In the ten years I spent on active duty, I spent a little less than two of them in an active war zone. That may seem like a lot. Or maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know, my frame of reference is broken. I have friends who deployed eight or nine times in the last fifteen years. I was never wounded. I never lost any men. Though I went into harms way often, nothing that harmful happened to me. As far as I know, all of the men and women who served under me are still alive, except one. He died of cancer. The handful of times I didn’t think I was going to make it was because of the elements or the laws of physics or a bad decision that I made. I have no purple heart. No combat action ribbon. No “V” for valor on the bronze star I was awarded. I saw some dead bodies. I know people who have been killed. But I’m whole. That’s my war story. No movie deal to follow.
About 2.5 million people have served in Operation Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. Most of their experiences look like mine. For every “Lone Survivor” there are dozens who had a different experience. Those who served well but got out whole. Or at least we thought we did. It doesn’t work that way though. For many of us, more than any of us will tell you, our return was a dark one. We struggled to make sense of the world that was poorly designed for assimilation from war. It was hard to concentrate. It was hard to care about things that didn’t seem to matter.
When we left the military, the jobs we took felt like a waste of time. Our families, no longer a distant burden, were unmanageable. We operated at a level of precision for too long in an environment where variance was handled with swift action or threat of violence. Our children bore the brunt of our frustrations. They didn’t and won’t ever understand why we were different. Our environment regulated us for so long we lost the ability to regulate ourselves. We acted out, self medicated, engaged in at risk behavior. We created the crisis we craved. And the worst part is we all knew people who had it much worse. People who lost more. People who lost everything. People who had better reason to feel the way we did. People who earned it more than we did. And so we crawled into a dark despair made worse by shame. Shame that we couldn’t handle it. When others handled more.
The human mind struggles to sort out the types of stress we feel. We don’t do a great job of categorizing the stress that comes from direct trauma and the stress that simply comes from long periods of vigilance. I know this because a counselor told me. A counselor I sought out after months of panic attacks, sleeplessness and a never ending feeling that something terrible was going to happen. It wouldn’t go away. It was always there. It was exhausting and I almost didn’t make it out of it. But I was lucky. Lucky to have people in my life that helped. I leaned on my friends and my faith. My wife was as forgiving of my behavior towards her and my children as she was insistent that I get help. And when I did, my journey to normal began. It’s been four years since I returned. And I’m still not completely whole. But I’m close. And close is as good as anyone can hope for, war or not.
It’s Veteran’s Day. Today our world will be filled with messages of gratitude for those that served. Those always feel good. I will never get sick of hearing, thank you for your service. But there’s something I needed more than thanks not too long ago. I needed help. So my ask this Veteran’s Day is this. Most of us know someone who served. Instead of tagging them in a post on Facebook today, try this. Give them a call. Send them a text. Knock on their door. Ask them how they’re doing, and be ready to listen. Far too many of us are suffering in silence. Far too many of us are too buried under our shame to talk about it. No medals. No war stories. No heroism. Just silent pain. And sometimes, all it takes is for someone to ask that one question to turn us from the darkness to the light. And if you’re like I was, in pain, get help. It won’t go away on its own. The cold lonely truth is that you’ll never fully return until it does. And we want you back. All of you.