fiercely defend your service, not willing to make the admission that the past few years of your life have been invested in something that a number of US citizens vocally condemned.  You'll avoid them as best you can, and may not even mention that you're a veteran in their presence.  It might seem like the best way to avoid a confrontation.

You'll go out to stores and observe with horror how people rudely complain when the express checkout aisle takes more than a minute to navigate.  You'll overhear conversations from your peers that center around what appear to be meaningless subjects.  Which celebrity is dating so-and-so, and what movie star is having an affair.  Most, when asked, won't be able to find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map.  You might observe a few fussing how the barrista gave them a skim milk latte instead of a soy latte, which will drive home your belief that your peer group is completely out of touch with reality.  They will often have no knowledge whatsoever of current events.  In the back of your mind you'll think, “I defended THESE people?” and you'll question the fundamental merits of your service.

People will rarely know how to approach you.  Many, for lack of anything better to say, will thank you for your service.  Despite their sincerity (as much as they're capable of expressing legitimate thanks), you'll frequently see their comments as condescending.  You'll avoid them as best you can.  Others will start a conversation with, “so what are your thoughts on the war,” but before you even begin to answer, they'll continue with, “because I think...” or “because I heard...”  What you mistook for genuine curiosity turned out to be simply a clever means for them to initiate talking AT you about their support, opposition, or indifference towards your war.  Much of what they say will be firmly rooted in misinformation.  In reality, their minds are already made up, so attempting to change them will be an angering – and futile – endeavor.

After repeated encounters like this – people trying to share their opinions without regard for yours – you may reach the conclusion that nobody really cares that you served at all, that they're incapable of understanding what you did, and also unable to grasp any of the dangers the United States faces abroad.  Once again, you'll find yourself wondering why you bothered to swear an oath to defend these people.

Fundamentally, you are now a different person – and the consequence of this is that you've lost a lot of connectivity with the public.  Your civilian friends, though they may not put it to words, will notice changes in you – perhaps sufficient to drive a wedge into your relationship, or even ruin your friendship.  You'll be angry that they're appearing to abandon you, and you'll blame them fully for not making any greater attempts to understand you, to listen to you, or even let you explain what you've endured.

Your family will view you differently, too.  The young son or daughter they sent off to war has come back fundamentally changed.  They'll be keenly aware that you're angry, and will probably try to steer clear of any subject or situation that might set you off.  You'll view it as abandonment.  More than this, they won't know how to engage you very well.  Your experiences, though now similar to nearly 2,000,000 other young men and women who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq, are so vastly dissimilar from their own lives that they'll have no idea how to connect with you, find common ground, and continue the same level of relationship you perhaps once enjoyed.  In truth, they may also be afraid of you.  News articles, reports, and television programming has repeatedly painted veterans as easily-inflamed, prone to violence, and socially awkward.  As they draw away from you from lack of understanding, you will get more frustrated by it, which will serve to reinforce their misinformation.

Because you've spent the last few years in the military and a number of months in a combat zone, you're going to try to make up for lost “party time.”  Though you know it's impossible, you're going to try to drink a year's worth of beer and shots in one sitting, go out entirely too often, and soon realize that it doesn't make you any happier or more fulfilled.  Realizing this will be a great disappointment, but you'll probably keep trying anyway.

The nature of combat is that your body and mind have chemically and psychologically adapted to a different perception of “normal.”  There's an immediacy and urgency to everything, and you've grown accustomed to it.  Your physiology has received frequent injections of adrenalin, endorphins, and whatever other naturally-occurring hormones the body released when in firefights, their aftermaths, and high stress.  In some ways, you will be like an addict coming off a drug.  Just like addicts, you're probably going to look for a substitution.

Alcohol will seem like the most convenient solution because it calms the nerves, dulls whatever hyper-vigilance you might be experiencing, and helps you relax or talk more freely.  Alcohol, however, is also a depressant, so it may very well bring out the darkest things you have on your mind, but would have never discussed sober.  And because alcohol also impairs judgment, it may also cause you to consider violence.  You will frighten people, worry others, and a number will simply avoid you.  

When friends or bouncers try to restrain you or calm you down, the first thing you'll retort is that you're a combat veteran and don't deserve to be treated so rudely.  In reality, they are in the right, and you are in the wrong.  Your status as veteran does not authorize illegal, violent, or socially unacceptable behavior – despite however honorable your service to the country might have been.

Aside from alcohol, you might try other substances as “substitutions,” but they, too will be be disappointments.  For a number of veterans, it will be more subtle.

Because of the high impact lifestyle you've lived in the military, civilian life will strike you as extremely boring, unrewarding, and in some cases, “not worth the bother.”  You might seek out new ways to get an adrenaline rush or at least experience some excitement.  For some this means buying a motorcycle because you crave the danger.  For others, spending huge sums of money will be the drug.  Others will get into fights all the time, and a few will simply withdraw altogether in defeat.

You will occasionally find yourself willing to talk about difficult subjects and presumably in the company of a receptive audience.  Carefully, you'll start to tell a story about losing a friend, or about a car bomb that caused catastrophic injury and deaths.  Just as you think they're starting to understand what you're trying to explain, they'll blurt out, “oh my God that's so scary,” or something similar.  They won't know how to “receive” what you're telling them – and much of it is so horrifying that they can't listen without comment.  You'll be angry with them, and might give up talking to them completely.  Part of you may also be sufficiently afraid of your own anger that you flee any situations that may cause you to feel like you're losing control.

