The Soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the Soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. – Douglas MacArthur
After my first deployment I remember visiting a family friend who due to a very popular and awesome, yet misleading, video game had an obsession with war. I remember him taking me to his kid’s room and putting this game on asking me a million and one questions about my tour in Iraq. After several minutes of him drilling me with questions of my deployment the million dollar question popped up “Did you kill anyone while you were over there?” A wave of emotions rushed through me and a sense of guilt, incompetence and sadness invaded my senses. I looked at him and simply replied “Why would you ask that? If I didn’t don’t you think I would feel guilty for not doing so and if I did what makes you think I would want to talk about it?” At that time I did not know exactly why I felt the way I felt when he asked that question. I was mad but not at him for asking but actually mad at myself for feeling so emotional about it.
I deployed during OIF 06-08 with the 15 Personnel Services Battalion whose journey in Iraq can be read in the book Bronco Strong: A Memoir of the Last Deployed Personnel Services Battalion . During that rotation our unit lost 2 Soldiers and a few others were severely injured. Not only did we endure the hardship of losing two of our own but we also dealt with the constant threat of mortar attacks. However, no matter how bad it might have been for me I always told myself “It could be a lot worst”. A lot worst in the sense that some didn’t make it back, like those 2 Soldiers from my unit who didn’t return. A lot worst like those who were severely injured and returned missing a few limbs. A lot worst like those who had to endure the pain and suffering of having their battle buddies die in their arms while they held them tightly assuring them everything was going to be ok….but it wasn’t. All of a sudden I felt guilty for being here, alive with all my limbs still intact. I felt selfish for felling scared every time I heard a loud, thunderous noise. I felt angry for having nightmares and feeling the urge to cry for no reason. After all, I had not seen the true gore of war. I was never out on patrol kicking down doors shooting at the enemy or facing the enemy face to face so what gave me the right to feel the way I was feeling.
After my deployment to Afghanistan in 2012 I decided to leave the Army. The first year was brutal. I did not know how to cope with what I was feeling inside. Fear, sadness, incompetence, guilt, selfishness, anger-all of these feelings bottled up inside me ready to explode. I would spend days in my room, darken by thick, black curtains only coming out of there to feed my 8 year old son. I didn’t understand why I felt the way I felt nor did I know how to deal with such feelings. One day a co-worker who was also a Veteran told me I needed to seek assistance at the VA. Naturally I told him I was ok and did not need any help. My co-worker, a combat Veteran, deployed during the first years of the conflict in Iraq as part of the Infantry, had experienced the loss of many Soldiers and lived first hand the gruesome reality of war. I remember telling him one day “I’m ok. I don’t need help. I didn’t go to war like you did” he asked me “So you get bombs dropped everyday at your house?” Ummm, of course not. He said, “You need help and you deserve it. It does not matter that you were not out there kicking doors shooting at the enemy. You need help because you were there too.” Although I somewhat had his validation it was hard for me to take that step because 1. The Army I was brought up in looked down upon those who seeked help from mental health because they were viewed as being weak 2. Even if going there didn’t mean I was weak, I still felt I didn’t have the right to seek such help. After all, I was home alive, all my limbs attached, not one scratch. Well I do have a scar thanks to the 13 stitches I got while deployed to Afghanistan; but in all honesty that was due to my clumsiness and nothing else. At my co-worker’s persistence I finally succumbed to his pleads and got an appointment.
It was then that I realized the true effect my combat tours had on me. True, I had not been out on patrol, not once in any of my deployments, but I did have to deal with mortar attacks at all times of the day. Sometimes twice, sometimes three times a day. I remember saying to my counselor “I felt like I didn’t have an entire nights sleep for 14 months. I was so tired when I got back because I felt that if I slept I wasn’t going to wake up quick enough when the mortar attacks started”. Til this day I can’t sleep a full night. I remember how I felt the day we lost one of our Soldiers during a mortar attack in Baghdad. I remember sitting at the flight line where I worked at the time hearing mortar after mortar being dropped at Camp Liberty and then hearing we had lost one of our NCOs just a day before she flew back home to be with her family. For the first time I talked about all those casualties we had to report when I was deployed to Afghanistan and how angry and sad I felt knowing that during the same time I was writing about the death of a service member his/her family were having dinner hours away from finding out their loved one was never returning home. For the first time I talked about the Soldier who lost his life only months after his brother had been killed in the same war and how I could only imagine how devastating it was going to be on the poor mother to hear another of her sons had died. For the first time I cried over the 19 year old National Guard Soldier who lost her life as she was traveling in a convoy while attempting to take supplies to another Forward Operations Base (FOB) and leaving a 2 year old motherless. True, I did not live the gruesome reality of war, and honestly I do not know if I would be able to survive such harshness, but the reality is that what I did live and experience was enough to provoke the scars most of us Veterans come back with….the ones we can never get ride of-our memories.
I’ve managed to deal better with, what I call, my inner demons. I have come to realize a combat tour has its negative effects on everyone who has lived through it regardless of the mission. I no longer feel guilty for being here alive but grateful that I had the opportunity to return home safe and sound. I no longer feel angry when someone asks if I killed someone while deployed but lucky I didn’t have to do such a thing. To my co-worker that talked me into seeking help, I truly admire his strength and dedication in helping other combat Veterans seek the help they need in order to cope with their unseen scars. I will always remember those who lost their lives fighting a war that still does not make sense-they are the true heroes. I will always pray for the families of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice so that the rest of us could return home safe. I will continue to pray for those who did live a more gruesome reality of war and are now trying to cope with their PTSD. As stated in the quote at the beginning of this post: the Soldier is the one who desires more than anyone else the end of war. Not all of us return, not all of us endure physical harm however we all come back with the memories that will haunt us until the day we die. As it was once said by someone much smarter than me “Only the dead have seen the end of war”.