Monday, October 22, 2012

Why is being a Veteran so Isolating?

I made it through two deployments without a scratch.  I had an IED blow up the vehicle in front of my and the one right behind me, I saw a rocket explode in the middle of the air less than 20 meters away from me.  I've been in a few fire fights, where I was shooting and being shot at.  I've survived indirect fire that was "walking" closer and closer to my small shelter.   I've walked streets with an aid bag on my back which made me a giant target.  I've walked sniper laden streets, and nearly have become a statistic more than once.  All these things I have done, and never once was I injured by enemy fire. 

I have sprained my ankle because a wall was too high, and had an armored door slam on my foot.  Once when doing a night assault I slipped and nearly fell off a second story building in the process I hit a ledge that hit a very sensitive area for men.  I've been running at full tilt, only to have a clothesline that I couldn't see travel under my NVGs snap my head back and deposit me on the ground, moaning in pain.  These all have great stories behind them and are always told with a bit of a smile, but never left a mark. 

Then there are moments that left a different mark.  One no one can see.  Log rolling a soldier to realize his face was just gone.  Looking at a platoon sergeant that I had respected and known, with an amputation that went into his hip.  It took only one look to know that this man, even though from another platoon, was going to die.  One of his squad leaders had later said that he actually made it to the CSH and had survived surgury. . . I didn't have the heart to tell him he was dead before he left the FOB.  I looked at a destroyed Humvee, on fire and the rounds cooking off knowing one of the men that I had really made friends with was still inside.  I remember holding onto a man as he slowly died choking on his own blood.  I can recall the face of every person I did CPR on, to include a baby and a 7 year old girl. 

I have a back that hurts terribly every morning, and after long days on my feet.  If I ever have my ear buds in I can hear the grating sand like sound of my knees every time I take a step.  I have to be careful with any shoulder workouts because I have come very close to injuries that would require surgery to fix.  My left foot still today hurts from time to time where one of the team leaders from my second deployment slammed a door on it.  My neck still hurts every day, because of the weights I put on it.  I can deal with these physical pains.  Indeed, unless they get very bad, I hardly notice them at all.  Its the other things that bother me.

When you become a combat veteran, you can spot another combat veteran from across the room.  Its how they carry themselves, and in their eyes.  You can see a depth to them that they will never reveal to men and women who simply do not "know".  Sometimes all it takes is a look.  One look in the eyes is confirmation enough, that yes, you've "been" and "seen" and share the same burdens that I have.  They may not be spoken of with civilians around, or we might break into a round of story trading, right there regardless of the circumstances.  Neither has to show his "battle scars" we know instinctively that they're there, and nothing need be said on the subject.  For a short period of time you are filled with the same elation of discovering a Brother or Sister you never knew you had, and a comfort of familiarity that you simply do not share with the outside world.  When the encounter is over we each go our separate way, secure in the knowledge that for now at least, you are not alone.

I have had great loves that I lost because I couldn't make them "understand".  When asked to explain it I have been mired in frustration, because I really don't want to keep recounting my horror stories to everyone that comes along, and at the same time really what does that knowledge get me?  The more I try to explain it the more isolated I feel.  Many girlfriends have tried to "heal" me from my time in a war zone.  Many have wondered why I can't just "let it go" and all have remarked at how strange it is that even now I long to put my boots on, grab my weapon and armor and face down long odds.  It may not be healing, and may hurt me even more, but at least I'd be with my brothers and sisters.

 There has been a lot of talk about Post Traumatic Stress.  Some have told my to quit my whining.  Trying to explain why I just can't sleep, or why certain things send me into a flying rage is a losing proposition.  I've even been called racist because hearing Arabic sends a cold chill down my spine, and hearing azaan, or call to prayer will drive me up the wall.  Bad things happened when that sounded. 

But there were also good moments, which if I explained people just wouldn't understand.  Once, on a  predawn 12 mile ruck march, the battalion in staggered column going down the road with our red light on, as got just light enough to see shadows, I remember looking behind me to see a line of shadows marching out of the fog, and ahead of me a line of shadows marching into the fog.  I felt a thrill at being a part of an unbroken chain of America's finest young men and women going on back to our begging and off into a future unknown.  Or when I marched with my company into the back of a C-17, at night to fly into BIAP.  Once more unto the breech as it were.  I can't even explain the countless times I broken open an MRE and spent the next twenty minuets trading for the stuff I wanted. 

Everyone focuses on the death and destruction.  That's all civilians want to hear about for some reason.  How can I tell them about the time the Division Sergeant Major for 1st Cav gave me a coin for helping out his daughter?  Or the humor I get at the two good conduct medals I got, which technically I shouldn't have, but due to clerical errors at the hospital, and an S-1 who lost paperwork all the time, there they are on my DD-214.  How do I explain the stupid stunts I pulled, or how I always managed to get myself in trouble, piss off my chain of command, and still come out smelling like roses.  Or the sheer humor that could follow the simple sentence "Doc. . . I've got this problem."

The bonds of brotherhood are strong.  Many will never truly know what it is to have someone they can count on come hell or high water (quite literally in some cases).  Many will not understand the willingness to give one's life, freely and without hesitation.  Despite the burdens I bare, from my time, I have been truly privileged to have known this life.  Its a life of choices and consequence, and despite the fact I will always lament the utterly insanely stupid shit I had to do to appease Big Army, I would have traded a second of that life.  It is never truly behind me.  I may never deploy again.  I may never be in a firefight, or have incoming, but those things are still with me, and I am still ready should it happen.  There are times though, I wish it were not such a lonely vigil. 

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I sure wish I could somehow make you feel less alone but that's beyond my capability. Just try to remember that there are people out there, who while they haven't served, know and honor you for what you and all the others have done. And even though you can't see us, we're standing for you now. And praying for you each and every day.

Anonymous said...

I so much agree with the above comment. I wish I could take your pain. Please know you are much appreciated for all you have done in your service to our country. I only hope that the medic who is deploying with my son is as caring as you. I somehow believe he is. You gave me faith, as a mother, that my son will be cared for. I pray he will not be needing this.
A military mom from WV

Homefront Six said...

Doc ~

I've been reading your blog for some time but this is (I think) the first time I've commented. I've not been where you are but I've been through some times in my life where I've felt incredibly alone in that dark place.

But it's a lie. You're not alone. I read the comments here and I see that there are people - people you've never even met - that are doing their best to walk beside you.

They may not have walked the path you've walked or experienced the things you've experienced but they (we) are there, even if you can't see them. The only advice I can offer is to cling to that. And I think you are, given the fact that you continue to post.

I won't offer up the BS line that things will get better because I don't know that. But you're a survivor (obviously) so that's a good start.

Know that there are people out here thinking of you and praying for you.

Anonymous said...

I understand the feeling of being alone. When your heart actually leaps with a type of joy because you come across someone that "understands" the type of life we lived.

We don't need someone to take our pain, but thank you for the offer. It is ours and it has helped make us into the people that we are. Just like your experiences have made you who you are.

Yes in the middle of the night it may seem that you are alone but you are not. There are many that are with you in the same type of situation where sleep is a precious commodity and we take it where we can. We are Brothers and Sisters in arms that no longer wear a uniform. We are connected by our spirits and our experiences.

No civilian can understand and we do not have the words to tell you. All we ask is that if we say "I can't talk about it" that you would respect us enough to stop probing and asking. If you really want to know what our life is truly like then put on the uniform and do the job. Imagine what it is like to explain to someone what you do for a job- and get them to truly understand - it is impossible, they have to do the job with you to really start to understand. If it is that hard for your job realize how difficult it is with ours.

Yeah, some of the things we have gone through and done really suck but it was just part of what we had to do. Sometimes you will see tears when a memory comes up, sometimes not. You can't fix us, we don't need to be fixed. Just love us, accept us and ask,"is there anything I can do for you" and then listen.

Sorry, Doc, got off on a tangent there. I appreciate you, you are not alone and at the right time, right place the right person will come along who understands. I know, it happened for me. Take care my Brother, I hope you sleep well tonight.