In your heart of hearts you will believe that nobody understands you except for the few men and women who went through the same experiences over there with you.  For lack of an alternative, you'll turn to your fellow veterans as the only people to whom you'll be able to relate in the least.  You will be tempted to spend all your time with veterans, not only sharing stories of your experiences, but also complaining about how stupid everybody else is.  You might conclude that the country you swore to defend is full of people who are too ignorant and blind to reality to deserve defense.

The nature of combat service means its participants will see first-hand the “underbelly of life.”  Whereas the average American might believe that people are generally good and nice to each other, you have seen with your own eyes just how horrible humans are towards each other.  While a US civilian may assume the best about humanity, you will likely presume the worst.

Because you feel naked without it (from so many months of carrying one), you might attempt to carry a firearm everywhere for safety.  Part of you is aware that it's probably completely unnecessary, but another part of you wants to be prepared regardless.  You just want to still feel in control.  Your fascination with firearms, however well-founded, however much you sincerely enjoy shooting, however trained you might be, will scare people unaccustomed to seeing guns.

Even though you probably don't regret getting out of the military, there will be certain aspects that you miss about it – and you'll try to recreate them.  A few might choose to go back in, but others will try alternatives.  You might look into becoming a private military contractor, a mercenary, or even consider joining Israeli Defense Forces or the French Foreign Legion.  These all fall into the category of “substitutions.”

A number of you will attempt to pursue the closest civilian equivalent to combat military service – police officer.  Very quickly, however, you will realize how fiercely competitive the hiring process is, and, even though you have years of exemplary military service, you aren't nearly as qualified as you might think.  You will also experience this when applying for other positions.  You thought your military service represented some degree of maturity, intelligence, and responsibility.  The civilian world, however, does not.  For the most part, they still want to see college degrees, college transcripts, or some other certification.  Just because you know how to maneuver house-to-house under fire, doesn't mean you're qualified to be a police officer.  You will be angry when you realize that military service prepared you for very little in the “real world.”

College will frustrate you, since it is often taught by men and women who have never left academia long enough to see how the world really works, and because it is attended by students who strike you as extremely immature and sheltered.  You will try to voice your opinions in classes, but teachers will often shut you down or shut you up.  If they disagree with your ideas, they may very well give you a poor grade in their course.  It will only increase your contempt for them and discourage you pursuing school any further.  You might give up altogether.

You will have nightmares about certain things you experienced in a combat zone, but you will be reluctant to talk to anybody about them.  Civilians won't understand, and even psychologists won't be much help, you'll think.  It's something you'll have to suffer through alone.

You'll play and replay events in your mind and wonder what you could have done differently – or what somebody ELSE could have done differently.  If they made a mistake, you will focus all your rage on them.  You'll forget that the enemy was the one attacking you and your fellow troops, and instead blame individual leaders for whatever went wrong.  You will be dissatisfied with your own performance, and therefore also angry at yourself.

You will genuinely want to talk about certain experiences you had in the military, but you'll be too angry to know where to begin.  If you're you able to do it, it'll still come out as a shotgun blast of information, emotions, and anger, and unless your audience is extremely patient and empathetic, they might be so uncomfortable that they never ask you anything again.  Some of your friendships will end because of this, and you'll be angry at them for it.

Leaving the house at all will put you in contact with people you will no doubt determine are ignorant, uninformed, impatient, and extremely rude.  It's possible that you'll start seeing your home as one of the few safe places left.  You'll leave the house only when you have to, come home as quickly as possible, and avoid human interaction in environments that you can't control.  The isolation, however, will also make you angry, reaffirm your belief that people will never understand you, and convince you that even trying is a waste of time.  Out of loneliness, you will turn to the only two groups that don't judge you wrongly: fellow veterans and substances.

Isolating yourself may become so second nature to you that leaving the house becomes a nightmare.  You won't like crowds because you can't control them.  You won't like busy restaurants because you can't hear what people are saying at your table – which is both frustrating and socially awkward.  You might even give up talking on the phone – because your hearing isn't so good, people don't want to listen, and you're convinced they're only checking in on you out of guilt, anyway.  You may retreat from reality altogether – not a civilian, not a servicemember, but something in between.  You will consider yourself a misfit, and it will anger you.

You may wrongly conclude that the most interesting, important, and honorable times of your life are already over.  That after being a war hero, or at least a warrior, everything else you do will be ultimately meaningless, unrewarding, and a total waste of energy.  You will feel abandoned by the very country you swore to defend, misunderstood by your family, apathetically ignored by your peers, and scornfully judged by your professors.  You will be so blind with rage that you'll be unable to step back long enough to gain any clarity.  That place of total discontent will feel like a trap, and at a certain point you may determine that your life isn't worth continuing.  At least it will be a merciful escape from what you're experiencing.  With embarrassment, you'll consider it, never talk to anybody about it, and then dismiss it.  But it'll creep back when you least expect it, and you won't know what to do with it.  You will feel helpless, and ending it will seem like the only way to regain control.

If you look at all of this, it paints what may appear to be a hopelessly bleak picture.  But that's not the case.  Speaking from experience, none of this lasts forever.  Time has a mysterious way of mending things, and people have a beautiful way of helping.  And truthfully, you are not alone.  Every one of the 26,000,000 United States veterans alive today has dealt with this on some level, moved through it completely, or at least begun the process.  Their questions are the same as yours and mine, and  the answers we find, in time, will closely parallel theirs.  These men and women, more than any others, are perfectly suited to help us, reach out to us, and provide peace where we currently have little.  They're reaching out to us right now, eager to help, and all we have to do is reach back.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved